#MillionPeopleMarch and the limits of playful citizenship

Nicole Curato

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The demands for democratic citizenship are more exacting than a selfie

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines has witnessed its first major “social media-led protest rally” last August 26, National Heroes Day. True to the spirit of the occasion, Filipinos from the world over assembled in public spaces and asserted their political freedom – particularly the right to be free from scams.

Unlike previous large-scale mobilizations, the enemy was not a dictator or a philandering plunderer, but a specific policy issue of pork barrel. There were no leaders but there were basic ground rules. There was a sense that the event’s logistics was carefully planned but the influx of people was spontaneous.

It is this type of indignation and corresponding action that sustains a political community. We have witnessed thousands of otherwise disparate citizens physically coming together to demand decency in politics and hold the congressional mafia accountable for betraying their constituents.

Politics as performance

Perhaps most intriguing in the #MillionPeopleMarch is the fact that it is spelled with a hashtag as first character. A brainchild of an unassuming call to action post on Facebook, support for the campaign swelled in a span of days. This signals a shift in communicative authority where posting, tweeting and clicking – practices usually dismissed as marginal and non-committal – are now central to the political.

However, social media in this context is not just a distinct platform to disseminate information. In hindsight, texting too was rather effective in mobilizing protesters in EDSA Dos. What is particularly distinct about this hashtag-driven event is its performative value, marked by what Lilie Chouliaraki describes as the spectacle of carnivalesque “practices of playful resistance.”  

Because social media affords a visualized expression of one’s sentiment, creative images, usually involving swine, have circulated online. Twitter’s character limit forces succinct impactful comments, using humor (e.g. “Makibaka. Wag magbaboy”) and sharp, demanding tone (e.g. “You, my government, owe me a full explanation”).

Even the geographically-located event in Luneta appears to have been staged for Instagram – from selfies to group photos with attention-grabbing posters which assert, document and enliven one’s presence in a crowd.  Our parallel protest activity at the Australian National University is no exception, where we staged an Aussie-style barbecue symbolic of the clamor for pork barrel scammers to be grilled in their own fat.

For some sociologists, these practices are a celebration of ordinary voices which reinvigorate civic engagement. Playful resistance practices subvert traditional forms of political discourse marked by dry, technocratic, inaccessible and oftentimes insincere language. Being there, making oneself visible through a hashtag and speaking out using one’s own voice, no matter how funny, mundane, “jeje” or angry, are sovereign, meaningful acts of citizenship.

The limits of playful citizenship

However, sociologists also warn that while playful citizenship and post-modern leaderless protests give a boost to a weary political space, there is also a tendency for citizens to engage in a one-off activity, blog about it and return to the private space to pursue one’s personal project. 

This is one of the dangers of fluid protest actions: citizens fail to develop a shared identity which can sustain the process of social change. It is quite telling that one of the resonant ways of framing the march was in terms of protesters being taxpayers, reminiscent of a language of a market consumer demanding better services because he or she pays a fee every month. The possibility that public engagement is used to protect one’s private entitlements is somewhat concerning.

Moreover, some protesters were correct in insisting that today’s protest is the first of many subsequent activities geared towards reform and accountability. This is where the anti-pork campaign gets tricky. While the #MillionPeopleMarch was successful in promoting inclusivity and pluralist politics, political activities of this nature find it difficult to consolidate demands. Registering dissent is easy. Sustaining engagement about what to do next is challenging.

Political imagination

One can make an argument, however, that the logic of post-protest politics in the age of new media is less about consolidating demands but more about creating new, open and consequential spaces for conversation.

These spaces can be used to develop ideas and imagine alternatives to the pork barrel and its Aquino-style reincarnation. For disgust against the pork barrel to be transformed to a productive democratic activity, it is imperative that this evolves to a serious and careful discussion about alternatives. After all, what we take for granted today like press freedom, women’s suffrage and labor rights are products of sustained collective action, not just one-off expressions of public outrage.  

This, I suggest, is the real test for social media – to challenge its users to engage in a national conversation, unpack what “abolishing pork barrel” and “re-channel budget to social services” mean in practical terms, crowd source proposals for a better political system and link online and offline campaigns for public accountability.

Without these important next steps, public participation falls short of its promise to bring about social change, just like the politicians condemned in the August 26 march. It is our obligation as citizens to follow through. Indeed, the demands for democratic citizenship are more exacting than a selfie. – Rappler.com

Nicole Curato is a sociologist. She is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the Australian National University. Prior to her fellowship, she was an Assistant Professor of Sociology from University of the Philippines.


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