Political labor, the ‘bayaran’ and media contestations

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

TO be accused of being a “bayaran” is considered offensive by people who render their free time, free of charge, and in fact end up using their own resources, working for a particular political cause, or supporting a particular political personality or candidate.

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Lately, it has been deployed as a pejorative hurled at social media personalities, mainly pro-Duterte, but also used against the anti-Duterte personalities, as a way to diminish the legitimacy of the kind of political labor that they render.

It is now assumed that paid political labor is always suspect and only those engaged in social media manipulation are guilty of this offense.

With the onset of the Internet, and of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, political mobilization has gone beyond actual participation in political rallies and demonstrations. Handheld mobile phones, personal laptops and tablets have provided a new venue for political advocacy. Anyone who has access to these, or an internet café, can participate in political contestations.

Thus, the traditional rallyists have been turned into keyboard warriors.

At the outset, it must be made clear that politics is about power. From the time people began organizing themselves into political communities, politics has always been about the mobilization of resources vis-à-vis political power. In fact, politics is less about facts and truth, and more about the structures and processes that would appropriate power in the production of truth, or the appropriation of truth as an instrument for the retention or capture of power.

Many people are scandalized by the word “propaganda,” and many lament the alleged dissolution of the age of truth at a time when there is so much social media manipulation in the so-called era of “post-truth.”

And the prevailing tone is one of condemnation of how politics could now succumb to the operation of organized trolls who are paid to turn politics into a domain of post-truth, as if this is a new phenomenon. People forget that only the technologies may have changed, but politics has always been a game of power, where actors are engaged in discursive contestations, and the manipulation of minds.

And while there are indeed freedom fighters, rebels, revolutionaries, and advocates who are willing to render free political labor, it is not entirely new that many of those who commit time and effort in the production, reproduction and transformation of political power are in fact paid for their efforts.

An article written by Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard of the University of Oxford entitled “Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation” came out with the conclusion that “organized social media manipulation occurs in many countries around the world. In authoritarian regimes, it tends to be the government that funds and coordinates propaganda campaigns in social media. In democracies, it tends to be the political parties that are the primary organizers of social media manipulation.”

These findings are not new. They simply affirm what has already been established, albeit in an incomplete manner and limited by the fact that it is a result of a qualitative research applying content analysis of selected documents and sources that presumably have their own biases.

In democratic contexts, however, the Oxford paper failed to go beyond political parties, and has therefore missed the culpability of traditional media organizations in social media manipulation.

For example, in the Philippines, all major news organizations have their own social media operations. Rappler, in fact, is solely a web-based operation. We should take note that these media organizations have been proven to be engaged in manipulation of the message, depending on their own political biases. And the people who do this are in fact paid.

So, it is therefore an anomaly when people who are engaged in political labor in the Internet, through their social media accounts, should be the only one demonized as trolls that threaten democratic discourse, and be treated as the only troublemakers.

Critical media studies, even during the period prior to the Internet, have already exposed the dangers of mass media to democracy. A news organization that publishes unverified facts and slanted stories, or have publishers, editors, anchors and reporters who have known political biases, are as dangerous as those that they condemn as bearers of fake news.

And unlike political workers in social media where indeed a few can render paid work under the control of political operators but most are doing it out of their sheer commitment to a political cause or personality, people who work in a biased news organization and who embody that bias are also “bayaran” because they are in fact paid.

In the end, the delegitimization of social media as the only haven for “trolls, troops and troublemakers” is less about protecting truth and democracy, and more about the survival of an industry. Readerships in broadsheets are going down.

Newspapers and networks are losing money. Decent and professional media organizations are unfortunately now suffering the fate which their more indecent and trollish colleagues in the industry have brought on them when people migrated to Mocha Uson because they could no longer trust and believe Rappler and the Inquirer, and because Pia Ranada, Maria Ressa and Raissa Robles are no longer seen as lesser threats to democracy.

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