Election lessons we’ve learned in the Philippines

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Election Wrap-Up: What we've learned in the 2022 Philippine elections. All photos from Getty Images.
The 2022 Philippine elections had been a historic one. Here, four realizations about how the Philippines does its democratic elections emerged. (Photos: Getty Images)

While the next president and vice president of the Philippines are yet to be officially proclaimed, election news is already starting to die down – much to the delight of people who claimed to have experienced some level of election anxiety. Further, as there have been no objections from some presidential candidates such as Vice President Leni Robredo and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno to the official canvassing of votes for president, there seems to be fewer tensions or animosity among them already.

As the Philippines and the world await the official turnover of the next administration, Yahoo Philippines sat down with Atty. Michael Henry Yusingco, a senior research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government, to look back at the campaign season leading up to the 2022 Philippine elections and see what went right and what went wrong.

In this discussion, four important realizations emerged:

‘Political discourse became nonexistent on social media’

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - MAY 07: A vlogger livestreams using multiple phones on a single rig during Ferdinand
A vlogger livestreams using multiple phones on a single rig during Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.'s and his running mate Sara Duterte's last campaign rally before the election on May 07, 2022 in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

There were three aspects to look at when talking about the role of social media in this year's election (or any election, for that matter).

The first would be how social media was heavily and extensively utilized by the wealthy politicians by spending a lot of money on political ads, which, of course, could be targeted to their desired audiences.

The second would be how the not-so-well-resourced candidates took advantage of social media through organic support from their support base or volunteers. This is where we witnessed throngs of genuine supporters who created groups after groups and pages after pages that actively campaigned for their bets.

The last aspect would be the rise of vloggers and influencers (regardless of the number of their following) whose content was heavily, if not purely, about politics and the elections.

"Given this, political discourse on social media during the campaign period essentially became nonexistent," claimed Yusingco. "We no longer engaged in political discourse because all we did was just snipe at one another. 'Bardagulan,' as we called it."

We no longer engaged in political discourse [on social media] because all we did was just snipe at one another. 'Bardagulan,' as we called it.Atty. Michael Henry Yusingco

This was a dangerous trend to look at, said Yusingco, as social media was supposed to serve as a platform where we could source our information relating to the campaigns and the elections, and yet it failed to encourage any discourse at all. What the supporters focused on was posting their already-established support and not really doing anything significant to change voters' preferences.

"You begin to doubt. Did you get the right information?", noted Yusingco. "If we did not get to participate in any meaningful political discourse on social media, then we begin to question what kind of information we used to support our decision come election day."

At the very least, the information we got from social media became questionable as it did not bloom from a genuine political discourse that covered all bases.

According to Yusingco, "Our 'political discourse' was really more of just a battle of hashtags, a battle of memes, a battle of gimmicks. While they were cool and fun, the truth is they did not contribute anything substantive or meaningful in people's decision-making process."

‘More than the election results, disinformation affected social relations’

In this photo taken on March 10, 2022, Al Contrata, 25, a supporter of Presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, holds his phone during an interview with AFP at his residence in Manila. - Philippine social media has exploded with support for presidential election favourite Ferdinand Marcos Junior, driven by a massive misinformation campaign aimed at revamping the family brand and smearing his top rival.  - TO GO WITH AFP STORY: Philippines-misinformation-internet-vote-Marcos, FOCUS by Faith BROWN (Photo by Jam STA ROSA / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY: Philippines-misinformation-internet-vote-Marcos, FOCUS by Faith BROWN (Photo by JAM STA ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)
In this photo taken on March 10, 2022, Al Contrata, 25, a supporter of Presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, holds his phone during an interview with AFP at his residence in Manila. (Photo by JAM STA ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)

Disinformation, as Yahoo and many other news publications have already reported by now, is becoming an even bigger player in the online media sphere. Reports after reports showed that disinformation played a crucial role in many democratic elections across the world – from Myanmar and Indonesia to the United States and Turkey, among many others.

The recent national elections in the Philippines were no different.

While that is true, Yusingco also stressed that disinformation affects not only the elections – it is, in fact, part of a much bigger problem.

"It also affects social relations and threatens or undermines civility. In effect, it negatively impacts the way we treat one another in and out of the social media sphere," he said. "How can we collectively act and engage in real-life public discourse if we do not have that kind of openness that listens to the other side? We lost that already."

This is where the concept of echo chamber comes in, which refers to an environment where a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered.

The echo chamber, unbeknown to many innocent and susceptible social media users, is created in a person's unique social media feed; the more they react or engage in a topic, the more the platform feeds them with content that are related to that topic. That is just how many social media platforms work. So if, for example, a user keeps on engaging on posts that are related to former senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the more the social media platform pummels the user with more Marcos-related content.

How can we collectively act and engage in real-life public discourse if we do not have that kind of openness that listens to the other side?Atty. Michael Henry Yusingco

"Because of the algorithm, you become exposed to ideas that you want and agree with. In effect, your echo chamber becomes a lot narrower," said Yusingco. "It would be okay if you exhibit this behavior on social media alone. But in real life, you become the same person that you are on social media. So you get heated discussions with your spouse or your friend who does not share the same political beliefs with you because they are outside your echo chamber."

To combat disinformation, there needs to have some regulation of social media. However, it is easier said than done especially in a democratic country like the Philippines.

For one, social media is already being used as a platform for criminal activities, and not to mention that disinformation materials that spread on these platforms heavily affect the elections and democracy of a state. However, social media also benefits society in more ways than one as it serves as one of the most, if not yet the most, trusted and convenient sources of information.

The challenge now lies in nurturing the health of that information ecosystem. How can the government do that if our regulations in place have become way behind the rapid growth of social media and technology?

‘While big rallies were impressive, they didn’t change enough votes’

Supporters of Philippine Vice President and presidential candidate Leni Robredo attend a campaign rally at Makati business district in suburban Manila on May 7, 2022. (Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN / AFP) (Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of Philippine Vice President and presidential candidate Leni Robredo attend a campaign rally at Makati business district in suburban Manila on May 7, 2022. (Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP via Getty Images)

It was notable how the supporters of Marcos and Robredo, in particular, took pride in their respective campaign rallies and sorties. Both parties never missed reporting crowd estimates from local police and organizers. In some instances, one party would even question the crowd estimate of a rival party until it turns into a heated argument among their supporters.

Which raises the question: What is the point?

For Yusingco, these rallies with massive crowds were nothing new in the political spectrum. What changed in this year's elections, however, was just the way they were packaged: more vibrant, more colorful, and more fun.

"The crowd sizes of Robredo's rallies were impressive, obviously, but I would not say that was unique to her," he said. "Former President Erap Estrada could also attract huge crowds, so let us not kid ourselves. These massive rallies are nothing new."

More so, these rallies and sorties also lost their purpose already.

"The attendees do not get any new information about the candidates in these events — they just get entertained. The format of these events are pretty much the same: it starts with singing and dancing or hyping up the crowd before the candidates come out," said Yusingco. "But essentially, they do not help voters in the reflection process."

[House-to-house campaigns and town halls] are the activities that the candidates and their supporters should be doing more because it helps the voters in their reflection process...Atty. Michael Henry Yusingco

Rallies and sorties used to hold crucial importance in the early years. In the 1950s and 1960s, back when the world did not yet have TV and radio, rallies served as a venue for candidates to meet their supporters. It was only through these events that they could announce their platforms and agenda.

But as technology caught up with humanity, announcing platforms and agendas could already be done in traditional and new media. What new things, aside from entertainment, can be provided by these rallies?

What future candidates would need to focus more on, according to Yusingco, is conducting more house-to-house campaigns and town hall sessions, where the candidates could really look at the people eye-to-eye and explain their platforms.

"These are the activities that the candidates and their supporters should be doing more because it helps the voters in their reflection process, get to know the candidates much better, and get new information and insights that would support their decision-making process," he said. "It is high time that we calibrate the way we campaign and really focus on facilitating meaningful interactions with the voters."

‘Volunteer movements should’ve evolved into a political party’

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - MAY 06: A volunteer hands out campaign materials as she and others go house-to-house to campaign for the presidential bid of Vice President Leni Robredo on May 06, 2022 in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines. Thousands of supporters all over the country have come out in full force for Vice President Leni Robredo, knocking on doors to convince voters in a bid to close the gap against presidential frontrunner Ferdinand
A volunteer hands out campaign materials as she and others go house-to-house to campaign for the presidential bid of Vice President Leni Robredo on May 06, 2022 in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

Several international reports about the 2022 Philippine elections specifically highlighted what they called the "Pink Movement" of Robredo and how it was composed of a big network of volunteers.

For Yusingco, the Bayanihan that the electorate witnessed from some parties showed a resurgence of the spirit of volunteerism in the community and polity.

"After the EDSA revolution or what called the People Power, that kind of spirit was in decline, right? This was because of the general disillusionment that we felt because of what we saw from political elites in the administrations of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Benigno Aquino III, and, to a certain extent, Rodrigo Duterte," he said. "The population became averse to engaging in political activities. We developed some trust issues against our politicians so why would you volunteer for a politician you do not trust, right?"

What the Philippines saw in the past months or since the campaign officially started is a resurgence of that kind of spirit, which was obviously inspired by Robredo, said Yusingco. Now, these supporters already had a politician that they could look up to, hence the resurgence of Bayanihan.

However, romanticizing this volunteerism was a trap and proved to be a disappointment, especially to those who actively glamourized it.

"People liked framing it in a way that it was a battle between good and evil, between volunteerism and political machinery. It could be that way, yes, but romanticizing it would not help anybody," said Yusingco. "We can see it now; those who romanticized it are slowly realizing the disappointment."

If the candidates and supporters really wanted to leverage their volunteerism as a strength, they must organize themselves into a political party.

If [Robredo's] voluntary movement is going to make an impact or if it is going to change our political landscape, it has to evolve into a political party and manifest as an organized political mobilization.Atty. Michael Henry Yusingco

Yusingco shared, "When Robredo said that she was going to transform her 'movement' into a nongovernment organization, that sort of disappointed me because if this movement really gained a community-driven momentum during the campaign, then I would like to think that the correct evolutionary path was to organize as a political party."

As a community organization, an NGO is focused more on community development; they are not really expected to be involved heavily in politics because they want to be as inclusive as possible and because they avoid their activities being bereft of any political color.

"So where will this so-called 'voluntary movement' end up if it is not a political party?", asked Yusingco. "If this voluntary movement is going to make an impact or if it is going to change our political landscape, it has to evolve into a political party and manifest as an organized political mobilization."

The primary function of a political party is to educate the electorate about their particular brand of politics and to participate in policy-making and legislation.

"If you are already a political party that is active in advocating certain policies, you can impact the ways laws are crafted or what laws should be legislated," noted Yusingco.

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who writes in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications. He covers cultures, media, gender, and the 2022 Philippine elections.

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