By Pepper Marcelo
More and more politicians, not just locally but around the world, are utilizing new technologies, particularly the Internet and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, to revolutionize the way in which they communicate and engage their constituents. No doubt, Barack Obama’s phenomenal victory in 2008, which was propelled in no small way by the use of the Internet and social media, has helped immensely in social networking’s popularity.
In keeping with his election promise of honesty and transparency in government, President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III immediately instructed his staff to draft and implement an innovative communication program that maximizes the use and benefit of social networking in order for his new administration to better interact with and engage the Filipino people.
P-Noy, as the President prefers to be called by the people, said he was inspired by the way the much-beloved President Ramon Magsaysay had interacted with Filipinos during his time. He wants to reverse the traditional top-to-bottom communication approach where information flows one-way from the leaders to the people. Under this traditional set-up, the people’s sentiments on current issues and government policies are not given the prominence and importance that are today’s hallmark of modern and strong democratic countries.
“Sabi ni Pangulo he wants an organization that will deliver messages effectively and provide feedback on what the government is doing,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.
This is in contrast to the previous administrations that merely disseminated information “one-way” to the media and public without scrutiny or proper response, Lacuerda added.
Last August, the newly-formed Presidential Communications Operations Office launched the website www.president.gov.ph to update the public on official events and engagements of the President, as well as provide a venue wherein they can state their concerns, complaints and suggestions regarding current issues and the administration.
There is also the official website of Malacañang (www.gov.ph), which serves as the official “gazette” of the Aquino Administration, issuing official policies of the President and all laws of the Republic.
In addition, the President and Malacañang have their own accounts on Twitter, the highly-popular social networking and micro-blog service. There are also official Aquino and Malacañang pages on Facebook, Friendster, YouTube and Multiply.
Secretary for Information Dissemination Herminio “Sonny” Coloma emphasizes that the role of the Internet and social networking is not simply to distribute information, but to gather quality feedback from users and provide a quick response to their concerns.
“New media are potent channels of communication,” he tells Planet Philippines. “Some studies show that Internet penetration in the Philippines has reached 21.5 per cent. Even cellular or mobile phones can serve as channels for conveying significant messages from the government to the people, as well as feedback from the people to the government.”
According to digital world watchdog comScore Inc., Facebook is the top destination of online users in the Philippines, with 93% of “netizens” in the country visiting the site last May.
Overall, the Philippines is the seventh-biggest market in the world for Facebook with nearly 16 million users (one-fifth of the population), according to Nick Gonzalez, an analyst who operates CheckFacebook.com.
Such is the popularity of Facebook among Filipinos that Aquino was voted the third most popular politician in the world, with 1.5 million fans who “liked” his Facebook page. He was ranked behind only US President Barack Obama and former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Even more impressive is the fact that Aquino’s fan page gained an average of 20,000 fans a day in a span of only six months.
Meanwhile, there are more than 4,000 (and growing) followers to date on Malacañang’s official Twitter page. Coloma also claims that Aquino himself personally answers some of the questions on his own account. “During the campaign, he had some time to do that. If not, someone else manages it. There’s quality control in that aspect to ensure that his views are reflected there,” says Coloma.
Some of these queries range from mere trivia (RacQueL0816: “Why is it Benigno S. Aquino, while his full name is Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III? Shouldn’t that be Benigno C. Aquino?” Answer: “The President follows the practice of his late father, Benigno S. Aquino Jr. in using his second given name as his middle name.”), to general consumer concerns (noypi_nuj asks, “whats the twit for BIR? just want to rport dat sam big stors are not giving the correct 12% VAT based on costumers’ receipts.”)
Malacañang intends to institute this instant feedback mechanism not only for its own use but for all government agencies as well. The official Malacañang website provides links to the websites of various departments and includes a page that allows users to post comments and complaints.
In addition, there is a page on the site called “Panata sa Pagbabago” that invites individuals and groups to make a vow for change, as well as a page titled “Tito Noy,” which encourages children to become active nation-builders by helping to bring back traditional Filipino values.
For those that have no access to computers or the Internet, i.e., the poor who, ironically, are those who need most to have a voice, the Presidential Communications Group plans on using different media channels, both traditional and nontraditional, to ensure a proper flow of communication that everyone can access.
“We intend to tap into the vast potentials of cellular or mobile telephony and thereby reach bigger chunks of the population across all socio-economic classes and all throughout the archipelago,” says Coloma. The handwritten message via snail mail remains one viable option to communicate with the government.
But while the Aquino Administration embraces openness in governance via the new social media, the administration found itself on the receiving end of a public backlash on account of its mishandling of the government’s response to a deluge of feedback – mostly negative – on its websites and social networking sites on the August 23 Luneta hostage fiasco. Faced with angry reaction from Filipinos and foreigners alike, the Palace Communications Group apparently panicked and proceeded to censor some of the comments on the President’s Facebook that were highly critical of the government handling of the hostage crisis that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead.
More than 250 comments were posted on Aquino’s wall within a few days after the incident, which ranged from mild disappointment to outright indignation at his leadership. “Shame on you and your administration. Tender your resignation,” wrote an HK resident, while a Filipino said, “You did not fail us. You are consistently clueless.”
Another user wrote, “Our president is a retard who has done nothing but smirk in front of the TV cameras after all this had happened.”
Other comments included complaints directed at top officials of the Philippine National Police and demands for their swift resignation or firing, as well as suggestions on how the hostage-taker should have been neutralized.
The Communications Group responded by blocking “slanderous comments, racial slurs and other below-the-belt attacks,” saying the President “reserved the right to block anyone who fails to follow the rules and report them as spammers.”
To soothe the ruffled feelings, Malacañang came up with this message on its website: “In Memory of the Victims: We offer our deepest condolences to the families of the victims whose lives were lost.”