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[ANALYSIS] Depoliticization of the political in Facebook groups

Julienne Thesa Y. Baldo-Cubelo, Luisa C. Pineda, Candice Marie V. Perez
[ANALYSIS] Depoliticization of the political in Facebook groups
In this #FactsFirstPH study, Facebook posts within groups are analyzed to see how depoliticization or participants disengaging from healthy, political discussion can happen

This is a study presented by the authors in the #FactsFirstPH research briefing held on April 1, 2022. The full copy of the research is reposted with permission.

Noise does not mean participation

The high engagement of digital publics in political discourse seems to reflect a healthy political participation. However, we see manifestations of depoliticization in political engagements in Facebook (FB) groups. This paper is an argument for the presence of depoliticization in what seems to be high-engagement political acts in FB groups. We list instances in FB groups where depoliticized participation is manifested through repulsion of further participation, inhibition of diverse opinions, and restraint in understanding how others view the world.

In the context of politically-motivated activities, FB in general, has been perceived as a tool of democratization and FB groups as avenues to encourage, organize, and mobilize members to actively perform their civic duties such as joining causes, spreading awareness on pressing social issues, and providing discourses on various relevant topics. However, more recent studies show evidence of the emergence of using this facility to instigate harmful behaviors and actions such as partaking in exchanges of hate speech, disseminating disinformation, and proliferating extremist ideologies.

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What is political?

We borrow scholar Eugene F. Miller’s generic definition of “political” as both individual and collective activities happening in a “polis” or community composed of people who can deliberate and judge the civic body. This “community” or group of people need not be homogenous nor “united”. To participate, to lend one’s voice, to raise one’s hand, to manifest, to signify, to register, to oppose, to agree, to extend an argument or to clarify, is to believe that such actions will improve our lives. Citizens do this not just for the mere purpose of finding happiness, “but to secure the conditions that permit each individual to pursue happiness as he[sic]/she understands it.” 

Simply put, when citizens believe that participation works, then democracy can work. We therefore underscore the precondition of spaces that allow for processes to continue, especially the construction of opinions leading to certain actions. Regardless of the definite consequences of actions, opinion-making should remain a continuum.

What is ‘depoliticization’?

How can there be depoliticization in a political activity such as in the sharing of, commenting on, and posting of elections-related content? This is counter-intuitive if we think of it. Our analysis is an invitation to seeing an image that is not apparent but consequently moves people away from engagement. 

According to researcher Guido Niccolò Barbi’s study, depoliticization manifests when there is lack of political choice and deficiency of spaces for expressing varied styles of making a choice. The term was originally related to nation states’ over-delegation of decision-making to its bureaucracy. 

Under our noses and in spaces we give our consent to sharing with others, there is a movement that happens: people receding into silence and giving-up their space.

We hear statements such as “market trends,” “international forces and structures,” or “force majeure” binding the hands of governments in urgency and thus delegating decision-making to the authority or to the elite few. 

A study also says that depoliticization also reflects when the “political” is opposed to everyday, ordinary, of-the-streets politics and political opinion-making. When political space is progressively restricted in favor of what may appear as higher-order reasons such as rationality, logic, efficiency, nationalism, and solidarity, depoliticization occurs. 

Although opinions are far less stable than factual truths, it is the primary element in any form of public sphere engagement. We gather together to converse, share ideas, question information, give corrections, remember stories, and share narratives in order for opinion-making to continue to take place. While truth sets the boundary to our democratic choice, once we avoid the choosing, politics disappears in favor of full submission to delegation.

Research design and method

Our team used a tool directly linked to the Facebook API that brought us a data corpus of 5,379 unique public Facebook group posts on elections-related topics covering the following time periods:

  • Quarter 1, which is from May to July 2021; extracted in August 2021
  • Quarter 2, which is from August to October 2021; extracted in November 2021
  • Quarter 3, which is from November 2021 to January 2022; extracted in February 2022

Using maximum variation sampling and intensity sampling to get our sample size for textual analysis, we first came with 72 samples with 24 samples each quarter using a constructed week spread, two for each quarter. We then reduced the sample size in Quarters 2 and 3 from 24 to 15 as these samples were more data-rich than those in Quarter 1 due to its proximity to the official campaign period. Our final sample size is 54.

A profile of the FB group samples can be divided into descriptions of the group names, the post, and the post’s content. Crucial information gathered included the name of the FB group, the account description, or the group page’s “About,” section, if any, the number of members in the group, and the uploader/account owner. Some FB group names were more obvious—bearing the name of the candidate the group vouches for (e.g., Solid Supporters [Person X]) or opposes (e.g., RESIGN [Person X]). Other FB group names had no explicit association to politics (e.g., Plantitas / Plantitos, [redacted] BUY and SELL).

As for posts, we traced the original source, oftentimes from another personal account or Facebook page, news organizations (e.g., News5), and official accounts of presidential candidates, as well as topics, level of engagement, general sentiment (i.e., positive or negative) in the original post, group post, and their respective reactions and discussions. Keywords and actors mentioned, which came in the form of photos, memes, surveys, videos (live and recorded), and purely text posts, the number of photos/attachments in a post, as well as captions in the original post and FB group were noted. Another descriptive criterion was the directionality of the shared post, as some posts have been shared not only once, which we tagged as “first level” sharing, but twice or more, or “second level.”

Manifestations of ‘depoliticization’

Absolute truths that prohibit opinion-making

Captions and comments from FB group members often have a tone of impenetrable agreement with the posts shared. These expressions of assent often include strong affirmations of the singularity of choice — only this leader, only this path. This, even if the posts are not entirely about social issues or candidates’ plan of action. Instead, many of the posts are endorsements of the candidates’ values and character showcasing strength, fortitude, and fairness as in the phrases “pantay-pantay ang pagtrato sa lahat”, “yan ang [Position X], direct to the point, fair and just… he/she deserves to be the next President”, “[Person X] is a fighter”. Many posts also forward solidarity as a zero-sum game.

Expressions such as “[Person X] lamang ang karapat-dapat”, “Solid [Person X] lang naman kami”, and referring to candidates as “Next President [Person X]” also show finality of support. Solidarity is automatically generalized to all while dissent is easily relegated to be the other. FB group posts garner either one of these: a.) monotonality of agreement; b.) tolerance of the posts’ presence; or c.) active unnoticing. 

It is also evident in the sampled posts the assertion that the problems of the country are exacerbated by certain sectors’ dissent or by long-running societal issues which are already being addressed. A poster showing clenched fists overlapped with logos of partylists and organizations branded as dissenters, with red bold letters splashed across it, is shared and “seen”. There are also remarks from samples that show pronounced aversion of criticism against the government. Likewise, comments like this one that subscribe to an unobstructed continuation of leadership are also prevalent:

Ang pabagu-bagong liderato ang problema…huwag nang palitan ang liderato, baguhin ang konstitusyon.”

(“The often changing leadership is the problem…let us not change the leadership. Change the Constitution.”)

These texts display depoliticization not as a lack of political activity but as a lack of respectful deliberation from an “absolutely correct” population. The core of this type of depoliticization is derived not from the facticity of their claims-behind-opinions, but in the absence of space for the “other” in the political space. With absolutisms, prejudices or “…opinions that we did not form ourselves or which we have become unable to revise” creep in.

Data also reveal how depoliticization occurs when issues are stripped of their complexities. This comes in the form of mocking others’ inability to see the obviousness of matters. In these texts complexity is not a prefered trait of solutions, systems,  and leaders as they are synonymized with complicatedness. Hence, there is little room for the “third opinion” some people may bring into the discussion.

Simplistic binaries that do not expand deliberation

“Either or,” “wrong or right,” “good or bad”—these are some of the prescribed binaries that emerged from the data. These binaries manifest in the FB users’ political preferences, whether for a particular candidate, political party or affiliation, or stances on topical socio-political issues. Captions also contain specific attributes of a political candidate such as:

“I support [Person X] in [another profession, redacted] but not in politics.”

Another type of binary that surfaced is that of intellectual and moral superiority pitted against their opposites. The use of words “magbasa” (read) “tanga” (stupid) further emphasize the distance between what the users’ regard as right or wrong behavior:

Huwag maging tanga… Maging mulat. Huwag bumuto sa [redacted].”

(“Do not be stupid… Be socially aware. Do not vote for [redacted].”)

When only two alternatives are presented, people not content with either will not join or continue with the discussion. When one option can be so wrong while the other can be very right, then there is no use for further deliberation. It is a dead-end for both sides. Therefore, the noise and the presence of vigorous activity (e.g., high social media engagement) in this space does not account for those who have left and those who have chosen not to enter. In short, depoliticization is a force that does two things: a.) turns-off people from engagement and b.) encourages people’s passivity even in the presence of political intensity. Likewise, when people are grouped into moral and immoral or intelligent and stupid, people who may be in the process of moving between these two extremes, say, from being miseducated to getting educated, may not even have the chance to move at all. 

Resignation to being “apolitical” as self-preservation

This particular manifestation of depoliticization is one that makes users leave after participation, because to “be political” could be too costly when health, peace, or friendships are at stake. FB group members are using less conventional means to cope with the current social climate and they too might be convincing many to do the same. In one such FB group, a member shared a post on fictionalized representations of political candidates in the form of gameplay, with no semblance of political discussion. Animated characters of the presidentiables are shown battling it out in a wrestling ring—making a spectacle out of a different kind of visualization of the “competition.”

“Final na nga ba ang tambalang [Person X & Y]? Para masukat ang kanilang kakayanan, haharapin naman nila ang tambalang [Person Z & A]  hindi sa eleksyon kundi sa loob ng wrestling ring! Masayang bakbakan na naman ito! Laughtrip na naman…”

(Is the tandem Person X & Y final? To gauge their capabilities, the two must face tandem Person Z &A, not during an election, but inside a wrestling ring! This is going to be an exciting fight! It’s going to be funny again…”)

Embodied witnessing through technology as be-all end-all

A good number of posts also maximized the use of videos in varied forms. There are vlog-type videos where netizens with FB pages, some with a considerable number of followers, meticulously discuss an array of issues.  There is an intentional tone of objectivity in these videos. The act of recording an anecdotal account or the intention in speaking to the camera is already taken as objective truth amplified with disclosed caveats such as “ito lang ang katotohanan dito” (this is the only truth here), “ito talaga kasi ang totoong nangyari dyan” (this is what’s actually happening), or “basta sa aking nakita, ito ang totoo…” (from what I see, this is the truth…”).

Likewise, there are shared videos that track a candidate attending to his/her public duties such as site inspection of an infrastructure project. The videos are raw (no cuts, no graphics or texts, no background music). Yet,  the witnessing is a seamless calculated act—where to point the camera, how to frame the shots, where to start and how to end the video.

These texts affirm how empowerment in witnessing is expanded by technology. Smartphones record what we see in front of us. Social media platforms appropriate media facilities only accessible to media giants a few years back. So where is depoliticization when witnessing is our primary access to truth? Depoliticization is present in spite of the obviousness of how an event ought to be seen favorably or unfavorably. Look how they messed up/Look how they did well. When this act of witnessing has no context or no explanation via caption or in-video commentary the viewer/reader is presented with a story in raw form. Posts without explainers/captions can easily be placed out of context when they land in the wrong hands. On the other hand, when we disclose our context in video-recording or in uploading a shared post, we are offering the relationality of the content to our lives (My caption/comment is a form of disclosure of my being a teacher reacting to this shared post), thus, giving our opinions relative scope, not certitude.

Creation of atmythsphere

Depoliticization also surfaces when there is an exaggeration of account that levels with mythification or a narrative that is no longer of this world—either of the divine or of the underworld. Subsequently, participants may feel ostracized or doomed. This version of depoliticization is also present in the magnification of representation that reaches a point of implausibility. When participants no longer bother to catch up or disprove the incredibleness of an account, depoliticization takes place.   To illustrate, one featured vlogger talks to the camera proclaiming in a prayer-like voice amplified by an echo sound effect:

Nakakakilabot! [Person X] Tinakda ng Diyos sa 2022! [Person Y] Naging  kasangkapan! [Person Z] aalalay kay [Person X]!… mangyari ang dapat mangyari. Itakda ang dapat itakda. Huwag n’yo pong pahintulutan na magwagi muli ang kasamaan… Ang dami na talagang gising…”

(“This gives me goosebumps! Person X was anointed by God for 2022! He/she is an instrument! Person Z will help Person X!… What is supposed to happen will happen. What is appointed will be appointed. Let us not allow the evil to triumph… There’s so many of us who were awakened…”)

Audience commodification as political legitimization

FB groups have also become a point of contact for transactions between buyers and sellers. Evident in these groups, whether they were initially advertised as a buy and sell group or not, are product postings for non-election-related and election-related posts.

Non-election-related market activities include existing advertisements or endorsements of political candidates. Some products posted online feature ‘presidentiables’’ names and photos in their caption and photo content. Another more subtle form of promotion is in the form of online vlogs shared on FB, for instance, a food vlogger featuring a food spot one of the presidentiables would frequent with other well-known personalities. On the other hand, candidates merchandise sold by fans themselves market their goods in buy and sell FB groups.

Gamification has also become evident in another form of an online survey. In one post, four presidentiables’ photos were edited in a seemingly animated way, as in a gaming card, with bright, colorful text fonts and varied backgrounds.

Here we go back to our previous example of the fictional online wrestling game that features animated characters of select politicians and ‘presidentiables’ going against one another inside a wrestling ring, “for entertainment purposes only.” There is no louder and more energetic engagement than what is seen in these live-streamed animation. Even if there is not much engagement in FB groups where these are shared, the seeding of these images opens up for people this energetic world of representational political fighting. 

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Satire, pun, mockery, comicry, and, yes, violence rolled into equally multi-layered approximations of mediality stretched over several hours. One may argue, therefore, that entertainment always comes with politics. Are we not entitled to harmless play in this participation that can be a bit exhausting? Depoliticizing in this context is in the allegory of fight focused on personalities. It further amplifies the destructive notion of personality-based politics we seem unable to transcend. If democratic participants get sucked into the narrative of heroes and messiahs as the central drivers of democracy, then delegation of decision-making to personalities becomes more and more an unconscious reflex.

Inferences on FB groups as spaces for depoliticization

Although this paper’s analysis of the peculiarities of group in Facebook groups is preliminary reading, we have arrived at a list of spatial imagery we can use for gauging whether our FB groups are spaces for orchestrated manipulation in and outside them and expanding depoliticization.

Repository of prejudices

The space FB groups provide has the ambience of a repository of prejudices. Most typical in groups not originally political, posts registering depoliticizing content are allowed occupancy. Although this tolerance for prejudice may or may not align with group members’ political stances, the pre-existing conviviality in a group may either result in complicity or acquiescence to accommodating prejudice permanently.

Service road 

Like service roads that are designed to give access to farms, homes, villages, and towns while stretched along an expressway, FB groups are politics’ entry-point to communities bound by professional, economic, and socio-cultural affinities. On one hand, they are important input channels through which political discussions and information can move. On the other hand,  they provide space for orchestrated political manipulation that can be seeded given the looseness in relations in these groups. 

If one argues that there may not be intentional manipulation from the outside, FB groups can still be passages where depoliticization can passively manifest and, therefore, enabled. As seen in the data, these groups are not as vigorous as FB pages that are the usual origin of shared posts in FB groups, but they do serve as parallel routes for depoliticization. 

Intersection

FB groups, like busy intersections, seem to reflect high engagement from many people coming from different directions, thus, have the potential for robust political engagement. There is tolerance among members brushing one another’s shoulders as they accommodate the movement of others. It can also be surmised that this level of tolerance of different political stances is better than bigotry. 

In spite of this, however, one’s presence in intersections is preceded by a predetermined plan of direction. Again, the looseness of relationships matched with loose affinity, allows for seeding political content that is not challenged. The data analyzed showed how in-group call-outs are rare while “seen” posts are most common.

Halfway house

Like halfway houses where people regain strength and perspective, FB groups do have the prospective to stir an active curiosity about other people’s political stances, preferences, and analyses. To add, the commonality of professional, economic, and socio-cultural intentions that brings people together does give way for vulnerability and open-mindedness in such a contained digital space. Yet, they can muddle people’s opinion-making process with anxiety, anger, or provocation. When the latter becomes more apparent given FB groups’ unguarded climate, the half-way house for resources, recuperation, and relaxation becomes a half-way house for illicit recruitment and incitement.

Blighted community

The word “blighted” is associated with images of urban decay, graffiti, overgrowth, foreclosed properties, stray animals,  abandoned vehicles, chipping paint off structures, etcetera, caused by unsustained development. Blighted communities are once vibrant socio-cultural spaces that now have been left to atrophy. When depoliticization creeps in unchecked, FB groups do appear like these blighted communities where traces of vibrant discourse and productive transactions are archived with “seen zones” and frozen laugh emoji reactions. FB groups’ data dump accommodation can replace a once-energetic space for exchange of opinion.

Way forward

How do we protect ourselves?

Own our citizenship in digital spaces that we consent to participate in. By clicking the join button, it is expected that we have scrutinized what these groups are and the set of rules and policies they have in place. Responsible participation requires keeping these community standards properly observed.

Be aware of the red flags. We must actively monitor and be critical of the posts that are unrelated with what the group is about, irrelevant to the members of the community, and seem to penetrate into our shared space, subtly or undisguised, with ideas that incite depoliticized engagement.   

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Speak up against irregularities and know when to leave. Flag posts, respectfully call the attention of sharers and commenters, bring up concerns to group administrators. We must do our share as members; however, if the environment is already affecting us more than we can handle, taking a break from or totally leaving the group may just be the better option. We can always choose to engage in politics in some other groups.

So how do we engage?

Let us provide space for compassion in our political interactions, and compassion for the other who is not the other, but the other who is kapwa. When we regain confidence in the process of understanding societal problems, we withhold this convenient act of othering. With our politics of anxiety revolving around moral panics, we do not just other the other, we quickly go to the extreme side of solutions when one thing does not seem to work.

Depoliticization is politics of anxiety at its core.  It is an inability to see process as a movement through things – interpretations, points of view, and analyses moving through and among us, through conversations still unfolding,  not a jump nor a cop-out skip from one end to the other. The latter is a knee-jerk reaction, not a compassionate response. When there is moral panic around issues like the drug war or reproductive choice, stakes are high, but alternatives should not be bound by binaries and absolutisms. Attitudes should also be contextualized into “for now, given the information we have and what we have learned so far, this is how we respond”, as opposed to “this is the best way to respond for all time”.

To end, our textual analysis is a case for caution of depoliticization in the political when the political is marred with absolutism, binaries, audience commodification, sloppy witnessing, mythification, and flight. The counterintuitiveness of depoliticized engagement makes it pass by us unchecked.  Under our noses and in spaces we give our consent to sharing with others, there is a movement that happens: people receding into silence and giving up their space. – Rappler.com

Prof. Julienne Thesa Y. Baldo-Cubelo is an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication Research of the  College of Mass Communication, University of the Philippines Diliman. She teaches qualitative research analysis in the undergraduate and the graduate programs. Her research interests are communication and culture, representation in advertisements, feminist standpoint, and participatory communication.

Luisa C. Pineda is a Research Assistant at the Philippine Media Monitoring Laboratory of the UP Department of Communication Research. She recently graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science with a degree in Media, Communication and Development. Her research interests include media and disinformation, labor and migration, gender and climate justice.

Candice Marie V. Perez is a Senior High School faculty at the De La Salle University Integrated School. She teaches the course Media and Information Literacy as her main assignment, and other subjects under the Arts and Design Track. She is currently taking MA Communication at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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