2022 Philippine Elections

[Newsstand] The deciding factors in the 2022 elections

John Nery
[Newsstand] The deciding factors in the 2022 elections
It's not the surveys, but disinformation, money, volunteers, and the intangibles of debate

Ninety days out, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is acting like the overwhelming favorite to win the presidential election: selecting his interviews, evading debates, avoiding conflict. That these play to his own weaknesses (he is not known as a diligent, policy-oriented confrontational debater) must come as both relief and vindication; he is campaigning for president exactly the way he wants to.

This is possible largely because he and his running mate Mayor Sara Duterte both enjoy a commanding lead in the surveys. If the results were otherwise, he would necessarily find himself accepting all sorts of interviews, showing up at debates, breaking his own vow of unity to face (and face down) rivals.

Will the surveys then be one of the deciding factors, or even the crucial decisive one, that will shape the 2022 vote? The answer must be no – because scientific surveys only reflect public opinion. As I have written before, the “great democratic paradox at the heart of the entire survey enterprise” is that scientific surveys accurately reflect public opinion because “they do not in fact influence public opinion.” To use Social Weather Stations terms, the few who are “bandwagonners” (voters who change their mind to join the bandwagon of the front runner) cancel out the few who are “underdoggers” (voters who change their mind to side with the underdog). Survey results reflect public opinion at a particular moment in time, and that moment is shaped not by surveys but by other factors. It might be useful to think of surveys not as the message but rather as the messenger. 

I still have to see the results of the January 2022 Pulse Asia survey, but I’ve seen the main numbers in two internal surveys conducted in January, and these messengers show that the gap between Marcos and Vice President Leni Robredo, in second place, is narrowing. But it is not narrowing by as much as a voter saturated in political media would think. Why is that so?

Disinformation

The filthy lucre that is disinformation explains much. On one side of the dirty coin, Robredo and her allies (including senators Leila de Lima, Risa Hontiveros, and Sonny Trillanes) have been subjected to unrelenting disinformation campaigns since at least 2016; this is well-documented and well-researched, but apparently its effects are not well-perceived. When analysts and political observers speak as though the media landscape (traditional, digital, social) were essentially level, or that it’s politics as usual, they leave out an entire dimension of their object of study.

On the other side, Marcos and his family have been the central beneficiaries of an entire architecture of disinformation on social media for over a decade. It isn’t just deliberate lies (for instance, that under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos the country was a genuine democracy); it’s also deliberately gray content (for example – and this was what struck me the most the last time I spent studying pro-Marcos TikTok – the unexpected highlighting of the silent, private Marcos, Irene, as an all-around good person, to normalize her aristocratic, highly political family).

Disinformation campaigns against other targets continue to run; the Far Left continues to be red-tagged and the media bias-shamed. In truth, the accusation that “media is biased” is one of the key disinformation messages shared by many disinformation networks, including those who are pro-Marcos and those who support President Duterte. Thus, when Marcos Junior rationalizes his refusal to meet with certain journalists or news organizations, journalists will see through this as an attempt to escape accountability – but Marcos supporters will see it as confirmation of that key message of media bias.

For these and related reasons, disinformation will be one of the deciding factors in the 2022 elections. Even though many more voters are now aware of how “fake news” and other forms of disinformation shaped the 2016 vote, it remains extraordinarily difficult to fight back against disinformation in 2022 because (a) of the sheer volume coming out of the (b) automated, algorithm-based (c) “firehose of falsehood.” It CAN be done, and initiatives like #FactsFirstPH and tsek.ph are both model and medium, but the clock is running.

Other factors

TV advertising remains a crucial element in any campaign strategy, but the “air war” can be overrated. Many candidates for high office spent a fortune on TV ads, only to lose; candidates like President Rodrigo Duterte did not run extensive, expensive ad campaigns, but still won. But it should be noted that these eventual winners were not absent from the screen; their ads complemented their overall campaign strategy. So it is a question of which television audiences to reach, when, and how often.

Political endorsements remain important, though we must accept that many political endorsers change their minds when their reading of the electoral situation changes. In 2016, for instance, Cavite Governor Jonvic Remulla was a principal supporter of presidential candidate Jojo Binay, until he switched to Rody Duterte just before Election Day. The initial value of an endorsement is as a show of force and as the start of a potential bandwagon for other politicians; this is important in itself. But the Election Day value of an endorsement is even more important; it can help get out the vote. (I do not know how much of the Cavite vote in 2016 can be attributed to the Remulla political machinery, but of the roughly 1.3 million votes for president, Mr. Duterte won over half a million. Binay got about 200,000 votes.) As for President Duterte’s own endorsement: He has thus far abstained from directly supporting any candidate. Going by previous estimates in previous elections, his endorsement may be worth anywhere between a few hundred thousand and a couple of million votes.

Debate impact. I have argued before that the three official presidential debates in 2016, the first since 1992, changed the game, and were the main factor in Mayor Duterte’s victory. The three debates scheduled in 2022 may not have the same impact, in part because of two absences: that of ABS-CBN as a TV network, and the probable absence of Marcos Junior. But the Commission on Elections’ decision to open all the debates to all the media (instead of using specific media partners, as in 2016) may help create an even larger audience. This will likely favor those candidates who do well in scripted, ritualized formats but have limited funds to reach wider audiences (and whose “spin” operations can seize the narrative in the debates’ immediate aftermath).

Money vs people

But two other factors may yet prove to be the most decisive.

Marcos money. It is no secret that organizers for Marcos have been buying social media accounts and offering higher rates for the services of various influencers. (I see the digital trails they casually leave behind as equal parts incompetence and impunity.) Their seeding of social media started well before this year’s elections; as I have argued before, the difference between Marcos Junior’s unsuccessful run for the Senate in 1995 and his successful Senate campaign in 2010 can be partly explained by the Marcos family’s digital and social media presence in the intervening years. But it isn’t just social; by all accounts, the Marcos campaign has all the funding it needs, and then some. 

Volunteer power. The evidence that Robredo’s candidacy is authentically a “people’s campaign” is clear; while presidential candidates have benefited from genuine drafts before (President Duterte in 2016, Noynoy Aquino in 2010, Cory Aquino in 1986), the reality that a substantial part of the funding for Robredo comes not from the usual big donors but from what we can provisionally call small donors is unequivocal, and unprecedented. (Provisional, because the official campaign finance reports, which may not even include the operations of third-party campaigners, are yet to be written.) It may be that the very many volunteers come from the middle class, a narrow segment of the electorate; but as others have attested, including veteran journalists who have covered many other elections, the support for Robredo is real even in the basic sectors: aircon technicians, Grab messengers, jeepney drivers, laborers. 

The question is whether this kind of people-powered campaign can outwit, out-organize, out-mobilize, and outfight a well-funded machine. That question is complicated by important factors what may also shape the 2022 vote. Will another pandemic surge depress voter turnout? Will political violence intimidate other politicians? Last, not certainly not least: Will political rivals like Isko Moreno (telegenic, politically pliable), Ping Lacson (formidable, well-prepared), and Manny Pacquiao (popular, Mindanao-based) belie the two-person race scenario and change the narrative? – Rappler.com

Veteran journalist John Nery is a columnist and editorial consultant of Rappler.