The social media imperative

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

Last week I wrote about how Duterte has been gaslighting us all along. My guest columnist, Liana Romulo, explains how social media is being used to perpetuate these false narratives or in several instances, to present a counter-narrative. She has expressed concern how naïve her dad and contemporaries are about today’s political environment.

Fair elections are an essential feature of democracies. In the old days, we used to rely on the presence of watchdog organizations, like NAMFREL, to help protect fairness and prevent voter-intimidation and other forms of fraud and violence. But in the last presidential election, by the time we arrived at the polling place to cast our votes, the “cheating” had already occurred—mainly on Facebook and YouTube. For those of you who grew up trusting newspapers for fact-based information and who may not always be on social media, allow me to explain.

The video posted at the following link is fake and was patched together using old footage pretending to be current. Posted on April 21, it’s been viewed more than a million times on Facebook and YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZrgcmhWB0w Convincingly the narrator describes how President Duterte recently won a case against Beijing regarding the West Philippine Sea, and he comes across as a hero. Here are just two of the comments that were posted below the video:

“Ang galing mo talaga mr president for the love of his ppl and country..you inspired us sana lahat ang mga filipino ma mana ang inyong katangian”

“Wow we have great President. DU30 very smart and well informed.”

That specific link was viewed about 200,000 times, but as stated by factcheck.afp.com, where I found this video among others, if you add up all the posts of the same video, you’ll see that it was actually viewed millions of times.

This is just one example of the fake news being churned out by today’s politicians, celebrities, and others at a dizzying rate. More specifically referred to as “disinformation,” the proliferation of this kind of cheating is widespread everywhere in the world. Indeed, one wonders how legislation will ever be passed against its use when the creators of so much of the bogus content are the legislators themselves! Misinformation is false information that’s spread regardless of whether there is intent to mislead. Disinformation is propaganda, designed to mislead.

I long for the good old days when we were concerned with where and when candidates could put up their posters—the simple days when NAMFREL was still relevant. So sinister are today’s electoral contests that the term “flying voters” sounds almost charming, maybe even bringing to mind Sally Field in a nun’s habit. Back then, though sometimes faced with armed goons hired to harass us at the polling centers, we at least had a chance at fair elections. Today, with disinformation systematically pumped into the social media ecosystem day and night, round the clock, unchecked and unregulated, we have to ask, is it even possible to have an honest and fair election? As a voter I feel like my vote matters less and less, but if I stop voting then I’m giving in to authoritarianism. In order to have democracy, we have to do democracy. It requires our participation and isn’t a given. There is simply no democracy if we don’t vote or if our votes don’t matter.

The outcome of the 2016 general elections blindsided presidential candidate Mar Roxas, who seemed to many a sure winner. While it’s hard to say if Duterte would have still emerged as victor even without his keyboard warriors and armies of trolls, it’s well-documented that his social media campaign—headed up by Nic Gabunada, the former ABS-CBN sales chief—operated on a level way beyond that of the other candidates. Gabunada told Rappler in May 2016 that he started with just P10 million and recruited around 500 volunteers willing to tap into their own personal networks. Duterte, then mayor, simply did not have the budget that the other presidentiables had, which is why his team shrewdly decided to lean less on expensive political ads in favor of a much cheaper social media effort.

Let me break it down to be very clear. If I were one of those 500 volunteers, I would have given them access to the 1400 people I connect with on social media, i.e., my Facebook friends who know me and trust me. As a volunteer I would agree to post on my feed phony videos like the one above, as well as other media, and that video would reach many of my 1400 friends who, if they deem it newsworthy, might share it with their own personal networks—and then my friends’ friends might share it… so on and so forth. But 1400 is a fairly modest number. According to Gabunada, out of those original 500 people, one specific person (the one with the largest network) could reach about 800,000 others. So if those 500 had just 3,000 each, let’s imagine, the resulting number of people potentially reached by the fake video would be 1.5 million immediately out of the gate within a couple of hours. Even if only three percent decided to click on the video, this translates to 45,000 voters. That’s good reach by any measuring stick—and that’s even without extrapolation. The actual number is exponentially larger.

“It was these ‘warriors’ on social media who delivered the presidency to Duterte, who won with over 16.6 million votes–convincingly and overwhelmingly over his strongest rival Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas II who got over 9.9 million votes,” wrote Chay Hofileña for Rappler in October 2016.

Based on the amount of pro-Duterte disinformation I still see online, when I’m posing as a DDS (die-hard Duterte supporter), his social media campaign continues unabated. “This is part of the reason Duterte remains popular and why Sara and/or Bong Bong Marcos will win in 2022,” one of my friends posted on Facebook recently. “There’s an obscene amount of propaganda materials on YouTube and FB. If the opposition wants to make any dent in next year’s elections, they have to have a substantial presence in these platforms.”

1Sambayan, take heed.

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