MANILA, Philippines – Ever heard of Martin’s Mancave Lifecast? It’s a podcast on Facebook that features no less than the Secretary of the Presidential Communications Office (PCO), Martin Andanar.
The former commentator of Aksyon TV and anchor of TV5’s Aksyon sa Umaga, Andanar hosted his first podcast under the Duterte administration on a Saturday evening, January 7, and titled it, “Leni Leaks: Truth or Lies?”
The maiden podcast of the Cabinet secretary under the new government amplified a supposedly explosive discovery by bloggers about an alleged plan to oust President Rodrigo Duterte.
As of the afternoon of Thursday, January 26, the episode had garnered over 774,000 views and shared over 13,000 times. The numbers are quite impressive for a first episode that ran for over 50 minutes and featured interviews with two bloggers who are avid supporters of Duterte – Sass Rogando Sasot and Rey Joseph (RJ) Nieto, who, until only a few weeks ago, was known as the anonymous “Thinking Pinoy.” Andanar ended that episode with a short interview with National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr.
Early on, after Duterte won as president, the first thing that Andanar asked the Malacañang Press Corps (MPC) officers was if bloggers like “Thinking Pinoy” could be accredited as members of the press corps. Clear about the distinction between the role of the press and that of pro-Duterte bloggers, the officers said no.
An apologist of the President and a public official who gets paid by taxpayers’ money, Andanar is embarking on a dangerous path of propaganda and media control.
As articulated by media theorist Manuel Castells, propaganda and media control refers to the “fabrication and diffusion of messages that distort facts and induce misinformation for the purpose of advancing government interests,” and involves “the censorship of any message deemed to undermine these interests, if necessary by criminalizing unhindered communication and prosecuting the messenger.”
Palace insiders said that, starting September 2016, money was released to “groups” that had maintained an online presence in support of the President. The same insiders said some of these groups are identified with Andanar.
Platform of legitimacy
Through his resurrected Martin’s Mancave – with “Lifecast” attached to the brand to give the podcast a new name on Facebook – the Cabinet secretary provides the two bloggers with a platform and grants them legitimacy, both as attack dogs out to intimidate journalists and as sources of alarmist information.
This shrewd artificial online boost spread like wild fire the message about the supposed plot to oust Duterte. It rattled the social media sphere of Duterte followers and generated a lot of anger about the supposed grand conspiracy.
Andanar justified his decision to discuss #LeniLeaks in his podcast, saying that the administration does not welcome any destabilization attempts and is against methods to advance such destabilization interests “kung totoo man (if they are true).”
It was Sasot who first posted about #LeniLeaks on Twitter in the evening of January 5. She followed up with a Facebook post afternoon of January 6, detailing the message of United States-based Loida Nicolas Lewis in a Yahoogroup about how to defend the Vice President from criticism and defeated vice presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos: “The only way to fight this evil plot to unseat Vice President Leni Robredo is to ask Duterte to Resign.”
It was also Sasot who recently equated the punishment of fake news with the punishment of people who write fiction, generating a wave of criticism and negative reactions. Faraway in The Netherlands, she openly cursed Rappler’s Palace reporter Pia Ranada for her story on #LeniLeaks. Sasot’s post has since been taken down.
Nieto, on the other hand, also recently repeatedly cursed from Singapore the MPC for their statement calling out Andanar.
The MPC – accredited journalists assigned to cover the Palace – said in their statement that they were “disturbed by the propensity of the officials of this administration to blame the media whenever the inflammatory statements of the President stir controversy or draw flak.” Andanar had accused the MPC of “misreporting” Duterte’s statements on martial law.
Not content with his curses, Nieto flashed the dirty finger repeatedly during his 13-minute rant. “Nasaan ang Malacañang Press Corps? Nakatambay kayo sa hotel o nagsa-shopping kayo sa Orchard Road…. Puro kayo inutil, mga putang ina ’nyo. ’Wag kayo umarte na kay-iinam. Wala naman kayong ginawa sa Singapore kundi mamasyal. O, ’yan ba loyal sa Filipino people?”
(Where’s the Malacañang Press Corps? Standing by the hotel or shopping on Orchard Road…. You’re all useless, sons of bitches. Don’t act as if you’re all good. You didn’t do anything in Singapore but to shop. Is that what you call loyal to the Filipino people?)
He reported that only he and a handful of others were at a hotel lobby in Singapore waiting to ambush-interview officials. However, this is not how the media works and gathers news. Journalists do not base their stories solely on officialdom but countless other sources, depending on issues they are pursuing and monitoring. Ambush-interviews likewise do not yield the best of stories because officials tend to give answers on the fly.
Nieto threatened the press corps that when he sees them in Russia during a presidential visit, he would be reporting on what they will be doing.
It is these types of disseminators of information whom Andanar, the President’s communications secretary, has chosen to promote.
Boosts and failure
During his podcast, Andanar built up Sasot and Nieto, then known as the anonymous Thinking Pinoy, and referred to them as “internet superstar bloggers.”
Donning headphones and doing the interviews, Andanar made it easy for viewers on Facebook to forget he is an official of the Palace and no longer a broadcaster.
Instead of using government resources at his disposal to establish the veracity of #LeniLeaks through solid intelligence information from other agencies of government, Andanar chose the two partisan bloggers as his sources.
After Sasot and Nieto failed to create enough splash the first time around, Andanar got them as interviewees on January 7 to shed light on “#LeniLeaks” which, he said, had gone “viral.”
Yet our data analysis of posts related to #LeniLeaks from January 5-15, 2017, showed that before January 7, the issue had not created enough buzz. The podcast on January 7, a Saturday, however, boosted the message and prompted a lot of shares as seen by the spike on that day (see chart below).
Perhaps because it was a weekend or because not enough traction was created, the number of posts dropped not long after.
The next attempt to sustain interest came the following day on January 8, a Sunday, via a second episode of the podcast, leading up to the January 9 Cabinet meeting, where Andanar said the #LeniLeaks issue would be brought up.
The second episode, however, got much lesser viewership. As of afternoon of January 26, it had 98,000 views and over 1,100 shares. The numbers were much lower compared to the over 774,000 views and over 13,000 shares of the first episode.
Evidently, the posts got their first stimulus on January 7 and hit an apex close to the day of the Cabinet meeting itself. When the issue was ignored by the Cabinet because of more compelling issues they had to discuss, the number of posts dropped dramatically, more visibly by January 10.
Despite occasional spurts, interest in #LeniLeaks subsided not long after, more clearly by January 11 onwards. The posts, however, prompted a lot of comments that peaked on January 8, then started tapering by January 11 (see chart below).
In the comments section, some of those who posted were impatient about updates on the issue. Unfortunately, the revelations of Andanar’s sources were found to be inadequate to merit a probe by the justice department.
In his January 24 Facebook Live interview with Duterte supporter “Maharlika” in Los Angeles, Andanar said the possibility of bloggers being accredited to cover the Palace is “very bright.” The unspoken rule is that they should support the Duterte presidency and dish out only “constructive information.”
In that interview, Andanar said a certain Carlos Munda, who runs the pro-Duterte MindaVote page, has already been given access by the PCO to its newsfeed. He said it’s really a matter of creating a “new system” to include bloggers in the news feed of the Palace.
For Andanar, whether in Malacañang or in his man cave, the distinction between journalists and bloggers, as well as news and propaganda, are all a blur. – with Paige Occeñola and Pia Ranada/Rappler.com