Manila Times - The good and bad side of social media by Tita Valderama

WITH at least 30 percent of Filipinos on the Internet, popular social networking sites have increasingly become a significant platform for political campaigning. It has become a trend worldwide that the Philippines has been trying to catch up.

Even before the campaign period officially began last month, Facebook and Twitter, being the most penetrated sites, were swamped with political campaigning, both good and bad.

Since the Philippines was connected to the Internet in 1994 with very limited penetration, web access and activity has much improved not only on desktop computers but also on smart phones.

With a fast-growing online accessibility, social media has become a powerful tool to promote a candidate, or to destroy another.

Senatorial candidate Cynthia Villar, former representative representing Las Piñas, recently found herself trending on Facebook and Twitter because of a statement she made on national television about the nursing course. Nurses, nursing groups and relatives of nurses from various parts of the world raised a howl of protest over Villar’s statement that not all nurses needed to have license to practice because there are available vocational nursing courses doing mostly bedside care.

Cynthia Villar became an instant byword on social media. But it was a negative campaign by her critics. Her campaign handlers, instead of meeting the critics head on, seemed to have quietly strategized how to deal with the negative campaign.

After issuing a public apology, her new campaign ad as Mrs. Hanep-Buhay came out on the big television networks. Her political handlers chose the larger medium that is television, for self-promotion than the social media sites where unkind and cruel comments about her statement came out.

Villar’s defenders say her critics misconstrued her statement; it was taken out of context. Others say Villar meant well, but delivered it in a way that made professional nurses feel downgraded.

We would see in the next popularity rating survey results if the incident will create a dent in Mrs. Villar’s rating. It could be a test to the challenge that the unfortunate statement would unmake her senatorial bid.

In that incident, we saw how social media networking sites worked. It was not pleasant, but important lessons should be learned from incidents like that. Politicians, regardless of the time limit during debates or television guesting, should always be careful and precise in their statements to make sure the message they wish to deliver across are transmitted clearly and in accord with their framing.

As what digital media expert Chris Talbot said before students at The Manila Times College last month, social media deliver messages with a speed of light, and you should be ready to respond quickly, to engage in a dialog even with people you disagree with.

Talbot is founder and president of Talbot digital, a digital media and communications firm based in Washington, D.C. He was a guest of the US Embassy in Manila and had a string of speaking engagements with students, journalists, bloggers and elections officials during his weeklong stay in February.

Here are some of Talbot’s observations from his interactions with various groups during his brief stay in Manila, as he had published in Talbot Digital: “The rise of social media here is due in large part to the onward march of smartphones into the daily lives of millions. At 111 percent penetration, there are now more mobile phones in the Philippines than there are Filipinos.

“Combine mobile web access with the opinionated culture and you will start to understand why nearly all web-connected Filipinos have accounts on social networks. The young bloggers, journalists and activists that I met in Manila showed off an intuitive sense for the conversational, dialogue-driven realm of digital—good representatives of what locals like to call The Social Media Capital of the World.

“It isn’t just young people either—legacy leadership is starting to pay attention. Based on my discussions, all the major traditional news organizations are working hard to understand the value and opportunity that digital media represents [this was true for reporters and business leaders alike]. Crucially, the national election commission [Comelec] is also beginning to invest in digital tools to improve voter access and election accountability – even if they are taking cautious first steps.”

In 2001, the Philippines was tagged as the text capital of Asia following the crucial role that text messaging played in Edsa Dos to drive then president Joseph Estrada out of Malacañang on charges of massive corruption.

The popularity of text messaging has declined with the emergence of the social networking sites, from Friendster to MySpace, which have since shut down, and now to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, among many others.

Almost all candidates vying for national positions, including party-list organizations that are campaigning on a national constituency, have made their presence felt on social networking sites, and other forms of digital media like email.

In 2007, former Navy lt. Antonio Trillanes banked on the social media to wage his campaign for a Senate seat, and he won even while he was in detention on criminal charges related to the 2003 Oakwood mutiny and the 2007 Peninsula siege in Makati.

Francis Escudero also maximized the potentials of the social media in his first campaign to the Senate, also in 2007.

In the 2010 elections, the campaign of then presidential candidate Benigno Aquino 3rd was also heavy on the social media. He had a separate team engaged in the social media campaign. It was also the first time during his presidency that news bloggers were recognized in media coverage.

Social media is indeed changing the way political campaigns, and even news gathering, are done. And that social media is here to stay. Perhaps, users just have to commit to basic ethical practices to temper the abuses that can equate to cyber-bullying.