A YEAR into this President, and after the epic failure that is this Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), I am now beginning to think that contrary to what we would like to believe, maybe what we’ve seen to be a crisis in communications is the communications strategy.
After all, look at Martin Andanar, utterly silent, getting away with releasing badly written, ill-conceptualized pro-martial law videos, being paid for the bad work of all the divisions he is in charge of – from PTV4 to RTVM, the Philippine News Agency and all other presidential and Malacañang websites. Look at the official Facebook page of Andanar’s Assistant Secretary and find that half of her posts are marked as fake news pages by the fantastic Fakeblok app of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP).
Look at us, getting used to this state of affairs, including the utter lack of credible and relevant information coming from government, save for shameless and questionable numbers that contradict what we know is happening on the ground, and official statements that are denied altogether even with multiple witnesses, even when we all heard what they said, even when there are recordings all over the place.
I’ve always wondered how much longer we can stand this kind of government communications. I realize now that maybe the first step towards wresting back information (and sanity) is to admit that this state of affairs, this is the communications strategy that we are paying this office for. It’s confusing, it’s messy, it’s absolutely unproductive, and an utter waste of public funds: but a year on, look at us, shifting from one issue to the next, barely able to take a breath, always on our toes, in over our heads.
One can hear Andanar etal celebrating.
Strategy 1: Celebrate social media
The insistence that social media is the basis of “public opinion” is one that Andanar has always believed – why else would he call Mocha “the biggest artist”?
He is of course silencing many things that we’ve always known about social media, even during Daang Matuwid and that government’s propensity to equate social media with public opinion. First, there is no way of knowing how many of those accounts are from real people, and how many are built to generate likes and shares by a social media team – yes they exist, and Andanar etal are naïve to think we don’t know that. Second, there is the fact that the number of likes and shares of any post can never be a measure of its correctness and validity.
A year in though, it seems this government is operating with the notion that what happens on social media is equal to what concerns “the people of the Philippines.” This is not only a delusion, it is also very dangerous. Because social media is not where issues are fleshed out and discussed properly, it is not where we arrive at conclusions about what might be done, and towards what end. It is not ever, and cannot be, the basis of what matters, not only because what trends can so easily be manufactured, but also because at best no one knows how and why certain issues are talked about while others aren’t.
The “netizens,” while easy to pin down as those of us who are online, is really nothing more but a cloud of accounts that cannot be measured nor pinned down. This is the time to stop believing that we can crowdsource feelings and interests. Because, as you can very well see, government is using exactly that same strategy to get away with pretty much everything … and murder. Figuratively speaking, of course.
Strategy 2: Discredit mainstream media
From the beginning of this presidency, social media has been used as a tool to discredit mainstream media. On the one hand, there was a communications office that kept repeating the excuse of the President being “taken out of context,” without actually providing the context within which we should be listening to the President. On the other, there was this amorphous and informal team of social media propagandists swiftly and thoughtlessly churning out opinion and hate against certain news stories and media practitioners.
To some extent, mainstream media made it too easy: there was a general surprise in the ways of the new President, and there was a tendency to be overly critical of the superficial. Layer that with a campaign period during which the mainstream was generally unkind to candidate Duterte, and it became easy to start calling out media on its biases.
It didn’t help that in the beginning, the pushback from media companies was just as thoughtless. Rappler, for example, instead of admitting to its biases and discussing how it is impossible to escape bias – for everyone – ended up responding with snark and snobbishness, which just gave pro-Duterte propagandists and followers more ammunition: see? media is elitist! media is anti-people.
Between a PCOO that refused to deliver information and a mainstream media whose information was being questioned, between the generated noise of social media support for the President and the discourse of hate and vitriol, it would only be a matter of time before fake news sites started popping up as a by-product of this state of affairs.
This was not just about controlling online discourse. It’s become about controlling information in general – and even making the incredible, credible. The better to drown the more important issues in all this noise, the easier to keep discussions as superficial as possible.
If this is the PCOO’s communications strategy, then what a success it’s been.
What an injustice to nation.