Facebook Revolution? Social Media, the 2013 Elections, and the National Situation

@ Solidaridad ConferenceNote: This is a talk I gave to campus journalists of the University of the Philippines system during a Conference of the UP Solidaridad in UP Visayas Miagao, Iloilo last May 16, 2013.

When Pixel Offensive posted a status update discouraging his readers from blaming the masses for disappointing election results, the Facebook meme page got some affirmations and violent reactions.

There are those who still blamed the ignorance of the masses, saying “most voters are stupid and they get stupid lawmakers and leaders.” Some called for the education of the masses. Others blamed the vote-buying and violence by those in power for making elections a mere illusion for the majority.

One of the more perceptive comments said that voting changes nothing: “People are not elected to political office to change things, they put there to keep things the way they are.”

This is an example of the power of social media or web 2.0 as it used to be known at the turn of the 21st Century. Unlike web 1.0 of the 1990s which akin to TV, traditional print, and broadcast media consisted mainly of static Internet pages fed to its audience, social media enables users to generate content themselves.

Who among us here have Facebook accounts? Twitter? Uploaded YouTube videos? Edited Wikipedia entries or tinkered with Google Maps? You are not alone. It is not without reason that we have been called the digital generation.

We Filipinos are the biggest users of Twitter in August 2012. We also send an average of 1 billion text messages daily. Filipinos has the highest internet usage in Asia with the Internet World Statistics saying that 32.4% of the population having internet access.

Social media and imperialist globalization

We are all familiar with buzzwords such as “immaterial labor,” “information hi-way,” and “virtual economy” which make it seems that the success of dot com companies like Google and Facebook was simply a matter of taking advantage of the potentials of the World Wide Web. Innovative entrepreneurs simply have to cash in.

urlBut in fact their success depended mainly on the existence of material infrastructures like research labs, physical servers, computer networks, and business process outsourcing sites and offices that any ordinary internet user cannot possibly possess.

Capitalism which began with free competition eventually led to the triumph of big enterprises over small ones, and hence the concentration of production in the hands of big monopolies in the advanced capitalist countries at the turn of the 20th Century.

To avert crisis in their domestic economies with too many products that the majority of their own people cannot possibly consume, the industrial powers of Europe and North America completed the territorial division of the rest of the world among themselves. These countries became colonies and semi-colonies as the dumping ground of surplus capital and manufactured goods and a source of cheap labor and natural resources. This system of monopoly capitalism is what is classically defined as imperialism.

A socialist bloc led by China under Mao and Soviet Russia under Lenin and Stalin as well as widespread national liberation struggles in Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Algeria, and other parts of the world posed a powerful challenge to the exploitative and oppressive world imperialist regime.

But the complete restoration of capitalism in these countries in the late 1980s due to intense military pressure and economic sabotage from the capitalist powers as well as internal weaknesses led to the present juncture where imperialism has spread its tentacles in almost all corners of the world under the banner of “globalization.”

The rise of the use of social media can be contextualized in the rapid development of information and communication as a major component of “imperialist globalization.” The widespread dissemination of social media, mobile phones, and other information and communication technologies are promoted as part of this globalized system’s neoliberal drive for quicker profit and accumulation of capital through faster financial speculation and economic transactions.

It compliments the dynamic of concentrating of wealth in the hands of the multinational corporations and big bankers in the metropolitan centers. It serves as another means for the propagation of consumerist lifestyles, middle class aspirations, technological determinism, and unbridled individualism to the peoples of the world.

Potentials, limits, and dangers of social media

distrustBut like everything in this world, social media also had the unintended consequence of giving ordinary people a weapon to unmask the half truths and lies peddled by the ruling order and the mainstream corporate media to legitimate their rule. Social media has become a novel tool to expose social injustices, oppression, and exploitation, to mobilize for causes, and organize resistance.

Here in the Philippines we’ve all been acquainted with the way social activists have adeptly utilized social media to advance a diverse set of causes from the opposition to environmentally-destructive mining, the campaign to end violence against women, and demanding respect for human rights.

To highlight the abduction of activists by military forces, human rights advocates campaigned for Facebook users to remove their profile pictures during the International Day of the Disappeared last August 30, 2012. The massive actions against the cutbacks on the budget for state schools also popularized planking as a form of protest.

Meanwhile, social activists also coined and caused the term “noynoying,” which literally means do-nothing, to trend to expose the Aquino regime’s inaction on the people’s urgent demands from ending tuition increases, oil price hikes, among others. The combination of online outrage and on the ground protests also nailed the coffin on the draconian Cyber Crime Law.

But despite its potentials, social media is also fraught with limits that prevents freedom of expression advocates and social activists from relying solely or primarily on it for their work. The Global Voices Advocacy tracked 371 cases of threatened or arrested bloggers, including 3 in our country. Websites that are critical of ruling regimes are regularly blocked.

Online freedom of speech is suppressed once it becomes too threatening to those in power. Citizen media are monitored, intimidated, harassed, and put under arrest. Social media accounts are effective tools for electronic surveillance with its wealth of raw data about vocal critics of government policies and programs.

block facebookMobile phones can pinpoint the locations of activists. The list of friends and photos uploaded on Facebook provide precise information on their networks. Tweets and status updates can provide the latest information on their whereabouts.

But more than this, the rise of social media has gravely affected the way we perceive the world and become socially aware and involved in politics. Instead of providing a locus for people’s empowerment it has for the most part become a “weapon of mass distraction.”

Rather than encouraging social involvement, it is capturing people’s energies and diverting it to mundane concerns from worshiping showbiz stars, criticizing another country, or promoting charity or some other “harmless” advocacies like tree plantings or coastal cleanups. And as the recently concluded elections show, this includes bashing scions of political dynasties that are seen as threats to the ruling party.

If in the past, we judge something as true if we see it with our own eyes today we only believe it if it can be searched in Google. The danger of relying on social media as our only window to the world is epitomized in an uncanny case involving Google maps:

As of late 2009, Google Maps users in China saw the area marked as part of Tibet; those in India still saw it designated as part of India. Google Maps applied the same treatment to disputed areas of the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, which have majority Muslim populations and have been claimed by Pakistan since the two nations were divided in 1947. [1]

2013 election circus and social media

vice gandaThe problem with what is now criticized as “clicktivism” or the relying on online petitions and Facebook causes to forward advocacies is hindered by two major factors.

First, traditional politicians simply hire public relations teams to handle their social media accounts rather than interacting their with their constituents. Second, limited internet penetration and access to hi-tech gadgets prevents advocates from reaching a large number of people with your message.

Those in power would rather saturate social media with their own message to drown out critics rather than addressing criticisms raised online:

Rather than responding to messages sent by activists and critics, they counter with their own contributions to the circulating flow of communications, hoping that sufficient volume (whether in terms of number of contributions or the spectacular nature of a contribution) will give their contributions dominance or stickiness. [2]

The partial results of the 2013 mid-term elections highlight these limitations of social media as a tool for promoting changes in the real world in a glaring way. Despite efforts at maximizing social media for raising voters awareness and holding intelligent debates, the elections at all levels were still dominated by the same political dynasties who represent big business and landlord interests.

Those who featured well in alternative surveys and online discourse in social media like independent Senatorial candidate Teddy Casino and even traditional politicians like Dick Gordon and even Liberal Party lapdog Risa Hontiveros of Akbayan have all trailed in the actual results. Meanwhile, Nancy Binay who is a perennial target of bashing many social media users for her alleged lack of credentials as a senatorial candidate has ended with one of the highest number of votes.

Ultimately, old-school 3G technology that is, “guns, goons, and gold” still proves to be more decisive in winning elections than hi-tech social media. The entrenched patronage system, the monopoly of wealth and violence by the ruling elites, vote-buying, intimidation and harassment, as well as the use of government machinery by the ruling party were still the key to victory rather than the viral discourse in the virtual world.

vote buyingFor the majority of the people, elections as a “democratic exercise” of the right to vote the country’s leaders has been limited to choosing once every three years who from among the ruling elites will oppress them with anti-people laws, policies, and programs the rest of the years.

In this circus, even the party-list system which was supposed to be a concession by the ruling system to the marginalized sectors by giving them 20 percent of the seats in Congress is now used as a backdoor to Congress by political dynasties and big business.

For example, election watchdog Kontra Daya points out that the party-list  Aambis-Owa which claims to be for the farmers is represented by a Garin, a landed political clan in Iloilo. A Teacher is run by private school owners and Append by big micro-lending companies while Akbayan is led by cabinet-level government officials. Meanwhile genuine party-lists like Kabataan and Piston are threatened with disqualification by the Commission on Elections.

But what is worse is the possible use of hi-tech gimmickry for fraudulent schemes. There is widespread suspicion of the election results because of the total absence of transparency by the Comelec in the counting and canvassing of the automated election system.

From the very beginning, the system is owned, controlled, and managed by profit-driven foreign companies like Smartmatic while the source code was never opened for public review. We thus lack the ability to independently verify the software running the automated system.

These fears are now being compounded by the rampant glitches afflicting the automated system during the election day and after – from malfunctioning machines, corrupted compact flash cards, failed transmissions, and the delayed canvassing of results.

Three Years under the Noynoy Aquino regime

Officials of the ruling Liberal Party boast that the mid-term elections is a referendum on the administration of Noynoy Aquino. They boast that the economic growth, social reforms, poverty alleviation and anti-corruption crusade that led to the success of administration coalition candidates for local and national posts. It is a testament to the Filipino people’s satisfaction and confidence in the Aquino regime and its neoliberal policies and programs.

In the first place, economic growth for whom? The spokespersons of the president have been busy trumpeting the so-called 6.6% growth in the Gross Domestic Product in the last quarter of 2012. But they forget to add that 76% of this growth is actually in the hands of the 40 richest families in the country. It goes to the pockets of the Sys, Cojuangcos, Tans, Gokongweis, Ayalas, and so on.

On the other hand, 65 million Filipinos continue to live on less than $2 a day. The latest government statistics itself point out that 28% of the population live in extreme poverty. Ordinary families are burdened by soaring prices and rising joblessness. Workers suffer from low wages, contractualization and inhumane working conditions while 6 of 10 peasants are still landless, thus forcing them to enter into unjust and exploitative relations with despotic landlords.

calamityThe country remains dependent on foreign loans and foreign direct investments. Government economic policy is aimed mainly at enticing foreign big business to engage in business process outsourcing, large-scale mining, legal logging, and cash crop plantations in the country. Because of the intensifying rate of exploitation and plunder of the country’s natural resources and environment, the Filipino people have been at the receiving end of even more destructive natural calamities from Sendong to Pablo.

As a safety valve to an explosive domestic situation, the Aquino regime continues the labor export policy. It peddles the illusion of easy money being earned abroad even as more than 4,000 Filipinos join the 11 million Filipinos in other countries due to the lack of opportunities at home.

Three years under the Aquino regime has not made any difference for the majority of the country’s people. A different president is in power but the same policies are still in place. The same political dynasties that represent landed and big business interests are still in power.

Even the administration’s anti-corruption drive has been more concerned with targeting rivals of the ruling party. In fact, technical smuggling has increased under Aquino. According to the International Monetary Fund, the government revenues lost to smuggling has reached $19 billion a year as opposed to $6 billion under the Estrada and Arroyo regimes. The turning over of public assets to private investors, i.e. privatization, is called under the fancy name of “public-private partnership” or PPP.

While slashing the budget for education, health, and other social services, the Aquino regime has increased the allocation of Conditional Cash Transfer doleouts. The state abandonment of education has led to the increase of tuition and other fees in state colleges and universities.

edukasyonLast February, a student from the University of the Philippines, the country’s national university, committed suicide because of her inability to pay tuition. The average price of education in UP is P1,000 per unit under the Socialized Tuition Financial Assistance Program.

On the other hand, 451 private schools are set to increase tuition with the opening of classes this June. The educational system continues to be deregulated under the Education Act of 1982 with annual tuition and other fee hikes posing added burdens to students and their parents every year. The effect is clear. Education has become so inaccessible that only 1 for every 10 Grade 1 students eventually graduate college.

But instead of solving this problem, the Aquino regime has pushed for the lengthening of basic education with two additional years under K-12 saying young Filipinos can immediately find jobs after high school instead of proceeding to college. The real purpose here is of course not improving the quality of education but creating more cheap semi-skilled labor.

The Aquino regime also brags about concluding a Peace Agreement with the main Moro secessionist group in Mindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, by 2016. However, as long as the Moro people’s right to self-determination is not respected, as long as the Moro people remain marginalized, they will continue to fight. The unexpected armed expedition of the Sultanate of Sulu in Sabah is also reflective of the continuing volatile situation in Mindanao.

The peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines was recently scuttled by the Aquino because it wants to compel the Communist Party-led revolutionary movement to simply surrender without addressing its legitimate grievances that are rooted in social injustices and oppression. The government dreams of crushing the armed struggle by the end of its term in 2016 but the revolutionary movement has only grown even stronger and plans to reach strategic parity with the government’s armed force within the decade.

stop killingsThe Aquino regime therefore resorts to intensified repression. Under the Oplan Bayanihan counterinsurgency plan no distinctions are made between guerrillas under the CPP-led New People’s Army and civilian activists. Sugarcoated slogans like “winning the peace,” “people-centric approach,” and “respect for human rights” cannot hide the reality of a brutal war being waged all over the country.

Since the beginning of Aquino’s term in 2010, the human rights group Karapatan has documented 130 extrajudicial killings, 72 tortures, 14 enforced disappearances, 30, 260 forced evacuations, 27, 308 harassment, and 23,702 cases of the use of civilian buildings like schools, chapels, public markets, and barangay halls as military detachments.

Social media and social change

The problem goes beyond the incompetence or “noynoying” of the Aquino regime, the corruption of evil government bureaucrats and officials, or the so-called “ignorant voters.” Ultimately, all this reflective of the dominant social system in the country which concentrates all the wealth and power in the hands of the top 1% by oppressing and exploiting the bottom 99%.

tatsulokDespite the diffusion of social media and cheap mobile technologies to a wider segment of the population, Philippine society remains semi-colonial and semi-feudal. Semi-colonial because the ruling classes are tied to imperialist interests, in this case the US, despite trappings of formal independence. Semi-feudal because of the persistence of the land monopoly and its being put under the orbit of the world capitalist system.

Only by putting collective action and solidarity back on the national agenda and by building a strong social movement that will encompass the 99% can we hope to overturn this system. Only by organizing and mobilizing the largest number of people can we hope to build a better future for the present and next generations to come.

The use of social media can compliment but not replace the hard work of organizing people face to face to fight for their rights and demand justice from those in power. It is not enough for us to simply blog, sign online petitions, or like Facebook causes. We have to go out and unite with the struggles of the peasants, workers, and other oppressed and marginalized sectors.

As the examples of “Textpower” in Edsa Dos that overthrew a corrupt President or the use of Twitter and Facebook in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements that drew attention to global inequality and ousted powerful dictators in the Middle East, the combination of online and offline activities, of virtual and real-world interventions, can be a potent weapon for change. In the end, it is people not Facebook that make revolutions. As a revolutionary leader and philosopher once said, “it is people, not things, that are decisive.”

Notes

1. Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 117.
2. Jodi Dean. “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and Foreclosure of Politics,” in Cultural Politics, Volume 1 Issue 1 (2005), 53.

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5 Comments

  1. You could definitely see your expertise in the work you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

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