Improving the use of social media to elevate the quality of debate in Philippine politics

It’s been more than half a decade now since social media first started emerging as (supposedly) a potent platform for political “debate”. And before that era there already was a thriving Philippine blogosphere of the late 1990s and early 2000’s, when notable opinion-shapers like Manuel L Quezon III, the writers of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Ellen Tordersillas, and Rom Sedona among others spoke their minds online and took apart the critical issues of the land.

But, really, it was the advent of social media as we know it today that was to herald the age of a more “intelligent” debate. It was supposed to be an age of elevated levels of thinking applied to the critical evaluation of the issues and the choice of representatives and leaders in the next election.

So what happened?

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Unfortunately, on the surface, not much seems to have changed. The same sorts of traditional politicians continue to infest the landscape of “choices” in the lead up to the next election — or the next one after that. The same focus, “winnability”, trumps vision and platform as the core of the arguments. The same loser-mentality “lesser evil” criteria prevail as the emotional hook most Filipinos can readily relate to. It raises the hard question of whether a vastly more technologically-savvy and networked society is necessarily a smarter one.

For that matter, does more “debate” translate to better outcomes in a society like the Philippines’? Consider that Singapore rose from Third World to First under a regime that discouraged debate and over a time when computers were expensive contraptions that occupied entire rooms. One would think that with all the technology and the wealth of resources these make available to Filipinos, plus the “freedom” they enjoy to apply it all, that they would have achieved as much over a shorter period — or at least the same amount of time.

Instead, the Philippines remains an even weaker state today — still reliant on the “generosity” of former colonial masters and weighed down by a population given to entertaining themselves with the antics of bickering and grandstanding politicians more interested in securing their fiefs than on building a modern nation.

Perhaps we may be expecting too much of technology — seeing it as a solution to a problem it alone cannot solve. What social media seems to be making a greater impact on is supporting the building of a more decent society at the grassroots even as traditional politics continue to infest the top of the social pyramid. In short, social media activism as a tool to influence the top may be limited to short-term measures that require massive participation — the numbers — not too different from traditional street activism; like how people physically turning up in great numbers precipitated the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and that of Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada in 2001.

But where it seems to be more sustainably potent is in the slow but steady laying of the foundations of a socially just society — a feature of it that technology critic Clay Shirky postulates in his article The Political Power of Social Media

Although the story of Estrada’s ouster and other similar events have led observers to focus on the power of mass protests to topple governments, the potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere — change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months. The U.S. government should maintain Internet freedom as a goal to be pursued in a principled and regime-neutral fashion, not as a tool for effecting immediate policy aims country by country. It should likewise assume that progress will be incremental and, unsurprisingly, slowest in the most authoritarian regimes.

We must not forget that just as citizens are getting savvier with the use of technology to achieve their objectives, the Establishment comprising the very traditional politicians and their partners in business that citizens seek to keep honest are, themselves, also improving the way they apply technology to achieving their own goals. Filipinos also need to keep in mind that because their efforts to communicate and coordinate with one another are now largely done over publicly-accessible media platforms, government and the people who form it that seek to maintain the status quo they benefit from are better able to monitor and respond to both the public sentiment and the ideas percolating from the chatter.

An example is the way, Malacanang managed to take steps to mitigate the effect of and even undermine the anti pork barrel “Million People March” of mid-2013 by mounting its own media campaign to counteract it by attacking the arguments and rallying concepts that were discussed online in the weeks leading up to the event. Perhaps social media as a tool to organise traditional activism may actually be taking us a step backward rather than forward.

Shirky expertly articulates a sensible way forward given this disturbing possibility.

The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. In contrast to the instrumental view of Internet freedom, this can be called the “environmental” view. According to this conception, positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere.

The building of that “strong public sphere” is perhaps where we, as influencers, need to focus the discourse on rather than follow the “thought leadership” of traditional politicians and their propagandists. Though the Philippines is democratic in form today, its society still lacks the substance to exploit the opportunities to effect progress that system presents. As such, the same sorts of crooks remain in power, just that, this time, they enjoy the so-called “popular” mandate. The challenge, it seems, is to effect a change in the sorts of things and ideas Filipinos regard as popular.

8 Replies to “Improving the use of social media to elevate the quality of debate in Philippine politics”

  1. The fault lies is our too forgiving society where the confessional box is a ready convenient tool to remove one’s guilt.

    It is but time to be a harsher society where death penalty on heinous crimes be reimposed.


  2. You’re asking what happened, benign0?

    Well, shit happened.

    A tool is only as useful as the one who uses it.

  3. I agree about what GL said “A tool is only as useful as the one who uses it.” Things are not gonna change until filipinos don’t change the way they think, i try to talk some sense to people sometimes but always end up being hated and called “mr.know it all” and my most favorite “sino ka ba?”

  4. Social Media can be a way to Change the Mindsets of most people. Thru debates, information (good or bad), and national awakening.
    It is up to the readers of the Websites, and Blogs, if they use what they have learned in positive ways.

    Jose Rizal’s books of “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo”, awakened the colonial minds of Filipinos, that lead to independence.
    Social Media can do the same work. It is good, that many people are participating in the discussions. And, many Website writers are writing good articles.

  5. Social media in theory is supposed to help alleviate the people mentally. However, most Filipinos use it as a portable TV to keep track of their favorite teleserye and phone to keep in touch with those they care about. So its safe to say they have not fully utilized the blessings of this information age.

    In fact, how Filipinos treat internet reminds me of this tidbit in Peter’s overlord list.

    Rule 100. Finally, to keep my subjects permanently locked in a mindless trance, I will provide each of them with free unlimited Internet access.

  6. The single most idiotic excercise in society is the political debate. For reasons that are a bit lengthy for this comment, the futility of the political debate are never realized by the debaters.
    The comedy that results is sublime and even more comical is the brain dead moron that always says, after believing what was said at a ‘debate’ was somehow going to be implemented at the societal level, (but never is) turns around and says:”Hey, but you said…”. Idiocy at its most idiotic.

  7. ….and taking it a step further and using the Internet, where no one even knows who is actually hitting the keys on the computer, adds an extra li’l zest to the idiotic fanfare that is the ‘debate’. Dealing in realities, not subjective arguments that are mostly imaginary (and then acting as if there is a way to deal with the imagined scenario, Bwah ha ha, LMAO!!!), is where a change can take place.

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