The birth of ‘digital protest’
Randy David was my professor in at least four courses in graduate school at the University of the Philippines Department of Sociology, and he would have written a better piece on this topic. But using the framework I learned in his “social systems theorizing” class, I will try to clarify a few points on the development of the events associated with the pork barrel scam involving some of our legislators.
Social systems, for the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, are systems of communications operating in societies along different functional lines. On the one hand, for instance, politics deals with power relations, while the economy deals with material value and exchange, on the other. The law operates by providing the lines between what is permissible and what is not while religion functions to interpret the incomprehensible. In modern societies, the distinctions among these systems are clear, providing for the healthy space and balance necessary to maintain social order.
With the advancements in technology, I am convinced that our society’s entry into the lobby of modernity—political or otherwise—has been met by the formation of an entirely new social system that strongly pushes itself to the arena of issues, enabling its subjects to make better sense of discourse and action on a particular matter. This gave birth to “digital protest,” a social system that has come to differentiate itself from the mass media and conventional protest movements. Although similar to earlier forms of protest, as it uses the same code—the indignation of a practice or of an institution—it has taken a different form by inserting itself into the cloud-based flow of information, allowing for the buildup of collective sentiments sustained by nothing more than “hash tags,” transcending economic, religious and political boundaries. As a “self-referential” system, digital protest selects and treats information coming from its environment by drawing the lines between what is acceptable and what is detestable.
The #onemillionmarch mobilization held recently at Rizal Park to demand the abolition of the pork barrel, by all indications, has shown that digital protest is a system that has the capacity for self-reproduction, able to protect itself against the perils of structural-coupling with other ideologically based protests. One finds it remarkable to see how its participants remained at Rizal Park when extreme leftist groups marched toward Mendiola to continue their action, indicating significant systemic differences between conventional forms of protest and digital protest. Unlike many agenda-filled demagogues, its participants come from various groups that do not belong to a single political persuasion brought together by the battle cry: “Walang babuyan!”
Equally fascinating was how the crowd booed former Chief Justice Renato Corona when he came, pointing to the fact that digital protest is a politically immune system that will not allow itself to be used in legitimizing tainted agendas. Peachy Bretana, the first to post the call to go to Rizal Park, was not able to fully grasp the magnitude of responses her “tag” would generate until hours after she posted the call, clearly unaware that she was playing on a still unexplored space. Like some organisms in science-fiction movies, the phenomenon acquired a life of its own, manifesting such unforeseen dynamism, breathing and pulsating through the social media.
In the last decade, the transition from tradition to modernity has been more clearly evident. Time and again, the crisis of institutional arrangements has seen how the law can be subverted by the old, client-based paternalistic politics that are found in kinship communities. We have seen how dominant institutions like the Church can blur the visions through which political decisions are made. We have seen how the economic vulnerability of our people prevents them from meaningfully exercising their political rights to influence the policies that spell out a significant impact on their lives. The reason for this, I believe, is the coming of the new era where societies are commanded to differentiate, or perish. The arrangements of social systems is increasingly moving like tectonic plates creating spaces between what is legal and what is political, between what is religious and what is political, between what is scientific and what is aesthetic, and between what is familial and what is political.
The crisis spawned by the pork barrel scandal may actually be a good indication of this painful transition to modernity. What used to be silent is becoming more and more salient, thereby creating some kind of tensions in the old social order. The JLN Corp. scandal and the popular clamor to abolish the pork barrel narrate a story of how a people, unified by disdain against the old political culture, sharing similar sentiments, organized by an entirely new social system, speak against corruption. Digital protest has reinforced the function of the mass media and together, the two have assumed the role of a balancing element that tames a stubborn political system in the attempt to free itself from the shackles of patronage and rent-seeking culture.
Joseph Jadway “JJ” Marasigan (email@example.com) chairs the Quezon Association for Rural Development and Democratization Services Inc.