Internet, social media, and PH elections

Social media is full of interesting and fantastic stuff, especially amid the 2016 election campaign. And we expect no let-up in efforts of campaigners and supporters to make full use of the Internet to “demolish” opponents.

It is sad really. The promise of better politics, thanks to the Internet and social media, is lost on our political leaders, and on their campaigners and supporters.

Most of their statements about addressing the slow Internet speed and the abuses of the foreign-led duopoly have either been too coy or too dumb. They all promise, “pabibilisin natin ang Internet,” but they don’t tell us exactly how. It is an example of traditional politics at its worst, when rival politics out-slogan each other while offering an empty bag to the public.

One of them grabs all or most of the credit for supposedly making the Philippines the world’s BPO capital, oblivious to the fact that it was the BPO workers and call center agents who slept by day and toiled by night, got trained to master new twangs and tongues, and grew the industry into the behemoth it is today. Never mind that only a portion of the growing BPO industry incomes goes to workers and the lion’s share goes to the owners, usually big foreign players. What’s important for this rotten candidate is to grab credit because he has such a really thin file under the heading “Accomplishments.”

By the way, this same candidate has long opposed and continues to oppose the creation of a Department of ICT.

Another candidate surprised many by saying she will open wide the telecom industry’s doors to foreign players. How uninformed can she be? PLDT has NTT, Globe has Singtel, and even newcomer SMC has Telstra. Foreign players have been in this private sector-led, liberalized, and deregulated industry for decades now. In fact, these foreign owners of PLDT and Globe should share accountability for giving the country the worst, most expensive, and most unreliable services this side of the world.

While many countries around the world are now making sure schools are connected to the Internet and students learn how to code as early as primary school, here we have presidential candidates who either belittle or are unaware of the role of technology, cheapen it as a tool for misinformation, or reduce it as a platform for sharing “hugot” lines and jokes.

It would have been different had one, most, or all of them made use of the Internet and social media to announce and explain in detail how they intend to lead the country as president. It would have been glorious if they saw the Internet and social media not just an adjunct to their ads and sorties, but also a way to reach out to and organize voters down to the precinct or barangay levels. It would have been exciting if the candidates rejected Big Money from Big Business and Big Landlords, and chose to depend on small donations through Smart Money, GCash, electronic banking, PayPal and other means.

Sayang, di ba? Those aspiring to lead us in this digital age and their political operators are mostly political dinosaurs. All they could see in the Internet and social media is a playground for spin, misinformation, and free media. They don’t know and refuse to see the promise, potentials and achievement of the Internet and social media in creating jobs, improving lives, social good, social change, and even politics.

Which brings us to the realization that traditional politics, remains as traditional in ideology, politics, and organization. Trapos trust fellow trapos more than they voters. They defend and depend political dynasties. Heck, most of them are political dynasties. Why form genuine political parties with the Internet as one of the means when trapos have their parties and networks of fellow trapos who they think could do the job? Why crowdfund their campaigns when vested interests line up to donate to trapos in the hope of better deals when they come to power? Why be positive in the Internet and social media, when what the mainstream media buys and sells is mostly bad news, sex, scandal, and controversy?

A little over a month after the campaign, we see no one stepping up to be the Philippines’ Digital Leader. They and their supporters are simultaneously ignoring Internet issues – from fighting cybercrime to smashing the duopoly, from promoting access to raising quality, from supporting innovation to defending internet freedom – and cheapening this new means, new forum, and new marketplace through their hyperpartisan spin, outrageous claims, and negative campaigning.

All is not lost though. The hope is in us, citizens and voters. If our self-styled and self-described leaders won’t mind or would just belittle the Internet and social media, let’s grab hold of these new tools to make politics work for us. We have started this long trek to “people’s power” way before the Philippines first connected to the Internet in 1994. It is up to citizens to use technology to get political power, and to wrest it from trapos and political dinosaurs who don’t know better.

The Internet and social media are wonderful new additions to the people’s arsenal, and also a new arena for political action and engagement. They are now at our disposal so we could accomplish political tasks: Strengthen existing people’s parties and form new ones. Raise funds for insurgent candidates and parties. Develop a new generation of leaders. Keep track of the records of trapos and those in power. Promote our causes and issues. Link our OFWs to political activity here at home. And more.

Because the Internet and social media are not by themselves liberators. We as citizens must take hold of them, master them and wield them. We’ve done it to abolish pork, to denounce presidential betrayal, to help calamity victims, to support OFWs, artists, and scientists, to stand with lumads, and so on. No one is stopping us from discovering how we could use the Internet and social media not just to influence power but to seize power for the majority.

Would we see and hear anything new in the last two months of the campaign? If no presidential candidate comes forward, would the next Digital Leader(s) be a senator, a congressman, governor, or mayor?

Let’s see. Let’s make them. Let’s take action.

First published in the Manila Bulletin on 12 March 2016. Slightly edited here for clarity.