Surveys and the changing means of reaching voters

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In mid-March 2022, there was an uproar of disbelief and incredulity across social media over survey results showing presidential candidate Marcos Jr. leading with a 60% preference rating. How can that be, they asked, when the real predominant voting preference can be seen in the high turnouts, remarkable energy, and spirited volunteerism in the “pink” rallies? The Digital Public Pulse – conducted by UP Diliman researchers – may have some answers. Findings of the project’s first phase, done from May to October 2021, have already been released. Second phase results will be released later in April, according to Assistant Professor Fatima Gaw of UP Diliman’s Department of Communication Research.

The research, warn the authors, is not representative of the population and is “not a dipstick of public opinion.” They monitored a diverse set of actors – candidates, leaders, parties, civic organizations, political influencers, and individuals – and how they are shaping the election’s digital landscape through YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. They found that:

• The political groundwork for the 2022 Philippine elections has been operating since 2016 and has now matured to run massive but insidious campaigns, with “below-the-radar” anti-democratic actors hijacking the political discourse on social media.

• From May-October 2021, Marcos Jr. rose in influence and expanded reach across audiences through the algorithmic cultivation of YouTube communities, ie, the rise of hyper-partisan political channels that guised their content as “news,” launched “attack” campaigns, and distorted political popularity.

• On Twitter, obscure accounts are most influential in being popular and noisy while news media have become only secondary in influence. Marcos Jr.’s Twitter interaction network grew from having no distinct cluster in the first quarter to overtaking Leni Robredo’s in the second quarter.

• On Facebook, Robredo-related groups are circulating more content and information, but it is the Marcos- and Duterte-related accounts that have expanded in reach and engaged more diverse communities.

FURTHER EXPLANATIONS
Tsek.ph, a fact-checking collaboration of 34 agencies using Facebook’s Crowdtangle software, corroborates the findings. One claim examined was a post that “no critics of Marcos were arrested during martial law.” Obviously false and a historical distortion, this claim was viewed an astounding 187 million times, indicating that it may have been drilled down by troll armies from inside and outside the country to 66 million Filipinos voters repeatedly. Bundled together with other similar claims and fake news actively projected across social media platforms, it is not difficult to imagine what the typical voter absorbs, particularly those 61% of Filipinos with Facebook accounts who spend on average six hours a day on their smart phones to socialize, get news, or read online chats.

A conclusion that emerges from all this is that the mechanisms of intermediation between candidates and voters have radically changed. Before, candidates reached voters primarily through local politicians, party “machines,” or gatekeepers of so-called “bloc votes” on one hand, and the mainstream media on the other. Today, social media is embedding new channels for direct engagement.

This may be both good and bad for democracy. While these social media-induced changes of the public sphere enable direct participation of the voting public, it can be manipulated too by politicians building massive online infrastructure – like algorithmic networks and hyper-partisan channels on YouTube; noisy interaction networks on Twitter; and extensive sharing networks on Facebook – to spread fake news and disinformation quickly and effectively.

POROUS BOUNDARIES? POLITICAL INTERLOPERS NEEDED
With a little more than 30 days remaining in the campaign, what else could be done to level the playing fifire?

In a Facebook post in the third week of March, Fatima Gaw said that while the Marcos-Duterte camp has built an “alternative information ecosystem” with its stockpile of “news” websites, YouTube content, Tiktok trivia videos, and thousands of commenters who corroborate their narratives, “the boundaries between social spaces online are more porous than you think.” Filter bubbles and echo chambers, she said, are not empirically proven.

What this means is that even if various social media platforms have been “weaponized” for particular candidates, those same spaces can still be “infiltrated” or nudged in certain ways by political interlopers. For example, there are actors with non-political identities who bridge political and non-political audiences, like Manny Pacquiao. He has a predominantly sports-oriented following by the millions, so his one-liner, “ang totoong bobo ay ‘yung boboto sa magnanakawWill reverberate across the 60%. The interventions of Darna celebrities, like Sharon Cuneta and Angel Locsin, will ripple across their millions of followers and do much to turn the tide against fake news (which is why they are viciously attacked by trolls).

The research explains that “affordances” – what people notice or experience to change their views – can be brought into digital and media spaces. Therefore, diverse perspectives and uncongenial information are still possible in that alternative information ecosystem of fake news and disinformation.

But this requires deliberate and conscious action from users. The porousness of digital communities can be exploited by purposely entering networks, blending in with that ecosystem, and then providing comment and content that will raise facts, or at least raise doubts about the claims and fake news circulated. The goal should not necessarily be conversion, but rather, to plant facts and “seeds of doubt” that should open up critical thinking towards more informed choices.

Perhaps the election playing field can still be leveled if that massive turnout at the “pink” rallies, where nearly each participant is seemingly in possession of a smart phone, can be mobilized as well into a digital army that breaks into social media’s porous boundaries to reach more diverse communities en masse to “raise facts not fake news” or to carpet-bomb Marcos-Duterte supporters with messages like: “Hindi kayo ang kalaban. Kasama kayo sa ipinaglalaban! ”

That “pink” army has now been asked by no less than Robredo’s daughters, Aika and Tricia, to spend quality time doing house-to-house and face-to-face engagement with voters – emphasizing that relationship-building and honest conversations matter. Could that army then turn both ground and digital “offensives” into complementary drives that reinforce each other to dismantle the disinformation, nudge opinion, and open up people’s choices? We may see that in the next few days.

Eric DU Gutierrez is a registered Filipino voter based in Germany. He received his PhD in Development Studies from Erasmus University Rotterdam and has written extensively on Philippine politics.

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