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PHILIPPINES: Presidential Campaign Thrives in Online World Too

MANILA, Feb 19 2010 (IPS) - Festive days are here again in the Philippine political scene as 10 presidential candidates – ranging from the son of a former president to an environmentalist, a Christian minister and a former actor – battle it out for the voters’ ‘yes’ come May 10.

Song-and-dance numbers, endless handshakes and bear hugs, autograph signing and photo opportunities are staple fare these days in the Philippines’ freewheeling media, one of the liveliest in South-east Asia.

Primetime television is peppered with highly sophisticated — and definitely expensive — political advertisements as well as well-placed endorsements by movie stars.

Then, there are the usual rousing speeches on the campaign trail in this country of more than 92 million people. An estimated 90,000 candidates are said to be vying for some 17,600 elective posts, ranging from president to members of Congress to mayors and village chiefs.

But in addition to the traditional ways of campaigning among the country’s more than 50 million voters, the fiesta-like atmosphere of the three-month election campaign that began on Feb. 9 has gone viral online.

Candidates’ use of a mix of virtual ways of competing for votes can either be a blessing – in that they get easy and oftentimes free exposure to online users – but also a curse because what they say will be closely scrutinised in the process.


The new media are “providing transparency to the election campaign” as a whole, says English-language daily ‘Business Mirror’ section editor Lyn Resurreccion.

“Since anybody who is a member of a social network or who has a blog could speak his mind and comment or provide information about a candidate or any event in the duration of the election campaign, it’s an important venue for communication among the electorate, whether the information provided are verified or not,” Resurreccion said.

“Reaction-wise, mainstream media appear to be far from the reach of their audience,” she added, comparing the immediate feedback and reaction on blogs and social networking sites with that of the letters section of the print media.

A strong, active online presence also helps candidates reach out to the huge overseas Filipino community, given that more than 10 percent of the country’s population is estimated to be working in more than 120 countries. Overseas voting is scheduled for April, ahead of the May 10 vote in the country.

But candidates’ online pitches also mean that the virtual world can become “a venue for propaganda”, says journalist and blogger Ellen Tordesillas.

“Websites like Facebook have changed from being merely social networking sites for friends and families and have now been flooded by all these election-related content. Of course, we also know these things come and go,” Tordesillas, a columnist for the English-language daily ‘Malaya’ and Filipino-language tabloid ‘Abante’, told the AMF.

Facebook, Friendster and Multiply, as well as popular video site YouTube, the microblogging site Twitter, and online encyclopedia Wikipedia are among the social networking sites where candidates try to sell their campaigns, platforms and personalities to the public.

The sizable bunch of presidential candidates – Sen. Benigno Aquino III, Manny Villar, Richard Gordon, Nicanor Perlas, Jamby Madrigal, Gilberto Teodoro, Eddie Villanueva, Joseph Estrada, Vetellano Acosta and John Carlos delos Reyes have an online presence of one type or another.

The official website of Aquino, son of the late former President Corazon Aquino (http://www.noynoy.ph/main/index.php) is a virtual campaign headquarters — with interactive links to his other sites, campaign buttons, badges and other merchandise.

Known by his nickname Noynoy, the senator has 697,855 fans on his Facebook page, whose Frequently Asked Questions page has information as serious as his platform of government to the mundane, such as why he uses a different middle initial. He has nine websites.

His vice presidential running mate, Mar Roxas, takes a more personal approach to his Facebook fan page, which has 139,264 fans, via testimonials and fan photos. For a more personal touch, the page also has his wedding, honeymoon and family pictures.

Opposition candidate and ex-President Joseph Estrada – who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2001, convicted of plunder and then pardoned in 2007 – had his team set up three Facebook accounts. These have only attracted less than 5,000 fans.

“Why not give him a second chance? His dedication to the poor didn’t fade even when he was exiled (a reference to his detention while waiting for conviction),” read Estrada’s profile box.

“Social networking sites only work to the advantage of the candidates because they are just a click away from the voters. They are also a cheaper way of promoting one’s candidacy,” explained Sherrie Ann Torres, a reporter for GMA television network.

Torres also sees them as “another propaganda tool” that depicts an imaginary “perfect candidate”. She added: “These sites only provide an edited, well-researched presentation of a candidate, thus shortchanging the voters.”

In addition, Tordesillas says, a candidate with a Facebook account usually has another person posting and replying to messages for him or her.

In presidential candidate Villar’s Facebook account, for instance, the wall messages are mostly updates of his campaign sorties and releases reposted from various publications, and video links to his YouTube channels. In Christian minister-turned-candidate Eddie Villanueva’s three Facebook accounts, most wall posts are from his supporters and not ‘personal’ ones from him.

Still, Tordesillas said that because of the new media, “there’s a two-way thing going on now, which makes it easier for all concerned to get information and get immediate feedback.”

Resurreccion says that the new media have also made this election campaign more open than the last presidential poll in 2004. Many candidates, however, put up personal websites and pages in social networking sites during the 2007 local elections.

Despite the vibrant campaigning and political debates happening in blogs, websites and social networking sites, though, the Philippines’ online world remains limited mostly to urban areas and those with access to the Internet.

A 2009 study by AC Nielsen-Yahoo showed that about 28 percent of 35 million Filipinos living in urban areas have access to the Internet. Twenty percent of Internet users are aged 20-29 and majority are between 10-19 years old.

Quoting from a study by a political consultancy group, Tordesillas says that there are currently 8.5 million Facebook users in the Philippines. “In the last three months of 2010 alone, there has been an increase of 4 million Facebook users here,” she said, adding that 51 percent of them are users between 18-35 years old and overseas Filipino workers.

But overall, “we are still trailing poorly behind such countries as Singapore and South Korea in terms of Internet use and access,” she said.

That means that television, apart from radio, continues to lord it over the Philippine election campaign because of its household penetration. “Television still enjoys 90 percent reach, while print is rapidly declining due to the global crisis what with print costs, for instance,” Tordesillas said.

*Asia Media Forum (http://www.theasiamediaforum.org)

 
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