Imagined politics in the age of social media

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

AS one who espouses a post-modern view of the political phenomenon, I should be the last person who should be complaining about the assault made by cyber-mediated political activism on political science, which I call my disciplinary playing field.

But there is a limit to my tolerance towards iconoclastic disrespect of my discipline. I simply fear that too much fluidity on how politics and political movements are imagined can destroy not only the foundations of the discipline of Political Science, but also the politics of resistance, and turn us into paper revolutionaries, and our social movements into mere political theater.

The fluidity of social constructs is the consequence of the emergence of the simulated political world, where images and appearances become more dominant, and where fact is no longer distinguishable from representation. This simulation of realist political constructs has been hastened by the onset of the Internet, and of cyberspace as basis for experiencing the political phenomenon.

One of the most brutal reminder of how simulated our realities are when police authorities of Caloocan City have replaced solid and actual vetting of intelligence report with social media posts as the basis for confirming Kian Loyd delos Santos’ alleged involvement in the drug trade.

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The creation of political mythologies has become even more animated and creative with the onset of social media. And nowhere is this more defined than in political protests and mobilization. Whereas before one needed to mobilize an actual crowd against a hated dictator, now all one needs is a social media account to have access to the mechanisms of myth-making through memes, tweets, posts and online petitions. Guerrilla tactics have found their new manifestations in trolling, and in taking down social media accounts.

However, the speed by which images and representations are conjured has not ensured authenticity. Rather, they have only caused a more rapid way by which social constructs and assumptions are being appropriated and assaulted to fit political interests.

Social movements have always been woven around myths and fictionalized narratives. And in the era of the internet, and of performance politics, this tendency has become even more pronounced.

Recently, a movement against tyranny was launched by a group of anti-Duterte political personalities joined by representatives from the church, academe, civil society and the arts. The campaign is expected to take on a social media presence, with an explosion of hashtags and memes to aid its growth and proliferation in the consciousness of the public.

There is an underlying work of fiction that surrounds this so-called movement, which for all intents and purposes is more of a discursive device to rally the rage to advance its presence in people’s consciousness, rather than as an objective and material description of tyranny as concretely experienced. Thus, its chief architects, many of whom should know better, convert tyranny from a very specific political construct into a political fiction, and misappropriate the term to describe what their movement would like to work against.

Political scientists worth their academic credentials can easily tell you that while President Duterte may be good material for parodying as a despot, he is in fact far from being a tyrant.

Contrary to what tyranny actually means, the President doesn’t have absolute power. He doesn’t even have the ability to bamboozle the Commission on Appointments to confirm his cabinet nominees, more so the totalizing power to silence his critics. All his so-called dictatorial tendencies which his critics rant about, from declaring martial law in Mindanao to burying Ferdinand Marcos, were affirmed by the Supreme Court.

But this is not surprising. After all, this is the very same crowd that keeps on inflicting on the Filipino public that mythology that EDSA was a revolution, and that Ninoy is a hero.

But the assault on well-settled constructs in political science in the name of advancing political interests is not the monopoly of the anti-Duterte crowd. Even some among the pro-Duterte social media defenders also fall into the trap of conjuring political mythologies.

There are people who, frustrated with the structural impediments to the reform agenda of the President, advocate for a revolutionary government. They passionately, actively and incessantly propagate this view in social media, matched with a hashtag, even if a revolutionary government is proclaimed only within the bounds of a real revolution, and not just an imagined one.

The age of the internet and social media has opened a lot of opportunities for political imagination. Contentious politics, even before the onset of cyber-mediated political contestations, have already been the nesting ground for fertile minds that were responsible for revolutionary art, graffiti and performance. The social media has just digitized and democratized access to these creative imaginations as inputs to virtual rebellions of the so-called trolls and “tards” of all political colors and kinds.

However, a word of caution is in order here.

We have to be cautious that we don’t turn the politics of resistance into a venue where paper revolutionaries emerge, and where activism is simply turned into role playing in a political performance where success is measured by the number of likes and followers, and not by actual change.

And both the critics and supporters of President Duterte are prone to commit that mistake.

For the antis, it is ironic that those who call out memes showing the President’s face juxtaposed with the image of a soldier are the very same people who have photoshopped tyranny into an imagined construct to aid their political agenda.

And for the pros, it is ironic that those who consider EDSA’s so-called revolution as a synthetic mythology created to legitimize elite politics would again appropriate the word “revolution” devoid of its reality.

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