Change and Disruption in the Age of InternetSocial Media: A Weapon in Philippine Politics
Unfortunately, political operatives or campaign strategists were quicker than most to recognize the dynamic power that this newer media possessed. In the 2016 elections, political discourse was hijacked, not necessarily along the lines of facts, truth-telling, transparency and accountability.
TAKING A long view of change and transformation through history helps to understand current disruption. Advances in communications technology in recent decades have revolutionized the way we live, affecting human relationships, family, social and corporate ties. These have also transformed politics and the interaction between government and the people. For some, it has affected their sense of self as they draw or fail to see the lines between personal and public.
The speed and character of communication have unhinged the connections which served people so well to keep in touch with kith and kin as the web enabled new links and greater self-expression.
It has forced us to think anew about news and journalism and the dynamic triad of politicians, press and the people.
While change happens all the time, there are certain passages that stand out for some dramatic and radical shift that occurs before we know of it. The takeover of mass media in the last century intensified the sense of oneness. People could tell a stranger’s politics by the newspaper picked up from the stands. Radio and TV separately unified and joined together communities with entertainment, drama, music and political and civic events. More important these provided a shared narrative which we may see differently. But debates proceeded from a shared national vision which media amplified to hold people together despite differences in opinion, politics or religion.
The same mass media split into countless publications and programs. Later, the internet made possible the further splintering of the mass.
The press as an edited, engineered and tightly constructed process to produce news and commentary is now caught in the swirl of sources and information running through separate and divergent streams. Designed to help people keep up with developments and make sense of what’s happening in the world, the press has been open to attack, questioned by those who demand that perception is all, dismissing the need for verification and the importance of truth.
In 1970, before the age of internet as we know it, Alvin Toffler detected the convergence of developments which began to suggest fundamental changes in the structure of human relationships and the character of communities. The crossing of borders had become a more common and universal activity. Mobility in one’s life prompted by the search for education or employment opportunities created a temporariness of connections, imposing transience on what used to be permanent features of existence. Communications technology did away with the physical address and diminished the postal system. Instant communication and regular interaction were no longer hampered by spatial distance.
Toffler also examined the transformation of formerly undifferentiated mass audience into a “de-massified audience,” providing channels and platforms focused on special interests — entertainment, sports, fashion, religion or politics as well as ideology. These separate and specific lines of communication enhance the exchange for those with like interests but restrict the conversation among groups of different interests.
Politics and corporate organizations submitted to the same deconstruction, flattening the lines of hierarchy and authority. He wrote about the threats to national security and stability posed by increasing pluralism and national diversity, underlining this as a challenge to long-held assumptions about political leadership.
The intensive international media coverage of the political upheavals of the 1980s that resulted in the overthrow of dictators and strongmen ushered in a wave of democratization that affected even countries in the highly restrictive political culture of the Arab world. The proliferation of information sources made possible the continuing education of societies in the advancement of liberal and democratic values, such as freedom, equality before law, human rights and rule of law.
But the democracies born during this period have proven fragile. New and old democracies are now challenged to sustain and defend democratic values. Illiberal politicians have gained popularity and political power: Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Prayut Chan-o-cha in Thailand, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Donald Trump in the US.
Toffler, unfortunately, was no longer writing when the internet transformed the way we live. We could have used the help of this thinker in mapping the altered landscape of communication. His overview assists the task of developing principle and practice to sustain journalism in this brave new world.
For some time, the internet seemed as though it was simply a bigger more dynamic version of the old platforms for discourse. Academics and institutions took to creating websites and social media accounts to share their information. On tablet or mobile, citizen journalists could provide information on their own and be the first to report or provide videos of a disaster or crime scene or a terror attack.
But journalists and pundits still dominated mainstream political discourse. The dispersal of sources of news content along with commentary complicates the determination of what is relevant or reasonable. Each individual is free to search out preferred news sources. The emergence of social media companies as news providers has only made the issue more complex.
The election of Trump and Duterte involves political realities that may have escaped the mainstream media and the press elite. The two politicians had popular appeal, enhanced by their being new to national politics and were seen as outsiders bringing possibilities for change.
In covering the two simply as out-of-norm contenders, the media did not appreciate the other connection established with a public who turned to Duterte and Trump for real reasons — people who had grown tired of being left out of the conversation that matters in their country.
Enter Social Media
Social media constitutes the new world of self-expression for everyone. It leaves no one out. One does not have to have family background or academic pedigree. One did not have to have anything except access to internet and an account which was free of charge. And this allowed everyone to share, to be part of a bigger conversation, or if one preferred to be a joiner and simply to follow.
It is no wonder that it has attracted millions and still increasing in its engagement of the previously unknown and unreported members of society.
In 2016, We Are Social (WAS) counted 3.419 billion or nearly half of the global population as active on the internet; 2.307 billion of whom are social media users. The digital world includes the Philippines, where WAS estimates 47.13 million active internet users, spending an average of 5.2 hours daily on desktop computers, laptops and mobile devices. Filipinos spent 3.7 hours in social media, a higher rate of use than those living in the US, Singapore and South Korea where the internet infrastructure is far better than it is in the Philippines. As of June 30, Philippine data of internetworldstats.com showed internet penetration at 52.6 percent.
The numbers speak for themselves. More and more people have come to depend on digital sources for their news and information. They get their news real time, albeit in brief. Speed and accessibility have young and old hooked to their devices for the quick fix, dispensing with detail and context for immediacy.
Social media tools spread the news at a much faster rate, reaching a much wider audience. Facebook counts 39.8 million users in the Philippines which, according to Statista, the Philippines is the second largest market for the company in the Southeast Asian region.
Facebook is the most popular social media platform among Filipinos
The data suggests a huge impact on news consumption habits.
In 2009, before Filipinos experienced social media, Michael Skoler, writing for Nieman Reports, said, people want connection and give trust to those they engage with. He noted the public’s new expectations, “to share information,” “to be listened to when they have knowledge and raise questions.”
Ruth A. Harper in an article published in the Inquiries Journal, 2010, saw in the social media revolution not the death of journalism, but the “birth of a democratic movement that emphasizes some of journalism’s key factors: transparency, honesty, and giving a voice to the person who doesn’t have one.” Social media gives voice to the media’s primary stakeholders — the public, giving them the choice about what they read and being able to contribute content.
Unfortunately, political operatives or campaign strategists were quicker than most to recognize the dynamic power that this newer media possessed. In the 2016 elections, political discourse was hijacked, not necessarily along the lines of facts, truth-telling, transparency and accountability. Rappler documented the phenomenal use of social media in three articles that tracked the activation of social media as political tools, including manipulation and propaganda. (Hofileña and Ressa, 2016)
The tabloids of old and deeply flawed news practices of even established news organizations preceded the phenomenon of digitally spread fake news or alternative realities. Propaganda, the classic manipulation of news, which have been long employed by authoritarian states are older precedents of fake news.
Social media companies are now contending with the criticism that their platforms served as enablers of hate speech, trolling and cyberbullying and yes, “alternative facts.” Those more familiar with the give-and-take in the past seem overwhelmed, lamenting the difficulty of holding rational discourse.
A Rappler’s study found out
a spike in the number of trolls,bots and fake accounts during the campaign period.
The use of communication technology in doing the most ordinary tasks in learning is a boon. We can communicate on complex issues requiring the transmission of voluminous documents with anyone around the world with a click. We can search out encyclopedic information with ease. There is no turning away from technology.
But this same technological capacity has to be harnessed to the critical tasks of creating consensus, resolving conflict and moving toward greater mutual understanding and trust — all integral to democracy and the kind of inclusive and participatory development it should ideally foster.
The political culture has subsumed the instruments of media and appropriated its force. The stage for discourse and honest exchange can quickly become the arena for gladiatorial combat among computer-activated robots and cash-driven trolls.
Recent impact of social media use on elections in India, the Philippines, the US and elsewhere has provoked collective handwringing and calls for responses such as fact-checking and media literacy training.
Media expert Jim Rutenberg pointed out the way to address such grim prospects: “The cure for false journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism.”(Rutenberg, 2016)
But this is not easy to achieve, given societal conditions. It is difficult to produce good journalism. And it has been shown how perhaps the public as a media audience cannot easily sift the gold from the dross.
Social media provides no glue that will hold the different ghetto of opinion or echo chambers of conversation. Social media with its trolling and manipulative messaging deepens the differences with greater polarization.
The problem is not for media to resolve on its own. It is clearly a matter that should involve other policy actors. In the age of internet, journalism and other media have to undergo adjustment and reform in order to serve as a constructive force for democratic development. But these efforts need the support of other stakeholders.
What new media platform will enable a new conversation to begin, one with the goal of restoring common sense and revive simple human good will?
FIGHTING “ALTERNATIVE TRUTHS”
2016 SAW a rise in the rampant attempts on social media to discredit the press — a “change” that came with the rise to power of President Rodrigo Duterte. This was a hot topic among the participants of Media Nation 12 in September 2016, an annual event attended by journalists and news executives to exchange views about the latest and most pressing concerns for the media and society.
Here in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world, the social media landscape has become saturated with information that easily misleads undiscerning social media users. Not only did online content masquerading as news become widespread, it also became the preferred source of information by many. The rise of fake news and the widening of echo chambers have made critical content and truth a casualty.
The proliferation of fake news sites followed the widespread criticism of members of the mainstream press as biased and paid-for which filled social media. The resulting polarized environment called for a more vigilant and proactive media action to restore reason and facts at the center and foundation of public discourse.
Media organizations have already responded with initiatives to counter the spread of lies and fallacies online. These include VERA Files’ Fact Check which periodically publishes brief fact-checks. Accompanied by short infographics, the articles specify the statements or quotes in question and juxtapose these with information that clarifies and disproves the claims of the former.
ABS-CBN News, GMA News Online and Rappler also have similar efforts which quickly provide corrections of inaccurate claims made by officials.
For its part, CNN Philippines airs a segment called “In His Own Words” in its two news programs, Network News and Newsroom. The segment appeared in reports which mentioned Duterte’s statements on certain topics. While this is not a fact-checking initiative per se, it makes sure that the public gets the words as spoken and proves the basis of any articles based on statements he made. “In His Own Words” can be seen as an ingenious response to parties who claim that the media have been misinterpreting Duterte in their coverage — an accusation which has been thrown at the press in the past.