Facebook Fever is Not Enough: The Role of Social Media in the Philippines

The Philippines, long mired in corruption, appears to have made progress on this front in recent years. While the current administration’s anticorruption efforts may have contributed to this progress, some commentators have suggested that social media might actually be playing a bigger role in the decline of graft in the country. Indeed, there are some dramatic examples of social media playing a role in the fight against corruption. For instance, as details of a major scheme involving misappropriation of public money began to surface in 2013, social media platforms exploded with photos and videos pulled from the Instagram and Facebook account of Jeane Napoles, whose mother, Janet, had orchestrated the scheme. Filipinos were shocked and appalled by all that ill-gotten wealth could buy—private planes, expensive handbags, multi-million dollar apartments, and even a new car detailed with an Hermes leather exterior (yes, exterior). Even after these accounts were taken down, photos of the Napoles’ lavish lifestyle continued to circulate. These images made people far more aggressive in condemning the actions of those involved, and even inspired the Million People March, when protestors called for complete elimination of the fund used in the scheme. More recently, Facebook posts about sightings of the younger Napoles helped the media to discover that Jeane, who fled the country in 2013, had in fact returned. She has since been charged with tax evasion.

This is encouraging, and no doubt social media platforms can be useful in the fight against corruption. Nonetheless, I’m cautious about overstating the long-term impact that social media might have on corruption in the Philippines. After all, the Philippines has had an active free press for decades, and past administrations have frequently been challenged by civilian participation and condemnation of corrupt practices. Can we really rely on social media to effect lasting change?

Those who are optimistic about the role of social media in anticorruption efforts often argue that it can serve two purposes. First, it allows more members of the public to actively participate in monitoring and reporting. The oft-cited website I Paid A Bribe in India is an example of how social media can encourage broader reporting of bribery, as Chris previously discussed on this blog here. Second, social media may have the potential to mobilize groups, as Facebook and Twitter did during the Arab Spring in 2011, and as the same platforms did during the Philippines’ Million People March in 2013. Thus, social media can play a pivotal role in areas where the government exercises tight control over the press, and where apathy and isolation hinder mass mobilization.

What is interesting about the Philippines, however, is that corruption persists notwithstanding the fact that, even before the advent of modern social media, the Philippines actually has quite a robust tradition both of aggressive monitoring of government activity and of mass mobilization. With respect to the former, the Philippines has a long tradition of free speech and a free press; since the late 1800s, Filipino journalists have openly criticized the government, and are often celebrated as national heroes. With respect to the latter, since 1986 the Filipino people have twice staged large-scale peaceful protests that successfully removed two corrupt Presidents from power.

Despite all this, the Philippine government has remained notoriously corrupt, and the country has consistently performed poorly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Politicians’ reputations often survive reports of corruption in the press, and even “People Power” movements have proven to be nothing more than a temporary fix. Indeed, Joseph Estrada, one of the Presidents unseated by such a movement was almost elected back into this post just ten years later. If and active press and massive peaceful protests have proven insufficient in the past, why should we expect the rise of modern social media to have a transformative effect?

This is not to say that social media makes no difference. I do think that social media can affect anticorruption efforts in a way that traditional journalism and mass protests could not. So lest I sound too skeptical or dismissive of the potential of this new technology, let me note some of the distinctive advantages that social media might have:

  • Broader Reach. Broad social media/smartphone penetration in the Philippines means a more geographically and socio-economically diverse group can more easily take part in the national conversation about corruption. What’s more, the option to maintain anonymity may protect less influential critics against vengeful or even violent officials.
  • Addressing day-to-day corruption. Building on the previous point, social media may help to broaden the conversation to more than just large-scale instances of corruption, but also petty bribery, vote buying, and other forms of corruption that affect the lives of many people every day.. The Philippines has seen some of this already—for example, people have posted videos and photographs of traffic police stopping drivers to obtain a bribe.
  • Instant Reporting. Reports of corrupt acts and calls for reform can be disseminated faster and with more frequency than ever before. This means that investigations by law enforcement and the media, documentation of events, and public reactions can all happen much earlier.
  • Inspiring long-term activism. Peaceful protests cannot last forever, and every scandalous story eventually gives way to a fresh news cycle. Social media provides an opportunity for advocates to continue the conversation beyond the big moments, and to engage people long enough to encourage more lasting reforms.
  • Appealing through mixed media. Sharing of photographs and videos through social media can have a significant impact on the public’s perception of corruption issues, as the Napoles case illustrates. This may also be a big deterrent, since reputations will be harder hit if photographs of politicians’ corrupt acts begin to circulate on social media.

So social media does have some distinct advantages, and has likely made a positive contribution to anticorruption efforts in the Philippines. I do think, however, that we should be careful about declaring social media to be the panacea to the country’s ills. While social media may amplify many of the benefits traditionally associated with a free press and free speech, it’s important to remember that those principles have so far failed to curb corruption over the long term. More often than not, the elites use their resources to take back power. Real, lasting change will require recalibrating the existing social, political, and economic disparities that have always allowed elites to escape punishment.

Yet this observation perhaps suggests a way that social media can be deployed more effectively than it has to date–not merely to expose corruption or mobilize the public to demand the resignation of corrupt officials, but as a tool that to rally support behind more drastic, unpopular reforms that could actually change the system. Thus, activists could and should use social media to demand the following:

  • Pass the Anti-Dynasty Bill. As I noted in a previous post, Congress is still considering passing a bill that would preclude the relatives of sitting politicians from seeking office for a set period of time. The bill is a drastic solution to a drastic problem—one that might only be appropriate in the Philippines—but it would allow a new generation to take more control of government, and reduce the influence of families who have maintained power for decades despite past acts of corruption. In addition, activists should work to provide the training and resources necessary to create a new generation of political leaders.
  • Bolster the middle class. Economic disparities in the Philippines are stark, and the lack of a robust middle class has hindered anticorruption efforts for decades. Because social media can reach a broader audience, people with less economic capital can use it to demand real economic reform.
  • Convict corrupt high-level officials. The recent imprisonment of three Senators allegedly involved in Napoles’ massive pork barrel scandal was a step in the right direction. But activists should make sure that those responsible are not able to use their wealth and power to avoid punishment, as have so many corrupt politicians before them. The conviction of these individuals, and perhaps more, would send a powerful message that the old elite is no longer shielded from scrutiny.

Despite all of the promises of social media, we should not assume that the fervor it inspires will carry on indefinitely. We should think of social media as a jumping off point, rather than a solution on its own.

1 thought on “Facebook Fever is Not Enough: The Role of Social Media in the Philippines

  1. Pingback: A Tale of Two Regions: Anticorruption Trends in Southeast Asia and Latin America | Anti Corruption Digest

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