PHL elections & cyberspace

Social media & the elections:
Still preaching to the choir?

Last of Two Parts

WHEN MEDIA marketing giant Universal McCann declared the Philippines the social networking capital in the world in 2009, it sounded as if every Tomas, Ricardo, and Mario was pounding away or chatting on the Internet.

But they weren’t and they still aren’t.

The McCann study, entitled “Power to the People,” showed that 81.3 percent of Filipinos surveyed belonged to social networking sites, the highest among 29 other countries polled. Filipinos were also said to be the world’s top photo uploaders and video viewers.

The data seem fascinating, until one realizes that many Filipinos have never seen a computer, much less gone on Facebook. There are still many barangays in the country that don’t even have electricity, much less Internet connection. And there are many other Filipinos who would rather try to carve a living than gather likes and followers on social media.

What many fail to notice is that such studies and surveys are conducted on those who are already online, and not the general public, which is mostly unconnected. While Filipinos who are online are very active in social media, most Filipinos are not even online to begin with.

Juned Sonido, a blogger and emerging media consultant, makes the case that the Digital Divide in the Philippines remains a gaping chasm between those who are online and those who are not, between those who can engage on social networks, and those who couldn’t afford to care. Sonido says the hard truth is that less than three out of every Filipinos have access to the Net, citing a report from the Broadband Commission and the United Nations called “The State of Broadband 2012: Achieving Digital Connection for All.”

“This means around 70 percent of the Philippines are not using the Internet,” Sonido says. “Only three out of 10 Filipinos use Internet. At the same time this must be tempered by the fact that in terms of global social network penetration, among a set of countries the Philippines has the highest at around 75 percent — plus or minus — of active Internet users.”

But the 30 percent of Filipinos who do have cyber access are not necessarily hardwired to the Net. Access means being able to go online, not owning your own connection at home; the figure includes anyone who owns a Net-capable smart phone, as well as those who have fixed broadband connections, and even those who have access to the ubiquitous Internet cafés in the provinces.

In other words, the 30 percent who have access to the Net do not necessarily have the opportunity for quality social media engagement. Try, for example, to write a blog or have serious social engagement in an Internet café crowded with teens playing Counterstrike or Dawn of the Ages.

Sonido also says that a foreign-commissioned study on civic engagement in the digital age, showed that local Web access services remain “a lot slower from the rest of the world.” He says as well that many of the studies that show the Philippines to be leading in social media and networking are actually done for marketing purposes, and are tailor-fitted for digital marketers. “A study was commissioned, but it was meant to encourage government to invest in broadband,” he notes.

Low access ratio

According to research by Peter Evans for BuddeComm — an independent telecommunications market research and consultancy company based in Australia — overall broadband penetration in the Philippines “remains relatively low, with only around seven broadband services for every 100 people in the country by the start of 2012.”

“The country’s fixed-line subscriber penetration has remained essentially stagnant, even slightly declining… Despite the concerted effort of both the government and the operators to expand the national fixed network, fixed-line teledensity stood at less than 4% in 2011; only a little more than half of all Philippine towns and cities had a basic telephone service,” the Evans research, dated June 2012, reads in part.

The research offered by BuddeComm’s worldwide network of senior analysts encompasses 190 countries, 500 companies, and 200 discrete technologies and applications.

The existence of the digital divide and its impact on how Filipinos think and engage online were recurring themes when social media experts came together last May 28 for a public forum organized by PCIJ and the United States Embassy in Manila entitled “Taking Stock, Taking Control: Elections and Expression Online.”

In the forum, practically all the gathered social media analysts agreed that social media and the Internet, for all the noise they have generated, had not had a significant impact on the results of the 2013 elections — at least not yet. This could be seen in how some of the most engaged and most popular senatorial candidates on the Net still failed to make it to the Upper House, while some of those who were vilified and crucified on the Internet managed to claw their way to the chamber.

Reality check

In fact, the results of the 2013 elections could be a good reality check regarding the Net’s potential for political campaigns, among others. For one, they seemed to confirm that as citizens in a developing country, most Filipinos would rather confront economic survival issues first than manage their reputation or Facebook profiles.

According to Sonido, the ratio of persons using and those not using the Net — the haves and have-nots— is “roughly 29:71 and in terms of social network penetration is (pegged) at 75:25. The Internet penetration rate and the social network penetration rate are inverse.”

Blogger Pierre Tito Galla of Democracy.Net.PH says part of the reason is infrastructure: There are simply too many areas in the Philippines where one cannot comfortably go online, either because of lack of connection or because Internet devices are still out of reach of ordinary people.

“(The digital divide is defined by the lack of Internet) infrastructure and policy problem of government,” says Galla. “There are only four gateways in the Philippines and Internet connectivity is primarily where international commerce are located—in highly urbanized areas—that’s why the concentration is almost always Manila. Must it always be Manila? Our legislative proposal is more like the rural electrification program of government.”

No doc, PC, or Net

Forum panelist Julius Mariveles, a Bacolod blogger and former news director of Aksyon Radio in Bacolod, meanwhile points out that in the provinces “there are people who have not seen a doctor, much less a computer hooked to the Internet.”

“How do we discuss the digital age against the backdrop of the analog social conditions we are in?” Mariveles asks.

Philippine Press Institute Executive Director Ariel Hans S. C. Sebellino also observes, “A majority are forgivably so busy with day-to-day economic survival. It’s either they do not have any (social media) account at all, or the luxury of time to flex their fingers on the keys.”

In a blogpost he wrote recently for PCIJ, Sebellino says as well, “Whichever way, the lack of access to (social media) of great numbers of Filipinos seems largely a matter of economics. Meaning: No infrastructure for Internet connection, still expensive to avail themselves of wi-fi service, would rather spend on food, do not know how to do it, or simply have no time for what they deem to be the (nonsensical) virtual business.”

To Sebellino, it is because of the bleak economic condition in most parts of the Philippines that the social media engagement in the midterm elections was limited to bashing of candidates and were contained in “echo chambers” of the online communities.

“To be sure, some candidates won, and others lost, sans social media,” he writes in the PCIJ blog. “If, for example, the noise-making was designed only to topple or discredit a candidate who was seen unfit for the elective post, then one might say social media did not take off as yet as a vehicle for educating the voters. The rushed judgment is that social media merely engaged in bashing or bullying candidates.”

Sonido himself observed in a blog post right after the recent polls that since netizens did not make up the majority of the country’s population the “disapproval of Nancy Binay and others did not go beyond the digital fence.”

Hack and rant

Blogger Mariveles, for his part, says that candidates have limited themselves in using the social media as another platform to “hack” at their political rivals. He suggests that for social media to contribute in the political discourse it has to improve the content of its blogs and not.

“If content is key, context is crucial,” he says. “Are we (social media) contributing for an enlightened, informed and empowered citizenry?”

Roby Alampay of TV5’s news web portal Interaksyon concedes that there is a disconnect between the demographics of social media with the voting public. But he says social media can still be a powerful tool in improving news coverages, even as its effect to the voting public was manifested in the success of the “anti-epal” campaign that started online.

“We saw fewer posters,” he points out.

Sonido, though, takes care to note that there are two main components in social media: the technology and the person behind the technology. This is why, he says, “social network is an emotional network as well,” and why “there is always the tendency for it (social media) to be overblown.”

Popular sports blogger Jaemark Tordecilla of Interaksyon also comments that the candidates of the midterm polls were not looking at the social media the right way. He says, “Social media had no effect on the election.Democracy is more than just voting. Social media is effective in preaching to the choir and getting them to campaign for you and your causes.”

To Tordecilla, it is this behavior that will enable “cyber campaigners” do what they want the audience to do offline.

A monologue?

Malou Tiquia of the lobby firm Publicus Asia says that the candidates in the recently concluded elections were simply clueless on how to engage the social media communities.

“In 2010 it was mainly a monologue, but in 2013 the main challenge was how the politician dialogues with social media communities,” says Tiquia. “(I have told clients), if you don’t want to share your authenticity then don’t go to the social media.” She notes that sadly, a lot of the posts of candidates in the midterm elections were not “authentic.”

She also says that many have tried to replicate, to some degree, the online campaign of U.S. President Barack Obama in 2008. But Tiquia says many candidates and their strategists have misread Obama’s online campaign experience.

The problem, she says, is that many candidates think that Obama’s campaign was simply that of raking in followers online. In truth, it was about engaging followers, getting them to donate real money and time, and making them go out into their communities and do the legwork of campaigning for Obama.

In other words, Tiquia says, Obama’s online strategy was about getting people on the Internet to bring Obama out of the pixels in their LCD screens and take him out to their communities.

“It (Obama campaign) was seen as a return to grassroots, listening at the community level and responding,” Joe Rospars, Obama’s Digital Strategist, said in an interview on ABC News Online.

In the same interview, Rospars explained that the Obama campaign was about having the two-way conversation and the back and forth with a whole lot of people at once, at a scale. “It is being able to develop relationships so that you can facilitate conversations between them, their friends, neighbors and colleagues,” he added.

“In order for social media and Internet to be effective in the 2016 elections, it has to be coupled with communities on– and offline,” observes Sonido.

In the end, it will boil down to what the Filipino voters are really looking for: access to their public servants.

Online & 3-D action

Gang Badoy, founder of RockEd, an advocacy and alternative education group that showcases social issues in a manner that it is appealing to the youth, says that in social media, influence is not the primary agenda, but rather getting people to join the public discourse and getting information from other persons.

“Social media still begs for three-dimensional action,” she says. “(The) human aspect of social media should not be forgotten.”

It is about playing an active role in society and using technology to inform and sharing of information, says Badoy.

“If they (candidates) want to start early in campaigning then we should start earlier in researching,” she adds. “The Internet is nothing more than a million sets of eyes. That should be our attitude.” — PCIJ, June 2013