Social media as campaign tool
It is said that we once ousted a president through text messaging. Now it may well be said that we elected a president through tweets and memes. We’ve just been through what many describe to be the most divisive election in Philippine history. Perhaps it felt that way because of the viciousness with which online posts from all sides of the political contest were bashing opposing candidates and their supporters alike. Facebook and Twitter became convenient primary platforms for negative campaigning, with innuendos, half-truths and outright falsehoods finding wide circulation.
The mantra that resonated in the 2016 election season was “Change is coming,” but this electoral exercise already embodies a fundamental transformation in itself. It’s not so much because of the computerization of the counting and tallying of votes as, perhaps, because of the computerization (or more precisely, “internetization”) of the electoral campaign. This is an interesting point because Republic Act No. 9006 (the Fair Elections Act) does not quite capture online activity and the digital media, which have become a deliberate and prominent campaign vehicle nearly as widespread as radio and television.
While digital media could fall under the catch-all phrase “all other forms of election propaganda not prohibited by the Omnibus Election Code or this Act,” the campaign regulations focus on radio, TV and print media. Broadcast ads are regulated on the basis of airtime, and print ads on the basis of size and frequency of release. But how does one regulate YouTube exposure or meme propagation? Resolution 10049 to RA 9006, released last Feb. 1, made an attempt to cover online campaign ads by providing rules for ad sizes and frequency of online publication. However, in recognition of freedom of expression, the resolution exempted anything that fell “within the scope of personal opinion” from the definition of election propaganda subject to regulation.
But herein lies the issue: In the world of Facebook and Twitter, there is a thin line between circulating a personal opinion and circulating a deliberately designed campaign ad or black propaganda. This has created a gray area that savvy public relations strategists are able to use to great advantage. Commission on Elections spokesperson James Jimenez expressed the difficulty: “For instance, a candidate posted a video and it gets over a million likes. What are you going to do, charge him for a million likes? No. But what we might look at is how much the candidate spent in making that video. Distribution is free, but making the video with, like, donated talent, that’s reportable. How much was spent in getting that in digital format? That’s reportable. We have to calibrate our approach to social media without violating freedom of speech.”
Here is yet another area where regulating cyberspace proves to be a great challenge. Digital media, particularly social media, ought to be the great equalizer because its potential propaganda platforms are as accessible as they are ubiquitous. Supporters also offer their walls and content development services for free. These personal spaces and expressions do make a difference, judging by the way the administration candidate recognized the efforts of the Facebook group “The Silent Majority.”
Social media is also making news and influencing the mainstream broadcast media in the process. The memes generated by supporters of winning candidate Rodrigo Duterte became news when various entities, including the Singapore prime minister, found the need to deny supporting any Philippine presidential candidate. The rise of Bongbong Marcos might also be partly attributed to years of quiet proliferation of promartial law propaganda. This, in turn, spawned the active #NeverAgain movement that bled into broadcast and broadsheets. The Comelec itself used social media to encourage citizen participation and promote awareness through hashtags, emojis, online streaming debates, and much more. There is little doubt that social media helped bring out the native millennial voting population in large numbers, and contributed to the very high 81-percent voter turnout. The influence is clear; candidates and supporters merely have to start the conversation.
These conversations are where hidden campaign spending may be tucked in. It’s hard to tell if a piece of online content was created by a supporter for fun or for profit. “Troll armies” and web robots are out there and have been used to effect. For example, the troll armies of Russia paid to promote pro-Russia, pro-Putin, and anti-western sentiments have been exposed. A professional troll reported that she was paid 45,000 rubles for a month of work. The job involved creating content, posting links to pro-Russian pages, and flooding online forums with pro-Russian sentiments. Programming web robots could well be part of such paid services as well.
Popular figures can also easily say that their tweets and status posts represent their personal views, even as many of them are paid handsomely for it. This became all too obvious when American celebrity Joan Rivers supposedly posted that she was replacing her last cell phone unit with an iPhone 6—after she had already died (the embarrassing post was quickly withdrawn). Posts don’t come cheap, either. Basketball star LeBron James reportedly gets paid almost $1,000 per character for posting product endorsements.
Should the government regulate campaign posts on social media in capping candidates’ spending, and, more importantly, to weed out falsehoods and black propaganda? The more telling question may well be: Can it?
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