With the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) unlikely to go away soon, the main battleground for next year’s elections will certainly be on social media. Some early birds have, in fact, started advertising on Facebook, the most popular social network in the world, primarily for name recall.
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), a media institution that has been reporting on political spending, recently found that Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, a reelectionist in 2022, has already spent P4.5 million over the past eight months, boosting more than 600 Facebook posts.
A far second was former senator Antonio Trillanes IV and his supporters, who spent more than P1 million to promote a total of 45 posts. Trillanes has declared his intention to run for either president or vice president under the opposition banner.
With the expected shift in electoral campaigning to the online platforms for the 2022 elections, we can anticipate the proliferation of mis- and disinformation to an unprecedented level as potential candidates, their supporters and the so-called paid keyboard warriors compete for attention to generate more “likes” and “shares” of their posts.
Because the official campaign period for candidates for national positions is still nine months away, the amount they spend for political ads before February 2022 is not counted as part of the allowed expenditure.
Besides, premature campaigning is no longer considered an election offense. That means the more moneyed candidates can spend as much as they can to boost their candidacy, regardless of their performance record and commitment to serve the public good.
They can hire as many keyboard armies or trolls to promote themselves on social media, leaving those who may be more qualified and dedicated aspirants far behind. They can commission surveys that would show they have a high chance of winning, or give away token goods with their names in big fonts and attractive photos printed on wrappers or containers.
Because online political ads are still beyond the reach of the restrictions in campaign spending, potential candidates are taking advantage to establish their presence on social media. In many parts of the world, Facebook has become a major tool for political campaigning, organizing movements and spreading false information.
There was an 11-year study, released in 2018 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, showing that false news online travels “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth.”
The MIT researchers found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth and false news reached 1,500 people about six times faster than the truth.
This was three years ago, and the study covered 11 years prior when social media was not as widely used as it is today, particularly during this COVID-19 pandemic when more people have more and longer time spent on social media.
According to the MIT study, the effect is more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.
It is not easy to imagine how much worse the situation has become as users of social media continue to grow.
According to datareportal.com, 89 million out of the Philippines’ estimated 110 million population are social media users as of January 2021. This was 16 million, or 22% more than the figures in 2020.
As the campaign season approaches, we can anticipate more false information circulating particularly on social media. And as some government officials continue to discredit mainstream media organizations and critical journalists, it becomes more difficult for the truth to catch up with the spread of false information.
Advocates of media information literacy have to multiply to be able to reach more people who would hopefully become more discerning in digesting information, especially those coming from political candidates and their minions.
Voters have to realize the value of their vote in determining the future of the country by choosing the right candidates who would take their campaign promises seriously and not take back their words later or consider those as a joke.
A vote is not a joke. Let’s choose candidates who not only can make us laugh, but can also make us live comfortably. Candidates who spend too much for their campaign would have too much to recover once they win. The next elections may still be a year away, but it’s about time we start scrutinizing those who want our vote.