MARIA Ressa has complained that the problems which her company Rappler is now facing are caused by Facebook. She also credits the social media giant for turning then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte into President Rodrigo Duterte through sheer fakery and manipulation, and accuses it of being a tool that favors authoritarian rule.
Maria Ressa should be told that Facebook is not her problem. It is her politics, and that of Rappler.
After all, social media platforms like Facebook are just communication technologies that are freely and equally accessible to everyone, and to every politician, political party and political organization.
In fact, Facebook was used by all national and even most local candidates during the 2016 elections. Furthermore, the Liberal Party which was then in power had access to more sophisticated, well-organized and well-equipped social media machinery compared to the other candidates, including President Duterte.
Using Facebook for political propaganda admittedly can distort democratic discourse. The use of fake news and the deployment of paid trolls to attack other candidates are tactics that are now enabled by this social media platform. It is also proven that political operators can procure likes and follows not necessarily to commit electoral fraud, but to project a bandwagon and create an image of a groundswell of support to influence undecided voters to shift.
But Maria Ressa should know that these are tactics that are also equally available to all candidates, and are not the monopoly of anyone candidate. Unless Ressa can prove that these otherwise unethical and highly questionable tactics were used solely by the Duterte camp, and not by other candidates, then she doesn’t have a case. These tactics did not work for the defeated candidates, and thus to say that these are responsible for the electoral success of President Duterte is illogical and doesn’t have a firm ground to stand on.
Mar Roxas had his own social media army, and these were much better paid and more organized, but it was not enough to make him win.
This is because it is not the technology that makes candidacies rise or fall. Technologies are only as good as the political realities that characterize the voter dynamics prevailing among the main base of supporters of a particular candidate.
President Duterte won because his voter base was populated by people demanding change and tired of exclusionary and corrupt politics. This anger and frustration was buttressed by the massive constituency brought about by the Bongbong Marcos voters who went for a Duterte-Marcos split ticket. Driven by loyalty to the Marcos brand, this significant base was enough to give Duterte a huge margin that no computerized electoral fraud can demolish. Unfortunately, Bongbong Marcos had not accumulated a comfortable enough margin to provide him protective ground against any possible election manipulation.
Anger, frustration and dreaming for change when juxtaposed with loyalty to a political brand are things that could not easily be swayed by fake news, or by Facebook posts and likes. In fact, it is the former that can cause people to intensify their use of social media to articulate their politics.
Mar Roxas failed despite his access to and disposal of a well-oiled social media army that had even existed prior to the campaign, because his political narrative, coupled with his contrived political optics, that did not evoke sincerity, did not connect with the real voters. His social class, and the political party to which he belonged, was a brand that no social media campaign could ever successfully sell to angry and disgusted voters.
After all, robots and algorithms can only generate phantom likes and follows on a candidate’s social media account, but this cannot be translated into actual votes.
In this context, Maria Ressa is so misinformed to claim social media manipulation as the basis for President Duterte’s electoral victory. It did not work for Mar Roxas precisely because his political narrative was destined to be a loser in the face of a political landscape demanding for change. President Duterte carried that narrative with a vengeance, with or without social media.
It is easy to over-estimate the power of social media in elections and political campaigns. In fact, social media is a potent tool of any government to consolidate its support, or of any social movement or advocacy to widen its reach.
But during periods of intense political contestations, such as during elections, where everyone competes for the people’s vote, social media technology used ethically, as well as unethically, becomes a resource that all parties and politicians can use. During electoral campaigns, the key is no longer the use of social media per se but on how it is able to link to the prevailing sentiments of the electorate.
Social media was successfully used in the Arab Spring, or by Barack Obama, and Donald Trump because there was a prevailing climate favorable to the brand of politics that was being proffered or preferred. Citizens from affected countries in North Africa and the Middle East were reeling from oppressive structures during the period of the Arab spring. The liberalism that was strongly felt by the voter base tired of Republicans that elected Obama waned and was replaced by a conservative backlash fueled by the rise of jingoistic, protectionist, anti-immigration sentiments that elected Trump.
Recently however, Trump’s popularity has suffered a reversal and plummeted to unprecedented lows. Republicans are getting clobbered in special elections, even in deeply conservative Alabama. This happens despite his incessant tweeting.
This only proves that social media is not the god that makes candidates rise or fall.
It is the dreams, pains and anger of the people that make candidates win or lose.
Maria Ressa should know that Rappler is losing a lot of its readers not because of social media. It is losing because she and her gang who are supposed to be neutral and objective journalists, chose a losing, unpopular side that is the object of the people’s anger.