[OPINION] Should you start organizing ‘virtual’ political parties for 2022?

Did Duterte win the 2016 presidential and 2019 congressional elections because he had a virtual political “party” (or “parties?”) running on Facebook and other social media? Is “people power” as we know it no longer as effective because most political mobilizations have gone virtual, and that political slogans can be screamed and shouted longer, louder, and repeatedly on social media platforms, without having to march down the streets with clenched fists and red flags? 

Apparently so. Social media has changed the way people socialize, absorb news, and form opinions, which in turn has created new forms of mobilization and political engagement. Many social upheavals today – particularly the rise of populist leaders, from Donald Trump, to Boris Johnson, to Rodrigo Duterte – have been attributed to social media’s influence. 

Social media seems to have done something more: it has further mangled the already distorted nature of the Philippine political party. There really are no real political parties where balimbingan – the ritual exodus of politicians from one party to the “supermajority” after every presidential election – is institutionalized. Entangled within this apparatus of political accommodation and opportunism is something social media has introduced: a virtual political “party” (it needs to remain within quotes).

A political “party” is virtual when it is founded and organized on social media. It may have no fixed address yet maintains real presence through online posts, blogs, tweets, text messages, or web pages. It recruits, trains, and socializes with members online. These members exercise their agency and deploy for political combat mostly online. It conducts political mobilizations and operations online. It does not need to call itself a “party.”

Virtual “parties,” so far, tend to be flat with no fixed hierarchies. They do have “shining stars” though, mostly unorthodox, non-traditional politicians continually underestimated by establishment politicians and the liberal elite.

Mocha Uson, for example, is ridiculed as stupid. Her cohorts are buffoons. Yet what is curious is that many people find those like her appealing, especially as insurgents. Most importantly, they are understood, perhaps even more than most eloquent activists. They seem to be better at transmitting “hidden transcripts.” They connect despite the infuriation and offense they provoke and commit.  

The long list of online pro-Duterte movements, organizations, and collectives may be regarded as factions or operating arms of this “party.” Organizationally, they may be fragmented; they even squabble against each other. But their common denominator is support for Duterte in one form or another. 

Around September 2020, Facebook closed some of these operating arms. One Philippine-based network that was shut down, reported by news outlets, had links to the police and military, and was reaching 280,000 people through 57 FB accounts, 31 web pages, and 20 Instagram accounts. This network was involved in the red-tagging of Duterte’s opponents. 

Evolution of public spheres

The philosopher Juergen Habermas defined the public sphere as “society engaged in critical debate.” It consisted of social spaces where private individuals gathered – coffee shops, town halls, or family gatherings – to discuss common issues that affected them. Included are places where ordinary Filipinos interact informally – tambayans or marketplaces where common knowledge (sometimes called tsismis) is exchanged. These interactions, said Habermas, may be regarded as a form of democratic participation. 

The problem that Habermas raised is that big companies and government institutions started taking over the public sphere, oftentimes invisibly, thus turning private individuals primarily into consumers and receivers, rather than citizens exercising agency. He examined public spheres in history that mutated from spaces of rational discussion and debate into realms of mass cultural consumption and administration by dominant elites. 

A key target of his critiques was the mainstream media – newspapers and broadcast networks that were state-controlled or owned by big firms and business moguls promoting their interests and particular political agenda.

It is difficult to make a judgment on whether social media-induced changes of the public sphere today are good or bad for democracy. On one hand, there appears to be more direct participation, especially for those who feel their voices are not being heard but can speak truth to power by leaving a snarky online comment directed at a politician, even when on limited prepaid internet access. But on the other hand, social media can also amplify intolerance and enable bullying, with troll farms becoming a form of mob rule, perhaps even paid for by taxpayers’ money to mass produce the dirty tricks that state institutions do not want to be seen doing. 

What is to be done?

Social media may be expanding freedom of choice, but it is also triggering inadvertent consequences. The bottom line is instituting fair play for political competition. It is not about whether social media is pro- or anti-Duterte, or pro- or anti-whatever, but whether it can evolve to be a level playing field. 

At least two issues need to be debated urgently. 

First is on removing anonymity. Online bullying, intimidation, and making death threats become so easy under the cover of a fake identity and an avatar. Social media companies should examine whether removing anonymity can reduce toxic interactions and criminal posts. Inevitably, there will be trade-offs on privacy issues. Second is on whether or not to regulate PR firms and other companies (domestic and international) operating troll farms and data mining services. 

If virtual parties will become the norm, then the opposition (to whoever may be in power) should be fit-for-purpose, and not left behind by new forms of awareness-raising and political mobilization. 

Organize on social media. Recruit candidates and let them show their mettle by how they grow their followers online. Challenge claims, validate survey findings, or at least portions of it, with online polls which over time will likely be more representative of the population it is measuring. Leave evidence-based digital trails. 

En masse training on social media literacy, spotting fake news, fighting disinformation, or knowing how online vulnerabilities are created and exploited will be essential. 

One goal is to mobilize “volunteer regiments” of fact-checkers, researchers, and other stakeholders for every troll army deployed. Document and preserve evidence of wrongdoing so that perpetrators, including companies using the business model of troll armies, may be held to account when prosecutors eventually file cases for online disinformation, bullying, and support for human rights abuses and other crimes. 

All these, however, hinges on whether Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms are themselves prepared to level the playing field. Facebook’s policy of investigating “coordinated inauthentic behavior” is a step in the right direction, but this only scratches the surface and in many cases is like firefighting only after the arsonist has razed the building. More preemptive ways of tackling the problem are necessary, including social media companies improving their accountability to public scrutiny and citizen engagement.  

It is still not known whether virtual “parties’”have life spans longer than the actual parties of the supermajority. Perhaps the results of the 2022 elections will be one indicator. – Rappler.com

Eric Gutierrez is a researcher based in Germany. He obtained his PhD in Development Studies (cum laude) from the International Institute of Social Studies – Erasmus University Rotterdam. The views expressed here are his alone.