Gaslighting and the Recto Bank 22
My days of activism were nursed in my last months as an undergrad student in the University of the Philippines Diliman, during the P-Noy administration. It blew our tops off each time he dodged all accountability by pinning the blame, issue after issue, on earlier administrations. For a lot of us, what hurt the most was that we felt he was taking us for fools.
In April 2011, we staged a lightning rally just as he was stuttering onstage as the guest speaker at the university graduation. The Presidential Security Group took pictures of us and set us aside, though none of us would end up jailed that afternoon. P-Noy and his entourage marched backstage right after his speech to — rumor had it — smoke three sticks.
President Duterte is an entirely different beast.
We’re now in the thick of the maritime dispute over the West Philippine Sea and if there’s anything we should learn from it, it’s that the issue has more layers to it than Mr. Duterte’s once-promised solution to joust through the disputed islands carrying a Philippine flag. Strangely, however, in the case of the Recto Bank 22 (harking so close to a Catch-22 situation), the President’s men are answering their critics and feeding their trolls with rhetoric that is as overly simplified as the ex-mayor’s jet ski promise.
Even as it spew outright lies and exaggerations (a “nuclear war” with China?), the Duterte administration’s communications playbook has also grown more and more sophisticated over the past three years. Banking on Mr. Duterte’s unprecedented popularity, fake news sites and troll farms have become the cornerstones of a well-funded myth-making machine.
That online army’s standing orders appear to be to bombard netizens with half-truths and false perspectives without letup to smother any legitimate contrary positions from taking root. The administration wants to generate talk and, afterward, “weaponize” people’s reactions so that the meat of the matter is lost under layers and layers of empty statements and diversions. The result is a form of gaslighting where we would rather give up and say, “I no longer have the time or energy to feel angry, even if I am deeply affected by this issue.”
However, the Recto Bank 22 incident seems to have caught the Duterte communications squad off-guard. While Cabinet Secretaries Emmanuel Piñol, Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Salvador Panelo obviously received the memo to confuse and subdue everyone with a plethora of diversions and deflections, the public’s focus resolutely remained on the main issue. Recto Bank 22 can’t be any more black and white as the Chinese encroaching on our territory, and the case can’t be any more down to earth as poor Filipino fishermen being rammed by a trespassing ship—and then being left to drown. And it doesn’t help the administration’s case that its top guns can’t seem to fully coerce the fishermen, despite their all-too-obvious efforts to do so.
It took 11 days after the ramming before a eureka moment seemed to have spurred the communications team and the President’s fans and trolls into a united argument: “Let’s not make a big fuss out of it.” Because, they said, the effect of the public’s demand to seek accountability from Beijing is an unwinnable war with China.
But as far as the rest of us are concerned, they’re the only ones conflating the issue with talk of war. No right-minded Filipino wants war with China. We want accountability and mutually respectful diplomacy from a neighbor that purports to consider our country a friend.
Compared to P-Noy’s more traditional-minded communications team under Edwin Lacierda, Mr. Duterte’s coterie under Martin Andanar has learned to rely more on an easily warped social media to advance the administration’s interests. While Andanar’s predecessor usually offered one, boring and insulting lie (or blame) to cover up the P-Noy government’s latest misstep, this one has a lot more tricks up its sleeves. So if Noynoy smoked and swore backstage when we surprised him with a rally, Mr. Duterte never even showed up, didn’t even lift a finger, but through a massive attack on all fronts, has forced the fishermen to soften their story, and the Recto Bank 22 narrative to essentially go a bit more lenient on Malacañang— and Beijing.
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DLS Pineda teaches at Father Saturnino Urios University, Butuan City. After finishing his undergraduate and master’s degrees in UP Diliman, he decided to reside in his father’s hometown in Agusan del Norte. Tweet @dlspineda.
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