At the core of the crisis gripping mainstream media and mainstream “thought leadership” in the Philippines is the way ordinary Filipinos remain trapped in social hierarchy. Rather than encourage debate that focuses on the merit of the ideas and arguments tabled, Filipinos lazily defer to rank, credential, and seniority. This is no thanks, of course, to the people Filipinos look up to — educated people, celebrities, political and economic leaders, teachers, etc. Rather an encourage everyone to engage and participate in discourse, they drive a wedge between themselves and “all the rest” of them.
A level playing field where merit is what determines the ascendancy and longevity of an idea is counterintuitive to many Filipinos — because there is lazy comfort in the hierarchy that continues to define an individual’s place in society. There are, we have been raised to believe, certain “important” people who we are obliged to listen to regardless of the substance in what they have to say. People like priests, European-looking people, “elders”, organisational honchos, and rich people, among others, enjoy an entitlement to monopoly over “free speech”. This is the reason why, despite online trolls being nothing new, having existed since the dawn of the Internet (and even earlier), we are told that we face a suddenly-virulent troll infestation that is “weaponising” the Internet. And the idea seems right because self-proclaimed “thought leader” and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa says so.
What we really are in the midst of today is the mainstream and Establishment undergoing a rude awakening to the reality that Filipinos are increasingly turning to alternative sources of information and points of view and challenging tradition. People like Ressa would like to dismiss these alternatives as inconsequential nuisances — they are the “trolls”, “anonymous” Netizens, and mere riffraffs who dare go against those who, society dictates, are anointed as “enlightened” by their private school-issued masters degrees and PhD’s, their extensive reading lists of scholarly books and journals, and their cozy relationships with the corporate publishers of their intellectual work.
There is, however, a stark difference between the members of the Establishment and the rapidly-growing community of “nuisance” content producers nipping at their heels. People like Ressa and traditional “published authors” owe their influence to institutions and organisations that employ them, endorse their credentials, and sponsor mass distribution of their work. In the olden days when the means of mass communication was capital-intensive and virtually inaccessible to the vast majority of people, this class of people rested on their laurels, assured that their lofty positions at the top of the media food chain was secure.
Unfortunately for them, the Internet, and then social media, happened. In social media, everyone has a shot at acquiring a mass audience that could rival traditional media. And unlike the Maria Ressas and the Richard Heydarians of this world, social media-savvy Netizens relied on their own cleverness to lift themselves up by the bootstraps to Internet fame and build their own respective brands from scratch. The notion that backing by an institutional body or a corporate sponsor is essential to being entitled to the eyeballs of a mass audience had become a dinosaur.
In the same way that an environmental shift hundreds of millions of years ago turned the dinosaurs’ size into a liability and the obscure swiftness and agility of small furry creatures into assets, social media is reshaping the media landscape to favour little numerous players running below the line of sight of big lumbering corporate beasts hobbled by an insatiable appetite for capital. The Earth’s fossil record shows what kind of intelligence emerges from such a shift in an ecosystem, so today’s dinosaurs in the media should pay heed. Those that fail to evolve when the climate changes are doomed to extinction.
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