Are online spaces opening up politics in the Philippines? Noahlyn Maranan takes a look. 

In the Philippines, 54 million people, from an estimated population of 102 million, are connected to the Internet.

Every day this heaving mass in the online sphere generates a vibrant culture of activity and statements across social media and the web — and it has only grown under the current Rodrigo Duterte regime.

The Internet is now an active sphere of political contestation. On the one hand are netizens with avowed support for the current regime, and on the other hand, are vocal online critics of the administration – and if not of the president, then definitely certain aspects of his leadership.

Each has a tendency to call the other a “yellowtard” or a “Dutertard” — branding that misses the nuances of one’s ‘political colouring’, and further polarises the ‘different other’.

A “yellowtard” denotes a supporter of the previous regime, with yellow the colour long-associated with the Aquinos. “Dutertard” refers to the rabid and fanatical supporters of the current regime.

Among the Duterte supporters who focus on the substance and achievement of the current regime, they emphasize how the president has been true to his campaign promises. They see real change underway in many areas, including  peace with the radical left, reforms to labour law, passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, among others. Critics, though, point out Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, his tendency to fire back at critics, and his less than diplomatic tongue – just to name a few of his flaws.

And the online battles between those who see good, and those who see otherwise in the president or in his pronouncements, is not only strong, but widespread.  Famous personalities even have aired their criticisms — with many of these observations not only widely circulated via social media, but commented on, supported, or bashed by Netizens.

If the President’s strong polling – as shown by the recent Pulse Asia survey and the Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey – says anything, this online contestation is heavily lopsided in favour of those who sees good in the president.

But it is just how ordinary all of this is, that also makes it extraordinary.

As arguments are fought in the comment sections of online articles, and in various social media threads, we hear the average Juan de la Cruz speak. Such was not the case in the past as the top-down nature of traditional media privileged some voices over others.

Now, traditional media complements social media; news about Duterte as it is is published or aired in traditional media, also sees light in social media’s newsfeeds and is commented on by users. Traditional media and e-news articles, likewise, make good use of social media by highlighting certain comments and sentiments.

In this way, social media has opened up ways for democratic contestation. People have more ways than one to speak up, to say something, to criticise, to make a point, to deliver a “punch” to the status quo.

It’s not just by sheer number that arguments are fought. While many try to fight with good reasoning, below-the-belt comments directed against users who hold a different view are not uncommon.  Discussions can be passionate. Insults may be hurled at those whose opinions may be different. The expletives even take the form of obscenities, name-calling, or, worse, death threats.

While social media may facilitate participatory democracy, it has also done another thing: it’s reflected back to Filipinos an image of their collective mind.

More than once, it has been observed that the comment sections of online content are peppered with argumentative fallacies. For instance, those who speak out against extrajudicial killings are branded by Duterte supporters as “yellow.” They are also touted as supportive of the drug lords. But in this case, one plus one does not seem to add to two.

It has been observed as well that Filipinos seemingly have difficulty detecting satirical statements, and can be too literal, that they miss the point of subtext. As one commentator has previously observed, this is indicative of the lack of nuance in some people’s thinking.

As for the killings, many supportive of the regime’s approach on the war on drugs seem to have sidelined their Christianity – the largest faith group in the nation. Many also seem to be unaware or unfazed by what the constitution says regarding the inalienable rights of the nation’s citizens—and how the current war on drugs presents a violation to those rights and the rule of law. One wonders if such popular support for the war on drugs is reflective also of self-hate, an offshoot, or an aspect of kulelat syndrome (inferiority syndrome) manifested in Filipino society’s desire to discipline itself by extreme means.

More than anything, and as many have observed, the current state of affairs is also indicative of how much the Filipinos want reform. And Duterte is seen as the embodiment of such promise after decades of Luzon-centered oligarchic rule during which not much changed in Philippine society.

Day after day, contestation is observed online. But this contestation happens against the backdrop of an offline reality where everyday politics are played out, in the urban poor communities, in the rural areas, in the streets of Manila….everywhere.

As Chantal Mouffe suggested, contestation is good for democracy. And social media presents one such platform for it. While the voices online may be agonistic, asserting their own and differing points of view, there is, somehow, vibrance to it. The voices of the people, varied and many as they are, are increasingly heard.

There is so much promise in the fact that Filipinos’ self-awareness is heightened by the Internet in general, and that social media in particular is a platform that reflects back an image of himself/herself, his predispositions, and his political mind.

Who knows, the self-reflectiveness facilitated by such platform may just be one of the many things that the Filipinos need at this point in time.

Noahlyn Maranan is a PhD student at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy (UNSW Canberra)