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Passion For Reason

Facebook and the impeachment trial

If Edsa I was powered by the photocopy machine and Edsa II by cell phone texting, the recent impeachment proceeding was fueled by Facebook and live streaming. I was away for most of the past two weeks to deliver lectures abroad, but I tried to keep abreast by watching the trial via the Internet and followed people’s comments via Facebook. There are pluses and minuses to Internet-based political mobilization.

There is, of course, no substitute for actual conversations with people in the flesh. I now learn, for instance, that traffic ground to a halt on Manila streets, almost like during the boxing matches of Rep. Manny Pacquiao—but real-time Internet access comes close. It provides the novel experience of simultaneity, of people commenting on their Facebook walls and “talking” to one another while watching the same event.

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The first plus is that it is raw and candid, unmediated by editors and publishers. If democracy is all about allowing people to speak their voices, the interactive social networks provide them not just a platform but a megaphone as well. It shows “the irrelevance of meatspace for public activism,” in the words of Prof. Florin Hilbay of the University of the Philippines College of Law. “It’s as honest as Lito Lapid.”

The established press and broadcast networks can be accused of bias and manipulation, of having been bought and hired, of being in cahoots with paid hacks or spin doctors. Not Facebook (or Twitter). The multitude can be manipulated, yes, as I discuss below, but not the old-fashioned way of buying or coercing support.

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And there is an added bonus in that the new technologies allow people to speak with flair and creativity: The visage of Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago on “unlimited talk” cell phone advertisements, the revival of Sen. Lito Lapid’s old movie ads for Leon Guerrero, and memes on the “Gusto ko, Happy ka” campaign line of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.

On top of that, the medium is open to all, elected or unelected, appointed or unappointed, college graduates as well as dropouts. No guardian at the gate. No one telling you what you can or cannot say. When Holmes spoke of “the power of a thought to get itself accepted in the marketplace of ideas,” he couldn’t have imagined the digital marketplace.

Finally, the public’s verdict is instantaneous. There is no lag time between the public event and public reaction. While I listened to the senators’ speeches on judgment day, I could also read the immediate judgment of people listening to those speeches. The instantaneousness itself is one safeguard against manipulation. They spoke before they heard others speak. They all post their messages at virtually the same time, and leave it to the marketplace to decide who wins.

On the other hand, the first plus is also the first minus: it is raw and candid, unmediated by editors and publishers. It lends itself easily to the lynch mob, the tendency to gang up on the “flavor of the month,” the latest pet peeve of the digitally empowered community. It brings out the worst in some, who give vent to a nastiness that is otherwise edited out by the alert editor. If candor and spontaneity should bring out the “noble self,” in some it merely beckons forth the “baser self.”

Since the commentators merely speak out their minds, they are free to be as openly partisan and one-sided, without any burden to give the other side their proverbial day in court. The usual rules of ethics do not apply because they do not purport to practice a profession or perform a service. They’re merely speaking out their minds, and are in fact at liberty to take sides. Their goal is openness; to be blunt is a virtue.

Worse, I suspect some online identities are fake, created deliberately to simulate the sweep of public opinion. Also I have seen more pointed exchanges in more international e-groups which succeed in joining the issues better but without recourse to name-calling and ad hominem attacks. In a way, this is where technology buys into the local culture, where debates, far from surfacing the nuances of argument, merely sharpens it and leaves it there. The protagonists are either friends or enemies, never partners in seeking truth. It’s either-or. No space for shades of grey. Anything in the grey zone is demeaned as compromise.

But the real irony is, in the first place, why a social network should play a role in a trial. Judicial trials by their nature are precisely supposed to be insulated from public opinion. What we just experienced was a hybrid proceeding, neither purely judicial nor purely political. That should explain why the closing arguments by the prosecution were an appeal to history while those by the defense were heavy on legal technicalities. Each side placed its bet on different sides of the formula. The senator-judges were careful to show that they voted strictly on the question of guilt or innocence, but it cannot be doubted that public opinion weighed heavily when they judged.

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Locally and internationally, the impeachment verdict has been seen as a sign of our growing “political maturity as a nation.” Traditionally, if maturity meant making our institutions work, then Facebook and the new media should be irrelevant. In one sense then, the impeachment tribunal is halfway between a traditional judicial proceeding and full-blown People Power. It was constitutionally designed to carry out the people’s verdict through a trial. The trial part of it sought to ensure fairness, but the people’s part of it sought to ensure the democratic will. Someone called it People Power through institutions. It certainly requires maturity to have pulled it off, but much irony as well.

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Comments to passionforreason@gmail.com

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