Trolls, bots, hashtags? Come on, that’s so circa 2014–2015 when Twitter trending topics spilled over to mainstream media and shaped headlines. We’re way past that.
In November 2014, nearly two years before the 2016 elections and way before the groundswell for then-mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte swept across the country, I was asked to give a talk during an APCA event in Ortigas. APCA is the Association of Political Consultants in Asia where I am one of the founding members.
The topic given me was “Campaigning In Our Generation” and in my presentation I predicted how social media would play a crucial role in the 2016 presidential elections. My fearless forecast was that new media would help elect the next president of the Philippines.
According to former Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman Sixto Brillantes who was also in the audience at the time, 6 out of 10 Filipino voters in the 2016 elections were expected to be young voters, and his projections eventually checked out. And because practically all young Filipinos have a Facebook account, and judging from the recorded online behavior of Filipinos from various surveys (5 out of 7 Filipinos go online to check Facebook and Twitter, per 2013–14 data), as well as the 75 percent year-on-year growth of smart phone shipments, it looked like the trend would expand further in 2016 and make social media the most fertile environment for discussion, debate, and yes, winning campaigns.
Social media is irrepressible and it’s changed even more since my talk, especially as soon as Facebook lifted the character limit to status posts, set up the “share” button, introduced the Facebook live video feature, and upgraded the basic “like” to a range of reactions. The conditions made things more ripe for politicization, social media being the “purest” democratic space, and by 2016 it became a weapon (or as Maria Ressa put it, “Weaponizing the internet”).
So yes, I made that prediction in 2014 based on the foregoing facts, and my forecast drew murmurs of either doubt or dissent from a crowd of mostly seasoned political communicators and operators who were so used to the old rules of engagement.
Alas, social media is a game changer, the great equalizer.
What I did not foresee then was the rise of the “influencer” — sort of an online celebrity who, for some reason, whether because of sheer good looks, compelling content or because he/she is an authority on something (cars, tech, politics, etc.), has gained a considerable following on social media and has online engagement that can give established media sites and personalities a run for their money. “Engagement” includes likes, reactions, comments, post shares and views for videos.
Times have changed. Even the 2014–2015 trend of introducing hashtags (oftentimes provocative words or statements) to influence Twitter trends (whether organic or manipulated through a stable of digital influencers or bots) has gone the way of the dodo. Trolls, bots and hasthags are so passé.
And so we’ve seen the demise of many a digital agency and their supposed stable of Twitter trolls and bots.
When you look at the influencers supporting President Duterte, there’s really a voice for everyone. The most successful sitcoms (FRIENDS, Will & Grace, the Golden Girls, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory) have a common formula: these shows have developed strong characters unique from each other, archetypes that different kinds of people are able to relate with. It’s the same with the influencers who support the President.
What’s great is this is all accidental; for most of the most vocal, most popular of the President’s online supporters, there is a common genesis story: They simply spoke the truth of their hearts using tools available and things simply caught on. And they did so using whatever they were strong at: piercing analysis, academic training, sarcasm, humor, wit, etc.
Are influencers purveyors of fake news? That is the bone of contention now. But the discourse is good; contention means the new rules of engagement are being fine-tuned. And social media is evolving, let’s just all trust that with the debate on fake news and other issues ancillary to it, new media will evolve for the better like it has changed many times from when Facebook started.
At day’s end, an influencer’s popularity is directly linked to his/her credibility, and this credibility is hinged on reliability. Sooner or later, the people will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Influencers who are in the habit of sharing fake news or information they do not vet, those who are careless in posting, will soon lose public support.
But for now, whether you like it or not, for better or for worse, we are in a new era. No one can say if the same will be the case in 2019 or in 2022, but my best guess is, yes, it’ll still be the same but with an online conversation made even more dynamic and colorful.
We are in the age of the influencer. Get used to it.