The phenomenal rise and eventual dominance of the digital warriors of then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte during the campaign period have dramatically altered the political horizon and left many debating whether or not the social media has supplanted the primordial role of traditional media and is now the primary medium of communication and information.
With over 42 million Facebook and 6 million Twitter accounts and handles crowding the digital space in the country, their potentials as shapers of public opinions and platforms for campaigns and mobilizations are limitless, not bounded by time and more importantly cost effective.
This phenomenon however has also triggered the rise of passionate and partisan debates and discourses between and among those who are actively engaged in the digital world. To sum up: very much welcome to many, worrisome to not a few.
The 2016 elections gave the digital space and the social media unprecedented leverage and influence that many are admitting they may have made and unmade a president.
When before TV, radio and print media dominated as popular platforms for information, social media has risen to become their fierce competitors this time.
Where traditional media are governed by deadlines, prime times and distribution, social media are accessed in real time, anywhere and in any place where there is internet connection.
Many traditional mass media have adapted to the rapidly changing technologies in the digital world. They have invaded the digital space by putting up their online versions. But they are always, to a large extent, ‘controlled’ and editor/desk-centric and the influence of their publishers and owners continues to be felt. Their news is, by and large, filtered through the process of a newsroom. It is bereft of the interactivity of the social media where the ‘netizens’ become their own journalists, reporters and opinion makers.
The rise of social media forces was also attended by their eagerness to vent ire and give space to stories and opinions not carried and often too glaringly ignored by the traditional media.
Initially given little credit, social media became the alternative ‘news source’ the way the ‘xerox’ and ‘mosquito’ press were during the dying days of the unlamented Marcos dictatorship.
In the case of President Rodrigo Duterte, his followers were soon labeled as Dutertards – being the most widespread, passionate and engaged among supporters of presidential candidates.
The word Dutertards was initially meant as Duterte diehards but the label was later given a pejorative twist – retards.
The Duterte camp said its digital army under the sphere of influence of Mugstoria alone has a reach span of 14 million account owners, pages and communities.
Mugstoria became the tool for organizing the Bisaya Napud, one of the most vociferous campaign groups of candidate Duterte.
Impassioned as they were, the diehards of candidate Duterte became both the boon and the bane in the 2016 presidential campaign.
They provided the platform to generate the desired bandwagon effect by airing and showing the growing multitude attending the rallies and sorties of candidate Duterte which were largely ignored if not deliberately downplayed by the traditional mass media.
Their posts, blogs, memes and vines bordered on the passionate to personal, from intellectually stimulating to downright threatening. But nobody got away with hitting candidate Duterte without getting bashed, bullied and pilloried. To the non-Duterte supporters, they were the personification of their candidate who they pictured as brass, crass and uncouth.
Many non-Duterte supporters however did not see this, or chose to ignore the rise of social and digital netizens, as a necessary cause and effect of the failures of the traditional mass media.
So when social media influencers like Mocha Uson posted an apparent exclusive interview of the president who shunned the media after a section of the press threatened to boycott him, many rose up to say one interview does not make a journalist.
They were right but also they were wrong.
In fairness, Mocha Uson did not pass herself as a journalist. But her feat proved social media influencers can serve as a powerful medium to send messages across.
For that matter, the mass media is now hard pressed to be creative, be sensitive and to rise beyond their biases and prejudices lest they find themselves lumped with the discredited past governments.
And mercifully, be suspected as protecting particular interests – not the least the targets of the campaign of the Duterte administration against crime and corruption.
That is one additional positive of the contribution of the digital and social media in the arena of news and information – citizen participation.