Popular misconceptions about the internet, social media, and their impact on politics

Wireless communication. What this concept hides is the use of massive manual labor in building the infrastructures that make wireless technologies possible. Workers are the unsung and underpaid heroes of the digital age because of their crucial role in laying the undersea cables that connect the ‘webs’, installing fiber optics, and setting up of telecommunication towers. They are the invisible tech workers whose labor has allowed software programmers to develop machines and apps that lead us closer to a wireless future.

Social media revolution. Thankfully, the ongoing Hong Kong protests are not called ‘Telegram uprising’ in reference to the crucial role of the encrypted messaging app in coordinating rallies across the city. In contrast, ‘Arab Spring’ actions in 2011 were portrayed as ‘Facebook revolution’ or ‘Twitter revolution’ because of the ubiquitous use of these popular platforms during the protests. What is ignored when we hype the reach of social media is the bravery and defiance of the people themselves who march in the streets and risk their lives to fight tyranny. It may be important to identify the tools of the resistance but it should not lead to tech-worship while overlooking the political impact of real people mobilizing and organizing for democracy. Years later, the same tools that supposedly empowered online citizens became weapons of hate and disinformation by despots and populist politicians.

Online engagement brings votes. Tell this to Mocha Uson whose millions of social media followers failed to deliver enough votes for her partylist group. In terms of audience engagement, the metrics of the social media accounts of Uson, senatorial candidate Larry Gadon, and other pro-Duterte ‘influencers’ are impressive. Too impressive that they are often touted as effective propaganda machineries of the president. But the results of the recent elections should make us reconsider the authenticity of their base, the conversion of social media popularity into political clout, and the obsession to compete for attention and virality. More importantly, we are reminded that the best model of ‘audience engagement’ is still direct organizing in communities. Mainstream and social media can broaden reach, but in politics what counts is the solid membership in barangays, districts, cities, and provinces.

Internet presence as good governance. An increasing number of bureaucrats equate transparency with realtime social media reporting. It may be an innovative way to engage constituents but the indicators of honest governance should not be reduced into a mere broadcast of the dull activities of narcissistic politicians. We remember how Palace apologists during the presidency of Noynoy Aquino bragged about their promotion of open governance by citing the proliferation of agency websites, the interaction between netizens and civil servants, and the online uploading of government reports and the president’s speeches. It is perverse transparency when you bombard the public with too many bytes of information, overwhelm the media with fantastic numbers, and entertain voters with Facebook Live inanities. Meanwhile, these ‘transparent’ politicians impose numerous exceptions in the Freedom of Information, while they select only the ‘safe’ documents that can be publicly accessed by the online community, and their meetings with campaign donors and foreign lobbyists are held in secret.

Blame the army of trolls for the spread of disinformation. There is nothing good to say about trolls polluting the cyberspace with their vitriolic nonsense. But by focusing our righteous rage against them, they may have already succeeded by diverting attention away from their financiers and political backers. The target should be the troll-in-chief Duterte who admitted that he hired a cyber army to support his candidacy in 2016. Expose the PR experts and companies behind the network of disinformation, the state-funded influencers directing the loyal mob, and media personalities agitating the DDS with falsehoods and irrational arguments. Ordinary trolls and bots are just a distraction; the real criminals and primary source of so-called ‘fake news’ are the communication mercenaries in corporate offices and government centers.

Shutdown of communications is necessary during crisis moments. Governments are finding it convenient to justify Internet shutdowns by citing national security threats. The response of authorities during terror attacks, racial riots, political destabilization, and even religious festivals is to restrict data and communication services. They argue that this is needed to prevent the sharing of hoaxes which could inflame tension and disrupt the coordination of terrorist cells. What they refuse to understand is that open lines of communication are essential during these emergency situations because people need to access verified information from the media and government. Allowing the government to deprive people of information for an indefinite period could set a dangerous precedent and normalize this authoritarian mandate. The people suffer more especially migrant families, small entrepreneurs, and companies delivering frontline services. Besides, why endorse the fallacy that internet restriction can stop the work of groups with criminal intent?

Virtual hate speech does not lead to offline violence. It is apt to quote the butcher General Jovito Palparan: ‘I didn’t shoot anyone, I just inspired the triggerman.’ This should be a reminder to netizens who may not be nasty trolls with fake accounts but are fanatically provoking violent attacks against individuals and groups which are criticizing the president. Online hate can easily turn into a vicious operation against perceived ‘enemies of the state’. Some think being a notorious keyboard warrior has no real-life consequences. In other countries, we saw how racist narratives are amplified in social media until it led to communal riots and hate crimes. In the Philippines, many victims of extrajudicial killings were first demonized in social media posters, journalists denounced as communists, activists red-tagged as armed rebels, and human rights lawyers criticized by trolls for defending leftists. It is not enough anymore to ask if what we write online is the truth, we must also try to determine if our words can be manipulated, weaponized, and enable death squads to cause harm against activists, farmers, indigenous peoples, and other groups fighting for change in our society.

Sharing of data is harmless. I have nothing to hide. The government downplays the draconian features of the anti-cybercrime law by reminding the public that they have nothing to fear if they committed no crime. The same thinking is at work when tech companies seduce users to accept the sharing of their personal information with third-party servers. The right to privacy is eroded while its link to democratic principles is obfuscated. The result is the creeping emergence of a surveillance society where Big Brother is lurking everywhere and in every app while citizens are voluntarily sharing information to corporate vultures and cyber army centers. Ultimately, it weakens the political power of individuals to challenge how powerful and sinister forces are deploying user data for their narrow interests.

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairperson of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: mongpalatino@gmail.com

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