Social media wars, the PCOO and the President



WHEN the enemy was PinoyAko Blog, or Silent No More, or Madam Claudia, or even Maria Ressa and her Rappler gang, the disunity among pro-Duterte bloggers was portrayed as clear evidence that there is diversity, and hence an indication of being independent from and un-financed by Malacañang.

But the moment the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO)—one of whose missions is to serve as the primary vehicle for consciousness raising, constituency building and social mobilization in support of the policies, programs and projects of the presidency—established a social media unit, with an undersecretary and an assistant secretary appointed to oversee social media, the pro-Duterte social media took on a different function. They were now transformed into partners and assets in the communication work of the Office of the President.

It is precisely because of this that we need to finely distinguish the role of mainstream media, which is supposed to be independent from Malacañang, and pro-Duterte social media that is now for all intents and purposes part of the President’s communication apparatus. On their part, and while performing similar work in social media, independent bloggers, or those that are allied with the opposition and are critics of the government, are also performing their equivalent function, but in support of independent or adversarial partisan political interests.

It is here that the idea of accrediting social media and providing them access to media briefings in Malacañang may be problematic. Partisan social media, whether pro-administration or opposition, can very well be briefed by their own principals. If there is any social media accreditation that must be given access to Malacañang press briefings, it should be those who at the very least are non-partisan and independent.

As for pro-Duterte bloggers, whatever claims they have of independence is now negated by the very nature of their role as supporters of the President. This, however, does not translate to them being paid bloggers, for it is a fact that many of them continue to do their social media engagements without financial, and even logistical, support from the government. One can even argue that the labor they render, in contrast to the workers in the various communication offices of government, is steeped with opportunity cost. They use their own resources and time to perform functions in support of government, which could otherwise be used or spent for other purposes, and which would otherwise be paid if they do these as employees of corporations or private entities. After all, social media operators working for private parties, even politicians, get financial remuneration for performing social media-related intellectual labor.

One can easily write a column on the political economy of social media labor, but that is a topic for another day.

The issue for now is that pro-Duterte bloggers, albeit unpaid, are considered as assets by the Duterte administration. They technically perform the line functions of producing content, posting in social media platforms, and doing battle with critics in promoting, explaining and defending to the public the President’s policies, programs and pronouncements. Thus, it is now in the best interest of the President that the rights of these assets are protected, even as standards should be set to ensure that they are uncompromised and are credible. These will require the PCOO to perform the staff functions that consist of support mechanisms. This should be the main focus of the PCOO’s social media unit.

It is in this context then that one has to seriously address the prevailing social media wars among pro-Duterte bloggers. All of these bloggers have one way or the other come out as openly supportive of the President. This stance is matched by the content of what they write, and the optics offered by the graphics in their social media accounts as well as the pictures they post with the President or other government officials taken during official and social events.

It is convenient to believe that as long as all the bloggers support the President, that it doesn’t matter if they are at each other’s throats, trying to undermine each other’s credibility. However, while it is easy to dismiss these as petty quarrels between people with big egos and strong personalities, it could easily dent the President’s image as well as efforts to govern.

When one blogger attacks another and cause the diminution of his or her credibility, then that is one presidential communication asset being compromised. When another blogger commands his or her thousands of followers to unfollow those who displease him or her, and these followers obey his command, then that is one communication engagement pathway for the President being taken down. And all of these are done without the help of the opposition social media.

One can easily dismiss these as damage that has no actual costs for Malacañang. After all, these are all unpaid services in which government has not invested any taxpayer’s money.

However, there are also more insidious political costs that can undermine the President. He will become a lame duck after the 2019 elections. He would therefore need a more supportive Congress to enable him to continue governing effectively until the end of his term. A unified communication infrastructure would be critical in this regard. And a fractious, warring, pro-Duterte social media landscape in disarray can effectively inflict some serious damage.

The PCOO, particularly its social media unit, must try really try hard to perform its staff functions to pro-Duterte social media to ensure that the very reason for its existence doesn’t implode. And in order to do that, it must also be above the fray, and must present a credible, neutral and supportive role to all bloggers, major or minor, top-tier or otherwise. Any appearance of being a participant in the conflict, or being partial towards one group or personality, could become its own undoing.


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