[EDITORIAL] #AnimatED: Let's own the elections

This week – on Tuesday, February 12, to be exact – the campaign period starts for those seeking seats in the Senate and in the House of Representatives through the party list. There will be 63 candidates contesting 12 vacant senatorial seats, and 134 party-list organizations vying for 59 slots in the lower house.  

The candidates for national positions have only 90 days to court voters, although a number of them had their promotional materials on billboards and buses, on TV and radio, and on our social media feeds for months now, having taken advantage of a loophole in the law about premature campaign. 

Tight race, limited time – what can we expect of political camps and interest groups in such a situation but to bombard us with projections, spin, and propaganda until all we hear is only noise? By late March, it will even be noisier as the local campaigns start. 

Ninety days is also the time what we – voters, election watchdogs, the media – can put the candidates on the spot and force them to address what really matters to us. The aim is to rise above the din to afford ourselves the space to think our votes through. 

Various surveys show that voting-age Filipinos are most concerned about keeping prices of commodities down, getting or staying employed, getting better pay, having access to education and health care, and combatting corruption in government. 

Yet how do some senatorial candidates market themselves to the voters? I’m your kuya. I’m the idol. You can mark my word. By the way, I eat saluyot and read books, so I’m still fit for the job. Still, others – almost all who are within the so-called Magic 12 in surveys – have not bothered to attend forums and debates to present themselves to the voters. Why face the public and the risk of saying the wrong things (or not being able to say anything) when you’re figuring well in surveys anyway? 

Candidates will be waging their campaigns on 3 fronts: ground, air, and cyberspace – the last one having increased in necessity in the last two general elections. As a social news network, Rappler will be the voter’s partner in reclaiming the conversation on this fast-evolving front, online.  

As early as October 2016 – fresh from the presidential election and far away from the 2019 midterms – we exposed the propaganda techniques that the Duterte administration had used to shape or shift public opinion on key issues. (READ: Propaganda war: Weaponizing the internet | How Facebook algorithms impact democracy | Fake accounts, manufactured reality on social media)  

From 2018 to 2019, we pointed out early indications of links to Russia of their propaganda machine, raising the red flag on the possibility of it being used to sway – even poison – the election-related conversation on social media in the Philippines. (READ: Bots, Assange, an alliance: Has Russian propaganda infiltrated the Philippines? | Is the Philippines in step with Russian online propaganda warfare? | Russian disinformation system influences PH social media) 

In the months leading to the filing of candidacies, social media influencers, bloggers, and partisan groups had started their subtle and not-so-subtle push for certain aspirants – as well as their aggressive attacks on people and organizations they perceived to be threats to their principals. In more recent weeks, we’ve received reports of owners or administrators of popular social media pages getting offers to have their accounts rented for a set number of posts within specific periods. 

Those are the online armies that the media and the conscientious voters have to contend with.  

And this is our battleground: 41% of Filipinos now use the internet – up from the 34% or so who were online a month before the 2016 presidential election, according to the Social Weather Stations. The figures are higher in the Pulse Asia poll, which was also done in September 2018: internet users are at 47%. It also showed that while only 29% “read, watch, listen to the news,” 98% check social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where they will inevitably find news on their feeds. 

Among the 46% who use the internet to check their social media accounts, majority (51%) have changed their views about politics and government because of something they saw on social media. That’s a huge leap from the 39% who did back in June 2017. Of this 46%, most (88%) say they have been exposed to “fake news” on social media, up from 74% in 2017. Of those who are aware of fake news on social media, a big majority (79%) agree that it is widespread.  

Here’s a possible indication of the confusion that these false information and disinformation campaigns are causing: in December 2018 – 5 months before election day – more than half of voters had yet to complete their list of 12 senatorial candidates they would vote for. In comparison, in 2015, also 5 months before the elections, majority of voters had already made up their minds.  

Individually, we can start with something small and basic: resist the temptation of sharing the candidates’ posts showing their antics or incredible claims just so we can comment on how stupid or epal they are. That provides them chain exposure that can influence the impressionable. Post instead something truthful about the candidates you are rooting for. 

Then let us ask the hard questions of candidates and their parties. What do they know about legislation? What have they accomplished in their past career or term in public office that equip them for lawmaking. How aware are they of concerns and needs of our communities, our society at this particular time? (Remember that there are no perfect candidates, but there must some who are perfect for the call of the times.) Are they aware of Congress’ role as a counter-balance to the executive branch? How do they intend to exercise this? How much are they spending for their campaign? Where are they getting the money? Would these sources of campaign donations present any conflict of interest when the candidates get elected? 

Lastly, the Commission on Elections is embarking on a difficult but necessary step of regulating the use of social media in the campaigns. Among those it will monitor are social media influencers who are campaigning for candidates: how much are they getting paid? Since when? By whom?  

On the surface this would serve only to track whether the candidates’ expenses are within the limits prescribed by law. In fact, this should help unmask influencers who claim to be doing things voluntarily because they believe in this or that, but are actually getting paid for building up one candidate and destroying another. This would expose tainted content. 

Here, the poll body will need the netizens’ and the media’s vigilance. We doubt that it has enough people monitoring whose ads are popping up how many times and for how long on countless sites. We all can be the army that would help the authorities: voters can report, poll watchdogs can expand or shift the focus of their monitoring, the media can amplify the initiative. 

Together, we can – and should – help lessen the noise, so that what’s right, sensible, fair, and truthful will ring out. 

We have to reclaim social media. We have to take hold of the conversation. We have to own the elections. – Rappler.com