Social media in the time of Duterte

MANILA, Philippines – Considering that the Philippines was once dubbed “the social media capital of the world”, it comes to no surprise that these platforms have become the game changer for the 2016 presidential elections.

Apart from geographical bailiwicks, alliances, and considerable war chests, candidates vying for the top posts in the country also needed to dominate the social media battleground.

Mr Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign for the presidency and his supporters have proven how powerful these digital spaces are.

A review of his social media presence showed that Duterte's social media accounts were nothing special. In fact, based on follower count and content alone, it was Senator Miriam Santiago who was the social media darling, thanks to the witty posts and jokes that resonated with her young followers.

So how did Duterte manage to dominate social media conversations? According to Nic Gabunada, his campaign’s social media manager, the secret to success lay in mobilizing and organizing existing groups of supporters. (READ: Duterte's P10M social media campaign: Organic, volunteer-driven)

Headed by handlers and influencers who made sure that their group members were on the same page regarding the “message of the week”, it was easy for supporters to rally around and amplify a common message especially when the content and the approach were tweaked and localized.

Whether it was to express support for their candidate or to defend him from controversy, these groups and supporters worked fast and en masse. 

Of course, even during the campaign, their echo chamber had its fair share of controversy. One disturbing incident involved the harassment of a netizen who criticized Duterte on social media. From people wishing her rape, to death threats in her inbox, Renee Karunungan was inundated by hate messages from Duterte supporters.

It happened again to a student who asked President Duterte a question during a forum at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños. In response, Duterte’s camp released a statement asking their supporters “to be responsible citizens and exercise civility, intelligence, decency, and compassion when engaged in any discourse,”

This plea fell on deaf ears, as several groups of supporters continued to harass and target vocal critics of the administration resulting in the suspension of several accounts and pages. The harassment didn’t spare members of the media doing their jobs either.

Reuters journalists Karen Lema and Manuel Mogato, freelance journalist Gretchen Malalad, and Al Jazeera correspondent Jamela Alindogan faced serious threats from similar groups. The repeated incidents of harassment caught the attention of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines which called for the investigation of the attacks against the journalists. In response, President Duterte and Communications Secretary Martin Andanar once again called on supporters to refrain from harassing journalists.

Despite these calls, why haven’t supporters backed down? Perhaps the answer lies not in the statements of the President and his administration, but in the rhetoric of his most influential supporters: the bloggers and Facebook pages.

Unlike President Donald Trump who openly lynches members of the media on Twitter, President Duterte’s social media accounts do not have to lift a finger to defend him from criticism. The mechanism works both ways: the more these online voices speak out to defend the President and bash his critics, the more attention, reach, and engagement they receive as their messages are amplified by several groups and pages online. (READ: Propaganda war: Weaponizing the internet)

Bloggers, Facebook pages, and groups enjoy the flexibility and freedom that their platforms afford them. By distancing themselves from mainstream media, they enjoy the popularity without the accountability.

They can peddle information without the responsibility of journalists and enjoy a veneer of legitimacy that a large follower count lends them. They can resort to incendiary language, conspiracy theories, and defamation without consequences.

It’s what makes them so appealing to supporters who have become increasingly agitated and who are attracted to colorful language under the guise of “being real”. Under the convenient disclaimer of not being journalists, there are no mechanisms in place to hold them accountable for questionable content or for the harassment of other private individuals. Verified news reports that appeared to counter their preferred narrative were easily dismissed with accusations of “bias media”, “bayaran”, and “presstitutes“. 

Toxic environment

Despite these red flags however, they are now reaping the rewards of the divisive and vitriolic social media environment they thrive in. (READ: Inside Martin Andanar's man cave)

Within the first year of President Duterte’s administration, he has not been remiss in expressing his thanks to the community that has been instrumental to his success. For example, while members of the media have to undergo accreditation before becoming members of the Malacañang Press Corps, bloggers have been granted access to the President’s official trips by the Presidential Communications Office.

The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) also made moves to legitimize these “social media publishers” through a “social media policy” which sought to facilitate their accreditation. This initiative was met with criticism as concerns regarding accountability were raised: “Accrediting bloggers would encourage a blurring of the distinction between legitimate journalism and pseudo journalism – of which blogging happens to be today’s most typical example,” said Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) trustee Vergel Santos. (READ: Should bloggers be accredited to cover the Palace?)

These concerns however did not preclude the Duterte administration from awarding staunch supporters such as Mocha Uson and Dr Lorraine Badoy with appointments, both of whom have faced criticism for their posts, citing "utang na loob" (debt of gratitude).

Uson and Badoy are already popular figures on social media for their no-holds-barred approach in support of the President. Their appointments as public officials, however, did not temper their derogatory language nor their inflammatory approach on social media, and, as a result, have faced backlash for several flubs.

Uson, appointed as PCOO Assistant Secretary for social media, was called out for using a photo of the Honduras police in a post for the Philippine army on her Facebook page. She dismissed critics by insisting that it was merely a case of “symbolism”.

Meanwhile, Dr Badoy, assistant secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, faced backlash for her sarcastic advice to the European Union in a Facebook post that said, "Iyong mga taga-EU, mag-online child porn muna kayo. D'yan naman kayo magaling eh." (Those in the EU, just engage in online child pornography. Since that's what you're good at anyway.)

Given their new capacity as public officials, Uson and Badoy ought to be held to standards befitting individuals whose rhetoric impact public policy and interest. (READ: Code of Ethics for gov't officials applies to Mocha Uson's blog) However, their behavior seems to merely reflect the colorful personality of their superior. This is not lost on their countless followers and the members of several Facebook groups who have become more and more emboldened as they see key figureheads conduct themselves a certain way, believing it now to be acceptable behavior.

Social media once carried a lot of promise as democratic discursive spaces where people can come together and discuss key issues. But in the aftermath of elections, fine lines between facts and fake news, opinion and propaganda, have been blurred.

We’ve seen an alarming rise in the threats and harassment of journalists doing their jobs and private individuals who are critical of the President. We’ve seen the deplorable reduction of healthy spaces for discussion turn into shark tanks. We’ve seen how the truth can be distorted and how quickly people can be misled by the mushrooming of questionable websites pretending to be legitimate sources. 

It’s only been a year, will hate be enough to continue fuelling this machinery? Will there be better mechanisms in place to put an end to harmful behavior online? Or is this something that the rest of us will just have to get used to? – Rappler.com