It was a show in itself. Not as scandalous, not as news worthy, but certainly fascinating in its unfolding.
Too often in this country Pinoy social media reveals itself for what it actually is: a space where the privileged throw tantrums when they do not get their way. A space where judgments about individuals and the world are on overdrive, and therefore are wont to lack compassion and kindness. A space where our biases and critical limits are revealed and magnified ten-fold which is how social media and the Internet work.
These limits are revealed given the issues we cannot discuss, because it is too complex, too difficult. Say the demolition of squatters on Agham Road, or the continued violence in Hacienda Luisita and Hacienda Dolores, or the violence in Mindanao after the celebration over the Bangsamoro Agreement. These are not touched with a ten-foot pole.
But a celebrity in crisis? Ah, Pinoy social media rise to the occasion, take sides, and complete the experience with photos and memes and funny blog entries. And then so many others raise their fists and scream at us for not talking about more important things. One wonders: what are these more important things? And why are these people not talking about it either if these are so important?
Framing this narrative
When Vhong Navarro’s mauling landed on mainstream news, the Pinoy elite on social media started talking about it vis-a-vis the need for public safety. We are in a world that’s becoming more dangerous we were told, and we should all hope that the perpetrators are brought to justice. It’s a valid enough perspective, a frame that levels up the discussion to include the rest of us.
At that point we had no idea what exactly happened, and while stories floated and a police blotter was found, there was no clear sense of who was where, and how exactly this guy we saw on nationwide television every day for nine years could get this battered and bruised. But with his signature on a police blotter dated the same night he was mauled, it was only a matter of time before Vhong would do an almost tell-all on nationwide TV.
Now the choice to do it on Buzz Ng Bayan is important because that framed the narrative as a showbiz story—not a story that was in the mainstream just yet, not quite for the evening news. But Vhong named names, and more than the girl in whose condominium he was beaten black and blue, it was the man whose name and face he remembers clearly.
It was the girl and the man who made it to the evening news, while Vhong’s was merely a showbiz story. The girl and the man would be interviewed, not for the showbiz segments of mainstream news shows; they were interviewed as part of the headlines—complete with live tweeting of the girl’s first interview. I tend to think mainstream media was desperate to take control of this story, because social media was on a roll. The moment Vhong mentioned those names, people began Googling, and by the time that interview was over, photos of the girl and the man went up on social media.
The sympathy was squarely on the side of Vhong, but that is because he is comedienne and TV host now black and blue and crying; the sympathy was squarely on the side of Vhong especially for his home network ABS-CBN. I cannot imagine any of our networks handling it any differently though: this much has been obvious about Pinoy mainstream media, online and otherwise.
It is biased, it will protect its own and its interests, and its got plenty reasons to keep the Vhong story moving given TV ratings and profits. That can be said for any of the other networks, and even new media sites: money speaks, and they listen. We should know that by now.
Hear them roar
Social media meanwhile is the venue for discussions that the mainstream cannot handle. And this is really what we’ve missed about this Vhong story: while we might get angry at the way in which it took over the news, it’s entirely possible that what we are reacting to is how it has bombarded our days with dis-/information and opinion.
That is not just the work of mainstream media, as it is the work of the social media spaces we inhabit, if not the conversations we might have with strangers on the street.
That is popular culture at work. And in the case of Vhong, there is a mass following that we are now encountering in our virtual spaces, a Vhong’s mass audience that we rarely encounter, despite all claims to us being one huge Filipino community online.
Meanwhile, the educated and elite do not know Vhong from Adam, and cannot understand the time and space that’s been spent talking about his story. But that is the crisis of the elite vis-a-vis mass culture isn’t it? The elite just don’t get it.
But also they cannot level up. They can talk about bringing perpetrators to justice and safety in these dangerous times, but cannot engage in a discussion about the powerful thinking they can get away with beating a guy black and blue. This elite can engage on the level of memes and laughter, but will disengage the moment the discussion levels-up to class struggle, discrimination, tolerance. The educated will make fun of the ways Vhong’s name is spelled, and then dismiss what has happened to him and the media frenzy about it to be a passing fancy.
This is really the undoing of the Pinoy elite—and suddenly we know who they are, as they ask questions like “Vhong who?” The assertion that we must talk about more important things reeks of their own privilege, as they throw their weight around and tell the rest of us what to do. As if they themselves discuss the more complex socio-political issues when it is timely and urgent. As if doing the latter should mean disengaging from other issues in the realm of popular culture.
Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to engage with the mass audience that is rallying behind Vhong, and is suddenly interested in discussing rape charges, violence and extortion, our social media elite— which is to say our Pinoy elite —has decided to disengage. And I have a sinking feeling it’s not because of some larger issues that they would like to discuss (because you know, they have yet to), but really because of this: it’s showbiz, it’s baduy, and that’s ewww.
How’s that for nothing new.