We can draw two lessons from the Ica Policarpio episode that gripped public attention before Christmas Day. It showed us that in a time of crisis we can follow the lead of the better angels of our nature. And it also proved, yet again, that in a time of crisis we can also turn into the worst version of ourselves.
Ica went missing on the night of Dec. 21; her sister Bea posted a general appeal the following morning that quickly went viral. “My sister Ica has been missing since 10:53 pm, Dec 21. Last seen in Coffee Project Lakefront Sucat.” (This tweet was retweeted more than 50,000 times, and “liked” more 22,000 times.) On the same day, Andre Lagdameo started the hashtag #FindIca — a succinct appeal and call to action which helped focus the search for the missing 17-year-old.
Bea reached out to “influencers,” asking them to spread the word. Among those who responded were Kris Aquino (1.4 million followers on Twitter) and Anne Curtis (the most popular Filipino personality on Twitter, with 10.1 million followers).
On Dec. 24, a little over 48 hours since she aired her appeal, Bea tweeted a photo of a distraught-looking Ica in her mom’s arms, with the caption: “we found ica.” The touching tweet was retweeted 24,000 times and (proof that the Policarpio family’s “Christmas miracle” had touched many hearts) liked some 92,000 times.
I have not been able to look up the statistics from Facebook, but it was very much the same story. No great mystery why. Many people shared the Policarpios’ anguish and, when Ica was found, the family’s sense of relief. (My own family among many. Ica’s parents are college friends of mine and, years after and through Rotary, friends of my parents’.)
But almost from the start, an undercurrent of skepticism, or just an observing of distance, accompanied the general outpouring of concern. (Just to be clear: This is not a bad thing.) Some people wondered why Bea’s appeal for Ica went viral, while those for others who had gone missing were ignored. The Policarpios’ status in life (the word “privilege” became code) was cited as one reason. This is true, but the entire truth must include other factors, such as the impact of a powerful hashtag; the significance of the time of year Ica went missing; the swift response of influencers and ordinary social media users alike; the traction Ica’s story received in the media; not least, the clarity and specificity of Bea’s messages, which made her sister’s situation vivid in the public mind. (Her statement after Ica was found was also a small gem: comprehensive, compassionate, courageous, clear.)
But even those who noted the highly unequal class structure of Philippine society (and, consequently, of social media in the Philippines) spread the word about Ica and helped advance the search. That was the vital heart of the #FindIca phenomenon: People helped, and in the process also sent out appeals to #FindBenok and to ask #PaanoNamanYungIba (what about the others?).
When Ica was found safe, however, and it turned out that she had not been abducted (as many feared), the worst parts of the Filipino psyche surfaced. As others have already pointed out, it seemed as if for some Filipinos, the then-still-looming possibility that Ica had merely run away delegitimized the search for her. In my reading, the worst of the lot was one J. Bocanegra, who jumped to the conclusion that the Policarpios had known that Ica ran away but “they never said it.” This is deeply uncharitable and, dare I say, fundamentally unFilipino. How the hell did he know? Even if for the sake of argument we say they did harbor doubts about Ica’s psycho-emotional state (I do not know this for a fact), the circumstances of her disappearance—corroborated by the coffee shop staff, evidenced by the bag she had unaccountably left behind, documented on CCTV—all suggested an unplanned departure. Bocanegra accused the Policarpios of milking the situation for “more sympathy,” of acting manipulatively, when in fact they only acted naturally. When your child goes missing, you do everything you can to find her.
(There may be analogies in other major religions, but I know that in the Christian faith, this is exactly what we are taught: Do all you can to look for the lost coin, to find the lost sheep.)
Now that we have seen what a focused social media campaign to find one missing person can do (thanks in part to someone named Danica), we should create and maintain the structure necessary to have a reliable Missing Persons facility on social media. (Suggestions or leads welcome.)
But I also think these lessons from the social media phenomenon summed up in the hashtag #FindIca are urgently applicable to the larger crisis facing the country today: the undermining of our democracy and the ongoing attempt to redefine what it means to be Filipino. A society that turns its back on the freedoms our heroes fought for, that forgets the virtues that make us Filipino, that makes light of rape and rationalizes mass murder, that mocks Rizal’s unifying idea of a moral people, has lost its way. #FindPH.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.