Social media 'war' cheaper, but tougher for candidates, strategists say

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 09 2019 02:57 PM | Updated as of Apr 25 2019 05:05 PM

Senatorial candidate Jinggoy Estrada poses for a photo with supporters during a campaign sortie in Baguio City. Jun Leprozo, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA -- Perched atop an orange flatbed truck, Jinggoy Estrada reveled in shrieks from supporters seeking handshakes. Online, he parried attacks from trolls calling him a plunderer.

Social media, where the "net war" is waged, is the tough new battleground for Estrada who won 2 Senate terms and the mayoralty of San Juan through old school pressing of flesh and song-and-dance campaigns.

Out on bail after being detained for 3 years on a plunder charge, former President Joseph Estrada's eldest son must learn to build an online presence and keep his cool in his quest for a political comeback.

"Ako, I just ignore them," he told ABS-CBN News, "kasi pag papatulan mo, it’s useless."

(I just ignore them. It's useless to respond.)

It’s a default attitude candidates are often told to embrace in an entirely new arena where they don’t necessarily control the narrative.

While candidates hold the mic on stage before a captive audience in a typical campaign setting, comments online come from different directions — and they can be nasty.

"Democracy and anonymity in the internet... social media changed the whole landscape," veteran campaign strategist Alan German told ABS-CBN News.

BANG FOR THE BUCK

Social media has been a vital element of any campaign package in recent years, he said, especially with its heavy influence in the 2016 presidential election.

A strong social media-driven campaign helped deliver the come-from-behind victory for then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.

But while online campaign is much cheaper than TV advertisements, the cost can still be enormous.

Citing industry estimates, German said senatorial candidates would normally need around P30 million to run an effective and sustained social media campaign.

It’s most effective for relatively unknown candidates seeking to introduce themselves to a national electorate, he said.

“Nothing can beat social media in terms of bang for the buck,” he said, citing studies showing more than 67 million Filipinos spending an average of nearly 4 hours on the platform daily.

“As an awareness platform, it can’t be beat.”

NET WAR

Political parties maximize social media to spread information regarding their respective platforms. ABS-CBN News

Social media has given rise to new kind of campaign warfare, what political science professor Julio Teehankee calls “net war.”

It “mediates” the traditional “ground war” and “air war,” which candidates typically wage, often with hefty campaign budgets, he said.

Ground war campaign involves command or bloc votes “gathered and delivered through traditional networks such as political machines and bailiwicks, usually negotiated through leaders and gatekeepers,” he wrote in a study on Philippine election campaigns.

Air war is waged on media, particularly broadcast, and accounts for more than half of a candidate’s votes, he said.

“We have not reached that point where the internet alone can win a national election,” he told ABS-CBN News.

“But what the internet and social media can do is actually to mediate ground war and the air war.”

TROLL FARMS

Social media provides an authentic and instantaneous feedback mechanism for voters, who normally won’t engage with candidates in traditional campaign sorties.

Voters don’t usually approach candidates to examine their campaign promise, track record — or the lack of it.

But online, they can be more willing and unforgiving, the “impersonal” nature of the platform “emboldening individuals to behave differently from the way they would behave on a personal basis,” said Teehankee.

“For real people, it’s a good development that we are able to speak our minds to public officials,” said lawyer Abigail Valte, whose communications company helps run the campaign of senatorial candidate Mar Roxas.

But certain social media accounts can also be those of well-funded “troll farms” targeting specific candidates, said German, who works for several senatorial candidates in the May elections.

RED LINES

Valte said candidates were often advised to get administrators as an “extra layer” between them and their social media accounts.

“Ang tendency kasi, pag emotional, napipikon. So you get into exchanges where public servants or politicians, medyo hindi maganda yung nagiging sagot nila sa mga bashers,” she told ABS-CBN News.

(When you're emotional, the tendency is to lose your temper. o you get into exchanges where public servants or politicians say the wrong things to bashers.)

Early last year, the typically reticent Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian tweeted “gago” and “ulol” in response to Twitter users who questioned his shifting political loyalties.

In subsequent media interviews, he said he had reached his “breaking point.”

Valte said public figures have their own “red lines” which they believe people online shouldn’t cross.

But these are the very issues that trolls take advantage of, precisely to lure candidates in a vicious and oftentimes, unwinnable online exchange.

WHATABOUTISM

Dealing with trolls may also require using a candidate’s own troll farms or “wraith” accounts, German said.

Not only will these accounts post messages in support of the candidate under siege, they will also “drown” negative comments against him, he said.

“You need a bandwagon to counter the flood, so to speak, to drown them,” he said. “Pag walang pera ang kandidato, he better have an organic following.”

(If a candidate doesn't have the money, he or she better have an organic following.)

Some accounts are also used to overwhelm supporters of specific candidates with sustained online attacks until they fall silent.

“Papatayin yung enthusiasm mo para sa candidate mo,” he said.

(They will kill your enthusiasm for your candidate.)

Another commonly used tool, he said, is “whataboutism,” a logical fallacy to deflect a legitimate issue raised against say, a candidate, by pointing instead to those hounding others.

So, if a candidate is confronted by Twitter or Facebook users over his stand on hot-button issues, his supporters can swing the discussion away by asking: but what about this other candidate?