First of Two Parts
IT’S STILL a game of cat and mouse, and when the cat is away, the mouse clicks like crazy.
When the Commission on Elections (Comelec) started strictly enforcing campaign spending regulations in traditional media in the 2010 presidential elections, many political candidates circumvented the spending limits by shifting their campaign advertisements online, a platform that was still largely unregulated by Comelec.
But when Comelec also started trying to regulate spending in what it calls online propaganda in the just concluded 2013 midterm elections, candidates again adjusted their strategies — this time by putting their money and resources in the wild and wooly world of social media.
The online battle for votes in the last elections saw a noticeable shift in online campaign strategies from formal and overt online political advertisements in static websites, to the more heavily engaged, freewheeling, and freer, but not necessarily cheaper, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
“The reason we included online advertising in the implementing rules is because there was so much of it in 2010,” Comelec spokesman James Jimenez says. “(But in 2013) there were less online advertisements with the static sites.”
But he notes that despite the decrease in online political ads, there was still a marked increase in the presence of candidates online. “There was a lot more candidate presence online, but usually it was on Facebook, it was on Twitter,” says Jimenez. “Social media talaga ngayon.”
“There seems to be less political ads (online), but there were more social media campaigns,” Juned Sonido, a popular blogger, emerging media consultant, and social media analyst, also says. “The campaigns went from the box advertisements on the sides (of static websites), to the social media channels for certain candidates.”
Not static sites
What this means is that candidates and their parties may appear to have spent less for direct, overt online political advertisements that were for the first time strictly monitored by Comelec. These online political ads are supposed to be reported as election expenditures, covered by limits on size, frequency, and cost, when candidates and their parties submit their Statement of Election Contributions and Expenditures (SECE) to Comelec. The deadline for submission of these SECE is on Thursday, June 13, or 30 days after the May 13 elections.
But what this could also mean is that candidates and their parties realized they could get away with online election spending by putting their money and resources in the unregulated and largely unmonitored world of social media, which Comelec has essentially declared a free-for-all domain.
The reasons for the shift appear to be two-fold: First, Comelec has declared that it will only regulate online political advertisements, and that it cannot monitor and regulate social media, thus leaving that avenue open for political parties and candidates to throw money in. Second, many candidates and their strategies have discovered that the Internet, while full of promises and potential, is also full of pitfalls, especially if the candidate and his advisers are not even tech-savvy enough to know why a mouse would need a pad of his own.
In the 2010 presidential elections, Comelec had begun a more vigorous monitoring of campaign spending by local and national candidates, an area that had largely been left untouched by previous commissions. For decades, Comelec had only been concerned with getting people to vote, and then getting the votes counted, and hopefully counted right. With the new emphasis on campaign-finance reform, Comelec was telling candidates that money should not be the primary determinant of a candidate’s chances of winning.
Under the country’s antiquated campaign finance laws, most candidates are allowed to spend only three pesos for every registered voting constituent; five pesos per registered voter if the candidate is an independent; and five pesos per registered voter for political parties and party-list groups. Candidates for president and vice president have it better, although not by much: they are allowed to spend 10 pesos for every registered voter.
With the 2010 crackdown on campaign spending in mainstream media, national candidates were soon flooding online sites with political propaganda, hoping to capture the hearts, minds, and votes of the citizens who are reputed to belong to the social media capital of the world (See related story).
Presidential, vice presidential, and senatorial candidates placed political advertisements in entertainment and news websites, aggregators, and social media sites, maximizing the impact of the Internet’s dynamic nature and the online community’s culture of engagement to pull in more votes.
At that time, Comelec had surrendered the World Wide Web in its entirety to the political candidates of 2010; there was simply too much on the Commission’s plate.
But on January 15, 2013, Comelec took a bold step into the new frontier: it issued Resolution No. 9615, or the Rules and Regulations Implementing Republic Act No. 9006 (Fair Elections Act) for the May 13, 2013 midterm elections. In the resolution, for the first time, Comelec recognized the Web as a platform for political campaigns that must also be monitored, regulated, and covered by campaign finance rules.
Section 9 of the resolution is devoted exclusively to the political use of the Internet, or what Comelec calls “online election propaganda.” The resolution, for example, limits the frequency of an online campaign advertisement to a maximum of three times a week per website during the campaign period.
Interestingly, Comelec went as far as to detail the allowed dimensions and formats for these online political ads, which are far more dynamic than the traditional ads seen on common poster areas, or in print and broadcast media.
The Commission specified the width, height, and aspect ratios of everything from pop-ups, pop-unders, banners, micro-bars, buttons, leaderboards, and skyscrapers — all online advertising formats recognized by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), an organization that develops standards for the online advertising industry.
Out of touch
But blogger Pierre Tito Galla, who also represents the online group Democracy.Net.PH, observes, “The rules on online political ads are quite out of touch with technological realities. The frequency and manner by which ads appear are based on algorithm results, generally not based on deliberate posting of individual ads by those who own or operate the online real estate.”
“As such,” he says, “while we can laud the Comelec for taking online campaigns seriously, there is a bit of disconnect on the idea of monitoring and enforcement.”
For sure, advertising on the Web is many times easier compared to print and other offline media. But the Web’s dynamic nature also ensures that advertising may at the same time be complex — especially for those who need to monitor it. The online advertising model exists in many forms, but only some of it can fit Comelec’s definition of political advertising, and barely so.
At its simplest form, an ad can simply be an image or a text link, similar to what you’d see on an online newspaper. It is not uncommon for large websites to directly sell ad space on its web pages, and this is the primary form of online advertising that is best policed and covered by the Commission’s guidelines.
The guidelines, though, also assumes jurisdiction — something not as straightforward on the Net. For instance, a website catering to Filipino users, yet owned by a foreign entity and served from beyond Philippine borders, may not be directly covered by Philippine laws, depending on one’s interpretation.
The guidelines also fail to account for other online advertising models like those used in Google AdWords/AdSense and similar services, where the advertisements appear on algorithm-derived locations elsewhere on the Web.
A site publisher using the AdSense service cannot realistically account for instances of a political ad on its site, as these programs determine what is served to a reader based on “personalized profiles,” which typically include location, gender, age, and other demographics.
Not quite cheap
Contrary to popular perception, online ads do not always come cheap, although they may be cheaper than primetime television ads. Philippine Entertainment Portal, one of the most popular online sites in the country, charges P105,000 for a 60-kilobyte leaderboard that measures 728 by 180 pixels, with a minimum buy of 300,000 impressions.
More dynamic ads such as a floating ad, which floats across the user’s screen, costs P250,000. An interstitial ad — a full-page ad that appears before a user reaches their original destination — is priced at P650,000, according to PEP’s 2012 media kit. In comparison, a 30-second advertisement on primetime television could cost P400,000 each time the ad is shown.
Yet from most accounts, both from Comelec itself and social media experts, many of the 2013 candidates simply skirted the new Comelec rule (as well as the potentially big ad bills) by skipping the use of formal online ads and channeling their efforts instead into social media sites. In this manner, candidates also avoided the Comelec-imposed limits on online ad frequency, size, and spending.
While Comelec had seen fit to regulate the placement of formal political advertisements online, it is still unsure how to handle the more informal, and at times cantankerous, animal called social media. The Commission has been careful not to regulate social media, saying that the content here border on opinions and commentary more than on propaganda.
“We did not monitor any advertisements in private blogs as well,” says Jimenez. “For the most part, any mention of the candidates happened ‘in-line,’ or as part of blogposts, which puts their mention under the category of personal opinion, which we did not regulate.”
The reason for this is the need for that delicate balance to differentiate between online campaign propaganda, as Comelec describes it, and social and political commentary and opinion on social media. The first needs to be regulated by Comelec, if only to enforce campaign finance rules across all platforms both traditional and alternative; the second has always been the pride, and bane, of the freewheeling marketplace of ideas that is social media.
Commissioner Luie Tito Guia, one of Comelec’s campaign-finance experts, says the Commission was concerned that any attempt to regulate content in social media would run afoul of the right to free expression. He comments, “The problem is it is so difficult to regulate social media. Perhaps we should not regulate it, because we may get to the point where we would be violating the right to express, the freedom of expression.”
Nevertheless, candidates are clearly swarming over social media. Sonido, who has studied the dirty tricks used in online media even before the 2010 elections, says that some candidates have been using social media to attack rival candidates, or to create a false impression of support, or simply to generate more content about themselves. Some of the practices are benign, others are decidedly more unethical.
“A technique is to boost the number of followers of a personality in Twitter,” Sonido says. “Politicians would most likely tap social media people who are volunteers, or paid for, or both.”
“And yes, there are people who get paid to tweet, from P100, to really ridiculous amounts of cash,” Sonido adds. For example, he says, some commercial brands pay anywhere from as little as P300 to P80,000 for a personality to tweet in favor of a brand — whether the brand be a product, or a candidate.
Sonido says some candidates tapped into emerging new markets in social media — digital marketers, public relations, and social media managers. The expertise of these people is in making propaganda look like it is not so — that an election campaign is really a groundswell of support from the online crowd.
“Some were volunteers, while a number were paid for their services.” Sonido says. “What you pay for in social media channels is not the content itself, but the generation of content.”
For example, he says, the handlers of one candidate who committed a faux pas during a particular broadcast interview arranged for her to meet with select bloggers. While the bloggers themselves may not necessarily have been paid off by the candidate, “the coordinators of the agency that helped arrange the interview were,” says Sonido.
“When you do an online campaign, what you pay for is the means to generate content, whether by blog post, number of likes, number of followers, tweets, et cetera,” he also says. “You pay for people behind this who will design and execute a means so that people in social media will participate.”
Then there is the concept of astroturfing, which is not new in the online marketplace, but may already be making headway in online political campaigns. Astroturfing is a public-relations campaign that generates the impression of a groundswell of support, even though that support is really just manufactured. The term is derived from Astroturf, a brand of synthetic grass used in football stadiums.
In the online market, for example, astroturfing is said to be already taking place on an industrial scale. A study by computer science professor Bing Liu of the University of Illinois at Chicago that was published by the New York Times and the Guardian showed that at least a third of all online product reviews are actually fake, or paid reviews generated on a massive scale. In its own investigation, the Guardian found that astroturfing is even being outsourced to Third World freelancers.
“It could be that a number of candidates have social media consultants who are aware of astroturfing and content generating tactics,” says Sonido. “That’s why there are those holding contests for iPads, and in some cases, astroturfing of issues.”
PCIJ had such an experience just before the start of the campaign period. Almost immediately after a senatorial hopeful was mentioned in passing in one story in PCIJ’s institutional blog, at least five comments were posted — not about the story, but about the senatorial bet, in glowing terms. A quick check showed that all five comments, although signed by different people, came from the same Internet protocol address.
To be fair, some candidates simply avoided online political ads because there doesn’t seem much tangible value in them — yet. Others avoided digital forums completely, a reversal of the apparent trend in 2010 when almost all the major candidates scrambled for a chance to engage the online crowd. Says Sonido: “Candidates were more focused on pressing palms than on being online.”
“The opposition set the tone by really going to the grassroots more than anything,” Jimenez also says. “Look at their candidates — their candidates would eschew public forums, and even digital forums suffered from a lot of no-shows.”
Galla of Democracy.Net.PH, for his part, remarks, “Few political ads were seen to have been placed through online advertising networks. This to me is quite interesting. It shows that either politicians’ PR teams have not seen them as sufficiently useful, or the PR teams are unfamiliar with their capabilities and reach.”
“It appears that candidates are less sure about the impact and reach of online ads compared to traditional promotional methods and campaign operations,” he says. “That said, I believe it might be reasonable to suspect an increase in spending on campaigns related to grabbing the attention of netizens.”
Those who did try to maximize online presence in 2013 were those who could little afford the cost of mainstream media advertising. These include candidates who ran as independents, or for smaller non-traditional political parties.
Jimenez says that social media helped to introduce these relative newcomers to the public, making them more easily recognizable. In that sense, social media helped break them into the public psyche; but getting the public to vote for them is another, and different effort altogether.
“I think the Internet is a major emerging battleground pa lang,” Jimenez adds. “Take for instance Teddy Casino, I thought he was going to win. He was so big in social media. He ran a very savvy social media campaign. He did not win. On the reverse, you see people excoriated by social media, making it to the Senate.”
Still, while online political ads may appear to have dropped in 2013, the actual numbers are not yet in. Just like the candidates, media contractors have until Thursday, June 13, or 30 days after the elections, to file their political-ad contract reports.
So far, though, the numbers don’t look impressive at all, either because of poor compliance with reporting requirements, or because there wasn’t as much online ads to begin with. As of June 7, only one online media agency has filed a report on political ads placed in its website during the entire campaign.
Actually, under election rules, media agencies, both mainstream and online, are required to submit to Comelec a report of the contract for the political advertisement within five days after the contract is signed. This is aside from the SECEs candidates and their political parties are required to submit to the Commission 30 days after the election.
Comelec insiders say only social-news networking site Rappler has filed any report of political ads placed in its website. The report includes, among others, a P1.3-million contract for online political ads for Liberal Party senatorial bet Grace Poe Llamanzares for a 15-day period. The contract details, such as frequency and size of the ads, were not yet included. Comelec’s Education and Information Department says it cannot release copies of the Rappler report yet, as it is asking for more supporting documents.
Strangely, no other online media agency has filed any report with the Comelec for any political ads contracted by candidates with their websites. Jimenez says they will wait for the June 13 deadline to pass before demanding the reports from the other media agencies.
“No one is admitting that they published ads,” he says. “We will take appropriate action if necessary. Ultimately, if they submit before June 12 or 13, then we can give them a little leeway.”
Small, steady steps
Commissioner Guia says the law is actually clear: media agencies should have filed their reports within five days after the signing of the contract. He points out, “There is no dispute that there is an obligation to report five days after the contract is signed.”
But Guia says the Comelec also wants to be careful not to bite off more than it can chew at this time. “If we cannot regulate but we attempt to, the danger is that this will engender disrespect for the rules and laws, that it cannot be enforced anyway,” he says. “So what we can do is, really, monitor how much is spent, not regulate the size and frequency of the ads.”
Guia says it is important for Comelec to set its priorities so that the successes of its campaigns are not drowned out by the apparent failures to enforce. “The first level of monitoring is to enforce the requirement to submit and disclose campaign expenses,” he says. “That is the most basic. After that, level 2 is a check for completeness of the data. Only after that is level 3, which is an audit of the data. And level 4 is enforcement and sanctions.”
Jimenez says Comelec also clearly needs to beef up its online monitoring capabilities, both to accept complaints of poll violations coursed through social media, and for monitoring compliance in the online platform.
For the 2013 elections, the Commission assigned a staff of 15 to do full-time online monitoring. Most of these monitors, however, were tasked with accepting reports of poll violations, and cross-checking these reports. The rest monitored online sites for political activities related to the campaign.
“There are several million assorted websites, pages, blogs, and social media accounts on which political ads could appear,” Galla says. “Fifteen people operating 24/7 could not be reasonably expected to monitor online ads appearance and frequency of presence.”
“A more reasonable approach,” he says, “would have been to monitor campaign spending for online ads.” But that assumes that the candidates, their parties, and the media agencies do their part in submitting their reports. — PCIJ, June 2013