How social media is shaping the 2016 elections

Demie Dangla, ABS CBN News

From traditional ways of campaigning, politicians have seen the need to keep up this election season and strategically place themselves in the social media sphere, where millions of Filipinos are actively sharing information and making conversations.

The ability to reach such a huge population – and potential voting audience – became attractive for politicians who have also learned how to exploit social media for their own goals.

But a political anthropologist and senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines-Diliman said that social media, while very helpful during the campaign season, can also break a candidate.

Unlike before, politicians now have to deal with hashtags, trends, and even trolls.

"It (social media) can make or break the chances of politicians because people react," said Professor Chester Cabalza, explaining how social media can influence the chances of a candidate in winning the upcoming 2016 elections.

It has only been in recent years that more and more Filipinos have engaged themselves in social media, making it integral in everyday life.

During the 2010 elections, there were only around 23 million Filipinos using the Internet, according to statistics provided by www.InternetLiveStats.com.

Today, there are 49 million active monthly users of Facebook in the Philippines, according to the social media site, which is close to half of the population of the country.

Before, it was just hashtags, status updates, photos and videos. But now, we have more sophisticated social media tools such as Facebook Live and 360 videos and more.

With these, imagination is the only limitation for politicians campaigning in social media.

Top social media users

As of April 19, the two women running for the presidency have the most number of Facebook likes: Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Senator Grace Poe, with 3,466,922 and 2,848,930 respectively.

Vice President Jejomar Binay comes third with 2,630,878, followed by Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte with 2,417,988.

Mar Roxas, who is the standard-bearer of Liberal Party, named the most dominant political party by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), comes last with 1,389,515.

Incidentally, he was among the first to realize the value of social media as early as 2010 when he ran for the vice presidency.

Meanwhile for vice presidential candidates, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano’s Page has the most number of Facebook likes, with 1,703, 746.

Senator Bongbong Marcos comes second with 1,192,823.

However, the number of page followers does not guarantee a candidate the attention he wants.

Recently, Facebook Philippines named Duterte as the "Undisputed King of Facebook Conversations" after he garnered 64% of conversations talking about him, while Santiago came last even though she had the most page followers.

The conversation or comment may be positive or negative regarding the candidate.

(READ: Duterte is 'king' of Facebook talk)

For vice presidential candidates, Cayetano was most discussed with 44% of the counted conversations, while Marcos came next with 35%.

These data were collected by Facebook Philippines from the 15.2 million Filipinos who engaged in election-related conversations on Facebook from November 20, 2015 to April 5, 2016, generating a total of 124 million interactions.

These conversations were generated from "any post or comment that contains highly specific and targeted keywords or hashtags related to either the election itself, a candidate, a party.”

Aside from Facebook, politicians have also begun using other digital platforms, such as YouTube and Twitter, to further widen the scope of their campaigns.

For Twitter, Santiago is way past the other presidential candidates as she has 2.49 million followers on the platform. She is followed by Roxas with 606,000. Duterte has the least number of Twitter followers with 42,100 only.

For vice presidential candidates, Marcos has the most number of Twitter followers with 374,000, followed by Escudero with 269,000 followers.
 

Social media as election ‘game-changer’

Cabalza said that this year’s elections would be different from its predecessors because of the deep integration of social media in campaigns. Cabalza said this makes social media a “game-changer.”

“The twist is you have social media that is very active. So whatever they (politicians) feed, social media reacts immediately and there's a thread of conversation, and it's very dynamic,” Cabalza said.

“Everybody would want to optimize social media use, everybody has the power to voice out their ideas and it has become a new battlefield… Generally, social media will change our political landscape, and it could help us choose whoever will win in the top post of our politics,” he added.

Facebook Philippines observed that social media’s role “has become more critical than ever” when compared to the 2013 elections where “only about 30% of Filipinos had access to the Internet.”

They said, “the proportion has grown dramatically since then.”

From 25% of the population using the Internet in 2010, and 37% in 2013, it rose to an estimate of 42.3% in 2015, according to www.InternetLiveStats.com.

Comelec data show that “millennials” (aged 18-34 in 2015) is the single age group with the most number of registered voters at around 24.7 million.

Incidentally, these millennials are also the ones most active in election-related conversations, according to Facebook.

This may indicate how campaigning in social media can be a significant factor in influencing millions of voting population online.

Despite this, Cabalza still recognizes that not all Filipinos are engaged in social media, or have access to it.

“You will see asymmetry of power because it’s a way of looking at those who have this access to social media and those who have not. So, those who have no accessibility, access to social media, sometimes they're excluded from that arena of participation,” Cabalza said.

Social media ‘tactics’

Because social media has its own demographics, politicians had to learn, adapt, and hire social media managers to manage their accounts and engage the audience. Competition has also become tighter among candidates, resulting in various gimmicks online.

An example may be the video posted by Senator Marcos who dressed up as a Jedi when "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" was shown in the Philippines.

This campaign video of Marcos is only available online, but was not shown on television.

These posts, shared multiple times, generate conversations, and increase a candidate's popularity, regardless of the reactions being negative or positive.

Because of its accessibility and the ability to immortalize content such as photos and videos, social media has also helped local candidates to widen their reach outside their municipalities.

An example would be the case of ousted Laguna Governor E.R. Ejercito's video of him dancing "Nae Nae." The video became viral and was shared 2,344x and viewed 223,000x.

The live video feature is also being exploited by candidates, making it possible for netizens to watch a sortie real-time, wherever they are, as long as they have Internet connection.

Liberal Party presidential candidate Mar Roxas and vice presidential candidate Alan Peter Cayetano use Facebook Live to broadcast real-time videos of their sorties.

Furthermore, social media, because it is free, has become strategic for candidates to influence public opinion, attack rivals, and answer queries from netizens with the use of hashtags.

(Left) United Nationalist Alliance standard-bearer Jejomar Binay takes to social media his call against his rival, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. (Right) Vice presidential candidate Gringo Honasan uses the hashtag #askGringo so netizens can ask him anything. He then uploaded his answers to YouTube.
But social media does not always have a good effect on candidates; since it is free, it can also backfire.

 

This is evident in the video of Duterte and his remarks about a rape-slay victim, which was uploaded online and became viral.

(READ: It's final: Duterte takes back rape remark)

Empowered or immature netizens?

Still, Cabalza said social media is successful in engaging and emboldening netizens into commenting on political issues.

He said that the sentiments of a few can be amplified multiple times, which can lead to setting public opinion and effecting governmental changes.

"They (netizens) have the right to choose, to select, and sometimes they can demand for the advocacies and platforms, so they (politicians) are challenged now," he said.

According to Facebook, "transparency’"is the most talked about topic among netizens from November 20, 2015 to April 15, 2016, getting 66% of conversations made about elections. Economy and education both came second with 30%, while social welfare got 25%.

However, he said that it goes two ways: just as much as there are “clever, intelligent netizens” who would question and attempt to verify social media posts, there are also as many who would easily believe and even share unsubstantiated material on social media.

“If you are more critical, then you would have to verify it. So, it goes two ways. It's like consumers in a brand. There are some smart consumers, there are those who are just passive,” Cabalza said.

He said that the most affected by perceptions easily generated on social media are the "volatile, undecided voters."

"Sometimes they are the ones that are being shaped by social media because they base their decision from perceptions, and social media is a way of feeding that information to netizens. So, I think it's very crucial, it has its own unique call because basically, social media is there, although it's not really sophisticated when it comes to its content."

Cabalza is referring to “immature” use of social media by spreading false information, unsubstantiated posts, and doing personal attacks against a person.

That is why Cabalza believes that although there is political engagement in social media Filipinos are still “immature” when it comes to using social media as we are still “evolving.”

He said that Filipinos are still more into “showbiz politics,” although he hopes that there will come a time when netizens would mature when engaging in political discourse in social media.

But when asked if social media, given the nature of the netizens, can make a candidate win, Cabalza replied:

"I believe it's an alternative, but we cannot underestimate its power because social media is a game-changer.... They (politicians) are cementing their strong presence to voters' preference and choices... (But) it's participatory, informal, personalistic, and that's Filipino culture," he said, referring to the capacity of netizens to "criticize politicians for their reactions, political standpoints, statements, and it can set public opinion" when shared multiple times, may it be memes or personal posts.

"It's a big indicator basically on how politicians can make to the elections.... It can make or break them basically,” he said.