[OPINION] A message to the enlightened Filipinos
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
These are the words uttered by Jesus Christ as he faced the angry mob who cursed, jeered, and then called for his execution via crucifixion, as though he was the worst criminal alive. Fast forward to the present – where the opposition just got subjected to an electoral bloodbath – not a few members from different anti-Duterte groups understandably, unlike the Divine and the All-Merciful, started cursing and blaming the wholesale carnage on the so-called “bobotantes” or the Filipino masses. They’ve had it. The masses are stupid, they say. But are they, really? I don’t think so.
During the People Power Revolution in 1986, it was the same masses who flocked to EDSA that eventually led to the ouster of the Marcoses. The same masses again showed up in 2007 and 2010, through their votes this time, as they resoundingly rejected the corrupt Arroyo administration. In short, the Filipino masses that the enlightened class so easily blame have, historically, delivered time and again. Contrary to the elitist misconception, as far as politics is concerned, they are as smart, sensitive, and patriotic as everyone else. But if so, it begs the question: Despite what’s going on in our country, why do they still support Duterte and his allies? Well, the simple answer is, they don’t know what you know and they haven’t seen what you’ve seen. In other words, the Filipino masses are not stupid and blind; they are just not as enlightened as you are.
The information interplay
In today’s social media age, the enlightened class tends to assume two things: (1) that everybody else is on Facebook or social media; and (2) that the information they see on their newsfeeds are basically the same as what everybody else sees. Well, sad to say, both are inaccurate assumptions.
Based on various statistics, active Facebook or other social media platform users in the Philippines range from 35 million to 45 million. But a significant number of these users are below 18 years old and are, therefore, non-voters. So, if we have around 60 million registered voters, it is safe to say that at least half of the voting population are not on social media at all. For those who aren’t on social media, TV is still king. From the evening news to advertisements, to the teleserye, Ang Probinsyano (which helped a party-list group win two seats in Congress!), it is very evident that TV still has a strong influence on the general public’s political views. If you watched free TV programs during the last two weeks of the campaign then you’d have an idea of who are going to seriously contend for the top 12 in the Senate race.
Now, with regard to having the same information on newsfeeds, as what we recently learned from the Cambridge Analytica controversy, there are algorithms used by social media platforms to determine the preferences of each individual user. What you “like” is what you’ll see. Since most Filipino users are on social media primarily for socialization purposes, then they are likely oblivious to the political information that the enlightened class is seeing and absorbing. Further compounding this problem of information disparity are the fake news and trolls.
Ultimately, the glue that binds all this information and spreads it to the rest of the populace is the so-called word-of-mouth communication. It is where the interplay of facts, news, fake news, advertisements, urban legends, myths, and rumors get chewed on and chewed out.
Duterte, the master propagandist
Unfortunately for us, Duterte and his allies are well aware of these dynamics too. As a policy, they have constantly distorted information and disrupted the information flow to deceive and manipulate the minds of the general public. Duterte himself, as mayor of Davao City for almost 3 decades, has mastered this propaganda game as an essential element to his hold on power.
After winning as mayor in the 1987 elections, Duterte unleashed the Davao Death Squad on the depressed communities in Davao City. He justified the killings as a means to purge and purify the city, much like what Pol Pot had in mind. This shock and awe tactic helped create a climate of fear that cowed his political friends and foes, confused civil society, silenced the church, and both terrified and impressed his constituents. Duterte then courted, coopted, coerced, harassed and intimidated the local media into submission. For the few recalcitrant radio broadcasters, who reported on the corrupt activities committed by Duterte, he had them killed.
With the media abdicating its role as the city watchdog, it eventually became a propaganda tool to project the image he wanted for himself. Duterte then pervaded such urban legends as riding his Harley at night to patrol the streets of Davao to promote his anti-crime image, or that tale where he allegedly asked a foreign tourist to chew on a cigarette butt to stress his supposed toughness in enforcing policy. (Well, more likely, what the people of Davao saw was, since Duterte was an insomniac, probably, he was just bar-hopping late at night with a girlfriend in tow, along with a retinue of heavily armed bodyguards. As to the poor tourist, probably, he just glanced at Duterte’s girlfriend of the day and Duterte, being jealous and insecure, made him chew on the cigarette to prove his machismo but only after making sure his bodyguards are close by. Possible, right?)
Thereafter, having absolute control of the whole information apparatus, Duterte was able to turn the people of Davao City, including early critics and doubters, into believers and fanatics. To help explain how this is possible, just picture Kim Jong-un and the people of North Korea.
The Original Lie
As a prospective candidate for president, despite vehement denials early on, Duterte had his PR handlers design and surreptitiously launch in early 2015, a social media-based propaganda campaign to subtly promote him. Do you recall the online article, which reported that Davao City is the 4th safest city in the world? That online article was based solely on an online survey for those who visited the website and not on any extensive academic research by reputable institutions. But it came out at a time when people still believed everything that came out of the internet. So, when Duterte’s PR handlers fed this article to the mainstream media, it was naively swallowed as factual. Just a cursory check would’ve shown that Davao City isn’t even on the list of the top 1,000 safest cities in the world. In fact, according to official statistics in December 2015, Davao City recorded the most murders and second most rapes of all the cities in the country, making it actually the most dangerous city to live in. Great spin, right? Sadly, the media was complicit and didn’t even fact check it. Moreover, an army of fanatics from Davao and Mindanao were quickly all over social media validating and affirming it with their own testimonials. With this, fake news in the Philippines was born.
To their credit, this original lie was very effective as propaganda that it was deeply embedded in the voter psyche all throughout the campaign in 2016. This myth was never busted. Hence, it became the refuge of the Duterte apologists back then whenever he would commit a blunder. They would simply say, “Okay lang na bastos at palamura, basta gagawin niyang safest country ang Pilipinas the way na ginawa niya sa Davao (It's okay that he's rude and foul-mouthed, for as long as he makes the Philippines the safest country just as what he had done in Davao).” No matter how simplistic that sounds now but it worked then.
The totalitarian project
As a newly elected president, Duterte applied the Davao City template to the letter. He shocked and awed with his war on drugs speeches and the more than 30,000 EJKs that followed. This, plus the detention of Senator Leila de Lima on purely fabricated charges, created a climate of fear that cowed both his political allies and foes, intimidated the courts, confused civil society, silenced the church and both terrified and impressed the general public. They could end up in the constantly-updated narcolist, Duterte warned. As in Davao, he then courted, coopted, coerced, harassed, and intimidated the national media into submission. The “recalcitrant” few like Rappler, Vera Files and PCIJ, are continuously harassed and would end up in moronic oust-Duterte matrices. The multiple cases filed against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa were done in case some other independent journalists missed the point.
Again, as in Davao, with the major media outfits abdicating their role as society’s watchdog, Duterte effectively transformed them into his own propaganda machine. He had them at his fingertips. Whenever he needs to inculcate an idea, float a proposal, deflect an issue, or simply just to entertain and connect with the general public, he simply calls for a press conference then rambles away. None of the mainstream media outfits would dare report anything negative about those speeches or anything negative about Duterte, period. As confided by some reporters and editors, the basic rule in news rooms right now is, absolutely, no negative news for Duterte, Bong Go, and the administration in general. Otherwise, the fearful or coopted media owners and editors would block them.
All the while that this is happening in mainstream media, the Duterte social media machine was in full swing too, with paid influencers or trolls utilized as peddlers of propaganda, myths, anecdotes, and fake news to expand and solidify their netizen base and trigger word-of-mouth circulation.
With the propaganda apparatus operating as designed, the totalitarian project is about to be taken to the next step. But then the 2019 elections happened and, now, things will change. In fact, it already did.
The 2019 elections silver lining
Believe it or not, despite the undeniably wholesale defeat of the opposition at the polls, there were so many positive takeaways that we, the enlightened Filipinos, can build on moving forward.
First, the Duterte cult image and following have been shattered. In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, the euphoria, optimism, and conviction of the Duterte voters were so contagious, that almost all the Roxas, Poe, and Binay voters were instantly converted. They hoped that Duterte, the so-called architect behind the “safest city in the world,” would indeed deliver on his promises. He is the One, his diehards claim. Well, that illusion is over now and it wasn’t even fun while it lasted. Regardless of what the faux surveys say about his approval rating, the way Filipinos regarded him in June 2016, is much different than the way they regard him now.
While the spin masters and the uninitiated would claim that the election results reflected the dominance of the Duterte brand, most of the winners in the Senate race are already established names in politics who would’ve won regardless of the sitting President they’re allied with. Also, Tolentino was the 13th placer in the 2016 race, so he is not really considered a newcomer. Therefore, only Bong Go and Bato dela Rosa can be considered Duterte creations and alter egos. Other candidates that he or daughter Sara personally endorsed for the Senate, like Dong Mangudadatu, Jinggoy Estrada, Jiggy Manicad, Freddie Aguilar, and Raffy Alunan, lost badly too. The same goes for close ally incumbent Senator JV Ejercito.
As to Bong Go, think about it: after pouring billions of pesos before and during the campaign; pressuring the LGUs to deliver their command votes; getting endorsements from major religious groups; and being personally campaigned for by a supposedly extremely popular incumbent president, he was only able to muster at most 44% of the vote.
There was no Duterte factor in this elections, only the usual money politics in full display, plus the expected political pressure on the LGUs.
Hypothetically, if the LGUs were neutral instead of delivering the command vote for the admin candidates, Bam Aquino would’ve easily ended up being in the top 6 and Mar Roxas in the top 12. Or, if you give the lesser known opposition candidates just a hundred million pesos each for their TV ads, they would’ve made it, too. Consider this, Gary Alejano, the Magdalo candidate, who was a relatively unknown name in national politics prior to the campaign, spent approximately P3 million pesos in TV ads and yet he garnered more than 4.5 million votes.
In sum, there was no Duterte factor in this elections, only the usual money politics in full display, plus the expected political pressure on the LGUs.
Second, the enlightened Filipinos are not afraid anymore. The initial impact of the shock and awe strategy has been shaken off. Individuals, civil society groups and sectors, including most elements of the Catholic Church, have openly and actively campaigned for the opposition not only because they believe it is patriotic but also because they believe it is the moral thing to do. For most, it is now the quintessential battle of Good vs Evil.
Third, social media is not dominated by Duterte diehards anymore. Gone are the days when a netizen who would dare criticize Duterte would be swarmed, bullied, and threatened by his blind followers. Of course, the paid trolls and diehard supporters are still roaming the public pages, but the regular netizens who were just carried away by the Duterte bandwagon early on have either switched sides or have kept silent. As one former pro-Duterte netizen aptly said, “Nakakahiya at nakakapagod na kasi talaga siya depensahan (Defending him has really become shameful and tiresome).”
Fourth, regardless of the final outcome, Senator Bam Aquino still garnered more than 14 million votes. That is still quite an impressive number considering the circumstances. More importantly, it could be a base that the opposition could build on for the political battles ahead.
The way forward
At this point, the enlightened Filipinos would ask, what do we do next?
First, we lick our wounds then stand up as soon as we can, in order to prepare for the next political round. There is no benefit or wisdom to gain from sulking and blaming. The situation is still precarious. Don’t assume for a second that Duterte and his minions are satisfied with the fame, money, and power they have. No, they want more and, if possible, they want all. So, we have to remain vigilant. The threat of a nationwide Martial law/RevGov is always there. Then there are the likely moves for Cha-Cha/federalism; the continuing impunity and EJKs; the creeping invasion in the West Philippine Sea; the corruption of the Davao group, etc.
Second, we must unite and consolidate the opposition under Vice President Leni Robredo. She is not only a charismatic, intelligent, strong, and very capable leader, but also the polar opposite of the immoral and amoral Duterte.
We must also build on and be inspired by the positives of the last elections as enumerated above. We are not alone anymore. The ranks of the enlightened have grown so much bigger. It is also quite significant that the polls showed that, generally, the middle class has already turned its back on Duterte. It could now become the backbone of the enlightened movement.
Third, we must continue to shatter the Duterte myth by spreading the truth. Social media is not Duterte’s playground anymore. Call out your Facebook friends for posting or sharing fake news. Inform, educate, and enlighten your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and everyone else who would care to listen. For reasons stated above, we should not continue to expect the mainstream media to be society’s watchdog anymore. It is on us now.
Fighting a tyrant is, without a doubt, a formidable task. No one ever said that it would be easy. But, unfortunately, we don’t have a choice. Watching from the sidelines as Duterte destroys our country, is not an option.
Besides, right now, we have the motivation, the momentum, the time and, most importantly, we have the truth on our side. There’s one caveat, though: In our fight with the monster, we should not become monsters ourselves. Therefore, we should always take the high road and never be tempted to be like them. In doing so, all the killings and impunity, the oppression and persecution, the corruption and incompetence, the incivility and indecency, the deception and lies will stop with Duterte. This is the only way for us to redeem our national soul in 2022. – Rappler.com
Senator Antonio "Sonny" Trillanes IV is one of the most vocal critics of President Rodrigo Duterte. He is on his third term, which ends on June 30, 2019.