“Dirtiest in memory”

On the same day this column came out, Agence France Presse ran the following story. I got my copy through the ABS-CBN news website, which ran the story under the head: “Internet fuels RP election smear campaigns.”

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine politics has plunged to ugly lows ahead of next month’s presidential election as candidates take advantage of the Internet and mobile phones to smear their rivals, analysts say.

Among the worst examples, front runner Benigno Aquino has had to deal with a hoax psychiatric report claiming he is mentally ill and took drugs, while his main opponent, Manny Villar, has been accused of lying about his dead brother.

“They have reached a new kind of low,” said Jorge Tigno, associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, referring to the mudslinging campaign tactics being employed by the presidential candidates.

In the past, those vying for the presidency in the Philippines were generally seen to be above the heated rivalries of lower-level politicians, according to Tigno.

But the dramatic rise in Internet usage since the last presidential elections in 2004 as well as the deepening Filipino addiction to text messaging has given candidates new ways to deliver messages, particularly among the young.

“Now, you have a greater role for information technology,” Tigno told AFP.

“The campaigners know you have a younger set of voters. They use the Internet and cellphone texting, and that is the way campaigners disseminate doubts about an opposing candidate.”

Aquino learned this the hard way after an anonymous blog posting this month carried a report supposedly from a prominent psychologist saying he had treated the politician and diagnosed him with mental health problems.

The fake report said Aquino suffered from “major disorders and learning disorders” — reinforcing previous false rumors that he was autistic. It also said he took marijuana as a teenager.

The doctor and the institution named in the report later said the document was fake but not before it had been picked up by the mainstream press and dominated the political campaign for nearly a week.

Villar denied that he was behind the false report but he nevertheless challenged Aquino to take a psychological test to prove he was mentally fit to run the country.

Villar himself had earlier been the target of personal smear tactics after he began gaining on Aquino in opinion polls.

In his campaign ads, Villar — a wealthy real estate magnate — had highlighted his humble origins, recounting his life in Manila’s slums and how his brother died because the family could not afford expensive medical care.

But Aquino partisans swiftly posted blogs charging that his claims were false, stating that Villar’s family was middle-class and that his brother’s death was not due to poverty.

An angry Villar then offered to accompany Aquino to visit his old house in Manila’s slums to prove his version of events.

There have been countless other mudslinging efforts involving, or directed at, other candidates in the lead up to the May 10 vote.

Columnist John Nery wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a leading Manila newspaper, on Tuesday that the election season may turn out to the “dirtiest in memory”.

He said one reason was the new phenomenon of “text blasting”, in which political campaigners send out hundreds of mobile phone messages circulating a rumor in the hope they will be forwarded.

Mobile phone use in the Philippines mushroomed from 35 million in 2006 to 72 million in 2009, out of a population of 93 million, according to international research groups.

The number of people accessing the Internet has jumped from 7.8 million in 2005 to 24 million last year, according to Internet World Stats, a website tracking global web usage.

Tigco said he worried that in all the personal attacks, the more serious issues were being ignored.

“People should be talking about our social security system, taxation, the resources of government corporations… but there are younger voters now. They don’t know anything about pensions, many haven’t paid taxes,” he said.

“The people who are handling these mudslinging campaigns think they really have to stoop down to a lower level to reach these people.”

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Filed under Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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