Is Facebook still useful come May?

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Mr. Duterte is the first and last Facebook president. No other politician in the May midterm elections, including his closest allies, will come close to duplicating his unqualified success using Facebook in 2016.

Politicians, of course, will merely repeat whatever seems to work. Thus, Facebook and other social media platforms will still be in heavy use during the campaign. Drastic changes, however, are in store.

In recent days, Facebook made it clear it will be keeping a close eye on the lead up to the May 2019 polls. “Elections in the Philippines are a top priority for the company,” says Facebook’s Katie Harbath.

The priority is “to protect election integrity.” In practical terms, it means watching out for or closing down more fake accounts, chasing and fact-checking false news and any other forms of abuses by digital political mercenaries plundering ignorance.

Facebook says it has been preparing for the coming elections since last year and has invested money and people, including hiring more people conversant in Tagalog and other Philippine languages.

“We’ve been learning from every election. We think we absolutely learned a lot from the 2016 elections here in the Philippines. And we’ve been working with many partners since then to better understand sort of what happened then and the systems and things we need to be putting into place,” says Harbath.

What that “understanding” means, Facebook did not elaborate. But it does suggest the social media app, which many Filipinos unfortunately equate with the Internet, finally realized that digital mercenaries deploying armies of “trolls” and “bots” brought out the dark side of the Filipino electorate.

An electorate where suddenly hordes of fanatics drunk with righteousness or resentment — all easy prey with anyone with a political agenda — came out and hijacked political discourse.
If Facebook manages to do all what it promises, then the midterms will be interesting not only for political strategists and watchers but also for all of us.

Interesting because, to put it bluntly, any change or reform in Facebook’s landscape signals the fall of social media as a powerful electoral tool — a development which may, in turn, also mean turning off unbridled emotions scorching politics.

One interesting sidelight to Facebook becoming like any other benign campaign tool — like tarpaulin posters, mainstream media advertisements and text blasts — is the prospect the midterms will give birth to a new, yet undiscovered, tool in the electoral game.

Even if hazy — and it may even be that its presence will be felt only after the midterms — this new electoral tool will arrive. In fact, social media’s potency as a political weapon was similarly blurred during the 2013 midterm elections. It was only in 2016 when social media gained potency to elect a president.

In any case, howsoever this new tool will look it will certainly determine how political language will henceforth go in this country, just as what social media had done with political language during 2016.

A quick survey before social media’s rise as a devastating political tool shows technology always influenced how political language evolved. In print media’s heyday, for instance, political debate was lengthy and conducted in sober language. The rise of radio and television, on the other hand, reoriented political language towards mass public tastes, hence the language of showbiz.

Text blasts were essentially all about speed and short political messages. Social media is also about being fast and quickly grasped political messages. But social media language unwittingly deviated from honest feedback into ugly aberrations of ignorance, primitive moralities and blatant disinformation.

True, vicious propaganda and disinformation are also abundant in other media. But the sheer speed, abundance and viciousness of daily disinformation on social media is incomparably appalling.

Vicious language is also fueling fears that the idea, the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, of language shaping thought instead of vice versa, is truer by the day. What that means is that gutter language is shaping how we will think in the future: gutter language now means gutter thoughts later.

Anyway, social media’s influence in Philippine politics is still an ongoing debate. But social media’s influence in the election of Mr. Duterte is uncontested.

No doubt Mr. Duterte and his team were adept at making social media work in cementing the President’s essential image of “authenticity.” An “authenticity” which is another way of referring to Mr. Duterte’s rhetorical style and diction. In short, his language.

A language which subsequently influenced and constricted the common parlance of political debate, turning it into a warfare with words. A warfare anchored on just two abusive epithets, dilawan and dutertard. This we-against-them divide, coupled with mass disinformation, spread confusion and drowned out legitimate criticism and dissent to the dismay of people who didn’t identify with either two.

Given this sorry state, therefore, all of us can’t wait for our political language to turn away from rough shoals and head for calmer shores.

But this does not mean we just sit idly. We must still take up the bruising challenge of actively bringing down disinformation. We risk political catastrophe if we don’t do anything.

Email: nevqjr@yahoo.com.ph

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