January-June 2004
Special Election Issue
The Campaign

Campaigns on the high-tech road

Properly harnessed, new technology can be used to win votes and influence election discourse.

Katropa.com runs an online and SMS-driven campaign center to help Raul Roco’s presidential bid.

FORGET receiving text jokes or sweet messages from now till the end of the canvassing of votes — at least if you’re a supporter of presidential candidate Raul Roco. And if Katropa had its way, even those outside the Roco loop would instead be receiving more messages like this right about: “Good day. Join the KATROPA ni Roco Motorcade on Sun, Feb 8 @ 7 am. Assembly @ UP Diliman Oblation, University Ave. Bring ur friends…pls pass, thanks.”

With one out of four Filipinos now owning a cell phone — and the ownership cutting across social classes — viral text messages like the one above have become a convenient way for a candidate’s supporters to enlist warm bodies in sorties across the country. Katropa, a multisectoral organization running an online campaign center to advance the bid of Roco, the Alyansa ng Pag-asa (Alliance of Hope) bet, is in fact only one among many in the campaign with text brigades. It is, though, perhaps the most relentless in circulating messages via the mobile phone’s SMS (short message service) among its members, who are then encouraged to relay these to their own circle of friends and relatives.

Downloadable ring tones and logos, celebrity-texting promos, real-time news updates, and other widely popular wireless services have provided media campaign strategists with models for replication in what is turning out to be a media-dominated campaign. And so while the actual polls looks like they will still be done in a highly manual way, Filipinos may yet witness a high-tech campaign like no other in the country’s election history.

The way Alyansa campaign manager Jaime Galvez Tan sees it, this year’s elections will be a defining moment for information and communications technologies (ICTs). He singles out the cell phone — or, more precisely, its killer application in SMS — as a vital tool in the current campaign. Just six years ago, when Roco first made a run for the presidency, mobile telephony was not yet as popular. “Even during Edsa II (where text messages were credited for mobilizing the civilian uprising that led to the ouster of Pres. Joseph Estrada), there were less than 10 million cell-phone users,” recalls Tan.

Today, close to 22 million Filipinos subscribe to a mobile-phone service. Software allowing communication with cell-phone users are also now available, Tan points out, making the ubiquitous mobile the closest one could get to a killer campaign tool.

Still, it’s not the only high-tech device being employed in the current campaign. The decidedly younger voters are making sure the new technologies of their generation are spicing it up, and that means going beyond a popular hand-held gizmo. Indeed, in recent years, the benefits of technology have managed to turn the political exercise less of a throwback from the first-ever held local polls in Bulacan more than a century ago, resulting in campaigns that have become more and more wired.

The Internet has even encouraged online campaigning not just by candidates but also by individuals and organizations wishing to contribute to voter awareness-raising and education. Since the 1998 presidential elections, private citizen-led efforts carrying a strong anti-trapo (traditional politician) sentiment to enlighten voters about their chosen candidates have come and gone. Marvin Bionat’s Philippine Update continues to have a section on elections and has recently spawned an online movement called Talsik! (short for its battlecry Tanggalin ang mga Linta, Sagabal, Inutil at Kurakot sa Gobyerno!). A mailing list, Talsik e-group, serves as a venue for advocates of good governance to address and find ways to solve corruption and incompetence in government.

The May 2001 polls, meanwhile, gave birth to election portals like eBantay.com, Vote.ph, Whotovote.com, e-Leksiyon.com, Halalan2001.com, pinoyelections.net. These invariably contained election-related information and databases covering national and local bets.

Today, the profiles, platforms and stands on issues of the presidential, vice-presidential and senatorial candidates are offered by independent sites like Election2004.ph, VoteWisely.com, philelection.com, and the special coverage of the mainstream media, in particular the Philippine Daily Inquirer and GMA Network’s Eleksyon 2004 and ABS-CBN’s Halalan ’04.

A feature of Election2004.ph allows supporters to donate campaign websites for their candidates for a fee.

Election2004.ph is maintained as a free service by SparrowInteractive.com, a small Filipino-owned web development company. The site has run into a glitch, though. A month into the campaign, visitors to the site were still asking for the data on the candidates. According to site administrator Arnold Gamboa, obtaining the information turned out more difficult than they had anticipated. “We found out that only few of them use the Internet,” he says. “So we have to ‘manually’ get their profiles by meeting with them (or their campaign team).”

Election2004.ph decided to experiment on new features that allow candidates or their campaign team to submit their profiles to the site. Another feature lets supporters donate a campaign website for their candidates complete with a dotcom domain and two email addresses for a one-time fee of P50,000. Presidential candidate Eddie Villanueva, who now has a donated website hosted by Election2004.ph, is even inviting supporters to text his campaign (2950) if they want to volunteer their services.

For the same fee a month, national candidates can also join VoteWisely.com’s discussion forums, interact with voters, and have their profiles posted on the website.

Looser in feel and content are the weblogs or blogs written by politics-obsessed netizens who have dedicated their pages to election-related information, either as a news-filtering service or plain self-indulgence. The beauty of some of the election blogs is that they are helping provide a critical appraisal of election issues and are therefore an alternative reading fare to what is found in the media. Among the more interesting reads are entries in weblogs like A Sassy Lawyer in Philippine Suburbia, Crazy Pundit, and Bulletproof Vest: Elections 2004.

Techies, however, say weblogs can also be useful to candidates who need a direct communications channel to get their views across to the voting populace. Because blogs employ a recent technique in RSS (short for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication), a syndication format for sharing headlines and other Web content, news and information from a variety of sources — candidates, political parties, the media, and even fellow bloggers — are easily collated, distributed and made available to users.

AMONG THE candidates — national and local — Raul Roco seems to be running the most technologically driven campaign. In part, that may be because young professionals and students make up the backbone of his supporters. Aside from having a growing cell phone-based network, Katropa boasts of a website that also serves as a venue for online organizing efforts to expand Roco’s army of volunteers, especially among the youth. Since December last year, about 500 people have signed up with the group, expressing support for the former education secretary and volunteering for his campaign activities.

With sites like Katropa.com, the Roco campaign seems to be the most technologically driven among the presidentiables.

Roco volunteer groups based overseas also have their online presence, the passage of the Overseas Absentee Voting Act providing an impetus for their Internet-based campaigning. The groups, which are under the Volunteers for Roco Global (V4R Global) umbrella, rely more on electronic-mailing lists and discussion boards to reach out to fellow overseas Filipinos, as well as to disseminate information about latest events relating to the Roco campaign and scheduled events in their areas. Mobile application provider Chikka‘s instant messenger service, which offers free text messaging from one’s PC to any mobile phone anywhere in the world, has also proved very handy for these groups.

Alyansa has also ventured into online campaign fund-raising, though probably not on such a massive scale waged by then U.S. presidential aspirant Howard Dean before he bowed out of the Democratic Party primaries. Via the popular online payment service Paypal, Roco’s overseas sites are asking for donations from a dollar to $250 to finance campaign activities abroad and in the Philippines. For a minimum contribution of $15, a donor gets a VCD presentation of Roco’s “Message of Hope” tour in the United States and Canada.

Back here in the Philippines, youth volunteers are being tapped to take Roco’s place in remote rural communities that he cannot visit personally. Tan says the volunteers will be armed with donated laptops and VCDs to introduce Roco and the Alyansa campaign platform to the communities. Another strategy is to get volunteers to access the campaign website and download materials — including a variety of campaign jingles in MP3 format and the Alayansa’s “Huwag Ipanakaw ang Bukas” MTV — from a local cybercafé for reprinting and distribution among the villagers.

The Roco camp is no stranger to a high-tech-heavy campaign. Back in 1998, the then senator was the more technology-friendly among his fellow presidential candidates, and made the Internet an integral part of his campaign. His website, which earned a “Featured Site of the Day” citation from Ken Ilio’s Filipino links site, Tanikalang Ginto, was the only regularly updated candidate’s site, carrying daily press releases on his campaign trail. It also contained a detailed party philosophy, vision and program under a Roco presidency not found in the other candidates’ sites, and even featured an interactive chat program for online users.

Today, the only other national candidate waging an online campaign is Senator Panfilo ‘Ping’ Lacson, though his sites — www.pinglacson.ph, www.888.ph, www.pl.888.ph — are not on a par with the sophistication with online tools exhibited by those of Roco. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean Lacson’s camp doesn’t appreciate the wonders of the Web. Long before the filing of candidacy of the presidential bets, his wards managed to invade online forums discussing Philippine politics, engaging people in a spirited, though often acrimonious, debate on the virtues of a Lacson presidency.

With official websites — www.op.gov.ph, www.gov.ph — at her disposal, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s campaign handlers probably figured they have no need for a campaign-oriented site. Technology-wise though, the president’s personal machinery is reportedly benefiting from the heavy emphasis on databases involving voter demographic data and information analytics — something to be expected with veteran political strategist Ronaldo Puno at the helm. One insider also says that campaign monitoring is done through SMS, with an assigned number for reporting on the status of campaign activities and for relaying requests to be acted upon by a national campaign council.

FOR THIS year’s elections, text messaging does seem to be the much sought-after application given the technology’s effectiveness in the immediate delivery of information, not to mention the fanciness of the medium. That is not at all surprising since the 2001 midterm elections saw massive information being passed on for the first time as part of campaigns.

The effectiveness of mobile phones as a tool of political mobilization was first demonstrated in Edsa 2.

Yet in the absence of any guidelines from the Commission on Elections (Comelec) so far, politicians and political parties as well as mobile-phone operators have been treading the high-tech road more cautiously. Besides, what many candidates want is a broadcast platform capable of sending messages to millions of cell-phone users in an instant. As one seasoned strategist puts it, “A creative pitch for a candidate can start with a person sending it to 10 people. Assuming a low pass-on rate of three to five more people down the line, you can already reach a minimum of 90 people at the third level. Imagine if you are equipped to send out SMS to a million (phone) numbers in an hour?”

This SMS-based campaign strategy will, however, require clearance from the poll body owing to concerns about its nature as election propaganda under the Fair Elections Act. Carriers Globe Telecom and Smart Communications have also expressed apprehension about being seen as engaging in patently partisan activities. At the same time, privacy issues and the potential congestion of the networks will have to abide by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) guidelines.

But at least one wireless application developer is offering a way out of this fix. According to Mobile Arts, its standalone computer-based application, Politxt, will suit the needs of political campaign organizations. “It’s just like buying a cell phone, so you don’t need to formally interconnect with the operators,” says Mobile Arts president and CEO Ramon Duremdes Jr. “You just need to have this software loaded into your PC with a phone or cable connection.”

To harness the power of SMS, Politxt requires the use of a GSM modem (Nokia 30), which comes with a prepaid SIM (subscriber identity module) card that provides the organization with its own mobile phone number. The program’s basic functionality consists of broadcast text messaging, two-way interaction with the public, and group texting.

These functions can also be used to manage the internal operations of the organization. Group text, for instance, can be used to securely file reports from the field regarding the status of campaign activities and updates during election day and until the counting and canvassing of votes. Messages are displayed on the computer screen in a spreadsheet format that allows ease of responding and organizing the field reports.

With the latest phone models equipped with cameras and video recorders now in vogue, reporting can also be spiced up by multimedia messaging service (MMS) content in pictures, video, and audio clips. (Of course like any technology, SMS and MMS can be used to further sinister ends, too. One campaign operator says some groups are already planning to use text messaging in facilitating the monitoring of early election results at precinct level so they quickly conduct dagdag-bawas operations in the areas where their candidates are weak.)

Since launching Politxt in February, Duremdes says his company has received a lot of inquiries from interested campaign operators. But he expects a market for the software more from candidates running for local posts. “In many local contests, this could spell an important difference especially in areas with a relatively urban constituency,” he says. “Knowing how to use the software for certain segments of the voting population, like the youth, could have very potent results.”

Should the Comelec give its nod to current proposals to use SMS in the campaigns, another company, Chikka, is also offering via the operators a text newsletter platform similar to the one being used by alumni organizations. The platform allows the candidate or his/her administrator to send a regular SMS newsletter to subscribers following an opt-in arrangement. This means that subscribers first agree to have their phone numbers registered to the service to protect consumers from getting all sorts of campaign content without their permission.

A similar opt-in subscription service called Tambuli Txt is also being introduced by the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA) — with Chikka’s technical support — initially to party-list organizations for the present campaign, and then eventually to civil-society organizations. FMA president Alan Alegre says that as an automated community text service, Tambuli Txt is envisioned to “harness the potential of cell phones as a tool for development, and SMS as a cheap and effective communications strategy for citizens and communities.”

Application providers, however, warn against the perils of broadcast messaging. “It’s always risky,” insists Duremdes. “And I don’t believe that a presidential campaign should indiscriminately send out millions of messages as this just might backfire. It’s not a software issue. It’s more of PR (public relations). You can misuse it by sending messages to people who hate receiving such messages.”

What is important then is a message that is compelling enough for people to pass it on and for them not to opt out of the service. An organization should thus have very good content managers who also appreciate the medium. Notes Chikka’s Junie Agcaoili: “This is a very different medium with its own language. And they have to deliver information packaged in 160 to 320 characters.”