When the Dolomite beach scandal trended online, there was speculation that authorities deliberately planned it to distract public attention from the bigger PhilHealth corruption mess. It is plausible given our history of government manipulation of public opinion for insidious ends. But if this was the work of a fixer, he or she could have simply tweaked our broken political-media landscape to drown out the PhilHealth issue. Who needs to bribe the media gatekeepers if internet users themselves are already preoccupied with consuming and sharing tidbits and bytes of mundane data?
Social media has fundamentally affected our capacity for political action. There are numerous hashtags and viral memes every day, and one or two of them may be directed against the ruling party. But at the end of the day, many are already overwhelmed, exhausted, and confused after feeding on conflicting narratives and sensational topics from Kpop to Duterte’s ramblings. Access to information turns into exposure to too much irrelevant information. Citizen engagement is equated to reacting to memes and headlines on our newsfeed. This favors the party in power since public sentiment is dissipated in harmless bubbles and echo chambers. Outrage is funneled into streams that are visible to Big Brother.
Our attention is diverted to tending our virtual communities and profiles which makes it easier for authorities to restrict our political activities in the cyber realm. Spreading disinformation triggers outright condemnation but not the non-stop browsing of the internet which is merely deemed as a health issue. Its long-term political implication is overlooked. We see pitiful screen-obsessed netizens but not citizens who think and behave as if the pursuit of politics starts and ends with their online routine.
To counter the information disorder, several initiatives have been adopted which range from government regulations to media literacy programs and digital security training sessions. We should add the role of activism in empowering citizens who use the internet in their daily lives.
Activism provides a guide on how scanning the web can lead to a meaningful political end. We are given a lens to view the world that is accessible online. It leads us to a specific path that prevents us from losing our sense of purpose when we are hypnotized by the filters of cyberspace. It is our weapon against the disruptive and intrusive Artificial Intelligence of big tech firms.
It defines the political agenda for the day which ensures that other seductive keywords and ads will not sway our attention. It offers a long view of what matters in the world compared to the ephemeral validity of what is popular on the web. It is a reminder that even what we do on social media is an act of politics. Hence, the need to take a more programmatic approach in accessing the internet.
Activism allows us to constantly reflect if our time spent online enhances our personal and political priorities. We may want to enjoy more feel-good click-bait videos but our political obligations compel us to pause and redirect our focus to what needs to be done.
Activism is our fact-checking initiative against so-called “fake news.” We cannot engage in politics without a proper social investigation. Mao Zedong has a succinct quote for it: “No investigation, no right to speak”. Our statements must be grounded on the reality that affects the masses. We articulate the social condition based on verifiable facts.
Activism teaches us to combat hate speech through political literacy. We patiently explain how racism, bigotry, and discrimination are linked to class-based issues that fuel social antagonism. We put a spotlight on these issues rather than criminalize an offensive remark.
But a repressive and paranoid government will never consider activism as a solution. It may even designate activism as the cause of the ‘information disorder’ that plagues society. It could conspire with big tech capitalists to close their platforms to activists who are suddenly demonized as criminals, destabilizers, and terrorists. In fact, digital despots across the world are already attacking the online civic space with impunity.
Despite these challenges, activism is more crucial than ever in mobilizing internet users against those who undermine our online freedom of expression. We cannot expect authoritarian regimes to legislate against their own interest. We cannot give up the internet and turn our backs on those who are digitally connected. Only the activism of the many remains the viable alternative that can advance our democratic vision. This means harnessing the power of online and offline networks, building solidarity in all platforms, and coding the algorithm of resistance.