MANILA – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) is more inclined to extending voting hours during next year's election day, than holding the polls for a number of days to limit the number of voters inside precincts, an official told senators Wednesday.
The Senate conducted a hearing on the preparation for the 2022 elections in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as on tools to repel potential foreign interference in the election process via social media platforms.
"Medyo leery kami sa 2 to 3 days of election. The Comelec is actually tending towards longer election hours. Nakikita po natin sa ibang bansa, especially yung malalaking elections, they do have elections that last 12 hours," James Jimenez, spokesman of the poll body and head of its Education and Information Department, said at the virtual hearing.
"Yung tendency ng Comelec right now, the predisposition is to go towards longer election hours, and perhaps smaller precinct sizes," Jimenez said, responding to the question of Sen. Imee Marcos, chairman of the Senate panel on Electoral Reforms and People’s Participation.
Jimenez echoed concerns raised by Marcos about what could possibly happen if voting period is extended for several days.
"As far as the 2 to 3 days of elections, as you pointed out, there's been a lot of concern about that. There's a lot of worry what happens at night, I suppose. Ang takbo ng pag-iisip ng Comelec ngayon ay longer elections hours," Jimenez said.
The poll body is currently devising ways to avoid overcrowding of voting centers in order to comply with the country's pandemic guidelines.
Jimenez said Comelec is using their preparation for the Palawan plebiscite as a testing ground for the 2022 national elections. A plebiscite that will divide Palawan into three provinces will take place on March 13.
"We call it informally mapping project. We're basically mapping out how to carry out elections under pandemic conditions. So, it's a mapping experience where we'll find out if the methods we're deploying will be effective and efficient as a means to control transmission," Jimenez said.
LENTE Philippines’ Atty. Helen Graido pointed out in the hearing would-be issues that the government must address as Filipinos vote next year.
She said the need to wear mask and face shield, and other requirements are considered “economic” matters for voters.
"For example, if you are positive for COVID-19 on the day of the elections, how will you not be disenfranchised?... Nasabi ni Director James, of course, we will be implementing the face mask, face shield requirement… Tinitingnan din natin siya as a property requirement,” Graido said.
Jimenez said the idea of mail-in ballots or voting can be discussed, although he cautioned it entails a lot of infrastructure and safety measures.
The Senate committee, meanwhile, pointed out the need to adjust the voting requirements for migrants workers, especially seafarers.
“We are currently supporting an exploration study of Comelec right now to include new technologies for overseas voting. Hopefully, these explorations will turnout successful,” Edgardo Castro, DFA-Overseas Voting Secretariat acting vice chair, said.
Meanwhile, University of Massachusetts professor Jonathan Ong presented how politicians used social media for their candidacy, with some using fakes accounts, memes or pages that many citizens "liked" and "shared".
Ong said it remains difficult to detect the people behind accounts or ads that spread disinformation.
This difficulty was seen in 2016 and 2019, and only minimal action was taken to curb this problem despite the “fact checking” endeavors of some journalists or news organizations.
"There hasn’t been focus on the people at the top. Nakikilala natin ang names ng fake news queens, but we haven’t come up with, like, comprehensive framework to penalize people who finance and really introduce financial incentives,” Ong told the committee.
There is a need to uncover public relations firms and advertisers that are actually marshaling their resources for online trolls or the so-called influencers and other “private industry actors”, according to Ong.
“A lot of these campaigns are coordinated by somebody at the top, together with an army of influencers. They could be celebrities online, or those micro-level influencers. Akala n'yo nagpapatawa lang sila, pero gumagawa na ng memes and posts promoting politicians, or attacking politicians,” Ong said.
Undersecretary Emmanuel Rey Caintic of the Department of Information and Communication Technology said his agency has the capacity to identify and act on fake websites or accounts, provided that a report or complaint is submitted.
“We’re also helping government agencies and it's open to others, in education on how to properly manage the pages based on the new extensive Facebook guidelines on inauthentic behavior,” said Caintic.
The Comelec, for its part, is also trying to come up with measures on how to curb the spread of disinformation on social media, especially during election period, Jimenez said.
“Inter-agency election integrity task forces might be a good idea because the Comelec lacks the resources to detect coordinated authentic behavior… to establish, assist and perhaps advise the Comelec in the electoral process… It is recommended that the DICT undertake a massive comprehensive education campaign,” Jimenez said.
Marcos shared an experience wherein fan pages related to her family were taken down by Facebook, and noted that media organizations Rappler and Vera Files were tapped as Facebook's fact-checkers.
“Bakit ang fact-checker na ginagamit ng FB eh yung dalawang tanyag na media na bumabatikos kay President Duterte kada kilos halos. Eh, yung Rappler at Vera Files, bakit itinatag 'yan bilang gate keeper? There is politicizing questions that become very confused,” Marcos said.
Caintic quickly offered an explanation.
“Posibleng tama naman ang pahina mo, page mo. Pero 'pag may napapansin po kasing coordinated inauthentic behavior, let’s say marami kaming fake account - hindi mo kagagawan yun - pero pag maraming fake account na nagla-like-like-like o nagpo-post-post-post dun sa legit page mo, pwede kayong ma-take down. Hindi dahil sadya mo yun, kundi baka nag-like lang dun,” Caintic said.
Ong, for his part, reminded the government to be careful in taking accounts down as this, according to him, could have chilling effects and could result in silencing the public.
He said it is better for media organizations and government agencies to arm themselves with their respective fact-checkers.
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