By Juan Carlos Eusebio | July 6, 2021, 12.00pm
A new era has arisen since the conception of smartphones and social media due to the digitization of practically every element of our daily lives. People’s hyper-connectivity in the digital space has highlighted the significance of constitutional rights such as free speech and press freedom. Certainly, the essential role of social media in today’s society, especially social media’s potential to encourage political involvement, has raised public awareness and shifted political strategies.
In the Philippines, advertising firms “We Are Social” and “Hootsuite” noted that Filipinos spend an average of 4 hours and 15 minutes each day on social media, topping the global usage rankings, based on a report published in January 2021. It also means that the utilization of social media from a political point-of-view is particularly important, especially in the upcoming 2022 national elections.
More than five years ago, social media platforms, particularly Facebook, catapulted President Rodrigo Duterte’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections, with over 16 million voters. The president would maintain his social media dominance, which helped him gain high approval ratings throughout his term. Aside from the president’s successful poll numbers, his social media team also helped key allies in the 2019 midterm elections, especially his longtime aide and former special assistant, Bong Go, who became a senator in the recent elections. He ranked number three in the 2019 midterm elections, with over 21 million voters.
According to President Duterte’s campaign social media manager, their secret to success was the mobilization and organization of existing groups of supporters. The Duterte social media campaign system works through specific messaging tactics headed by influencers that keep the supporters coordinated to amplify the campaign team’s messaging, expression of support, or defend President Duterte from any controversy he is into.
However, based on his critics and the opposition, President Duterte’s social media brand had been allegedly aligned to social media trolls and fake news peddlers, which had also been called out by student activists and fact-checking experts various times since the start of his presidential term. In an article conducted by the Los Angeles Times, journalists uncovered that candidates and government officials purchase massive cyber-troll armies that systematically produce multiple fake social media accounts to enhance their messaging and to infuse black propaganda towards their opponents.
In a bid to curb fake news and disinformation on its platform, Facebook partnered with third-party fact-checking organizations such as Rappler, a local digital media company, and Vera Files, a media nonprofit that fact-checks false and misleading claims in the Philippines. However, this move had been criticized by the supporters of President Duterte, claiming that Rappler and Vera Files are biased towards the current administration.
Based on the recent 2019 midterm elections, one-third of the 61 registered voters were from ages 18-35, assumingly, the bulk of social media users in the Philippines. In a research project conducted by CNN Philippines, candidates amid the 2019 midterm elections had various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to reach voters and present their political platforms. A majority of the 62 senatorial candidates who participated in the 2019 elections were not widely popular and had inadequate political machinery to survive in a conventional method of campaigning. Instead, most of them utilized social media to lessen the gap with candidates that possessed a well-funded political machinery.
In the upcoming 2022 presidential elections, expect that social media will play a much more important role than the previous elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the Philippine government, as of writing, has only vaccinated ten million people, the current rate indicates that herd immunity will be done by December 2022, seven months after the May 2022 elections. It means that the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) might set COVID-19 related guidelines to ensure that people will be safe amid the campaign season and to avoid superspreader events. Therefore, it places social media as the most powerful tool that potential candidates would surely utilize in the much expected “new normal” in political campaigning in the Philippines.