The following remarks were read last Saturday, at the Annual Conference of the American Studies Association of the Philippines, held at the National Computer Center, in the Diliman, Quezon City campus of the University of the Philippines. (Because the conference was running late, and because I was acutely aware that I was mere “front act” to Among Ed Panlilio’s star turn, I skipped some portions of the speech.)
I will post Among Ed’s speech once I get my copy by email.
I am, in a word, happy to be here.
When I received the invitation to speak before you today, I accepted readily—in part because the proposed program scheduled either Gov. Vilma Santos or Gov. Ed Panlilio after me. This, I thought, was an opportunity for me to meet, once again, either the Star for All Seasons, or today’s Man for All Seasons.
Of course, after I wrote in a recent column that a certain George W. Bush was in my view the worst two-term president in US history, I half-expected another email from ASAP, this time politely disinviting me.
I jest, of course, because we all take our founding freedoms seriously; in your case, academic freedom, and in mine, the freedom of the press. I use that freedom primarily as an editorialist; I have written almost 700 editorials since joining the Inquirer in 2001, and every day I am reminded of what a singular privilege it is for a political journalist like me to take active part in the public discourse. That reminder has only become keener, that privilege even more rare, when last July I started writing a weekly column.
But I imagine it is my experience in so-called convergence or multi-platform journalism that recommended me to ASAP. Indeed, my given task this afternoon is to discuss “the role of media in democracy and how the new technologies have changed citizens’ participation.”
I have some experience with these technologies, both old and new. I may have been one of the first editors from so-called mainstream media to start blogging; I have kept at it for over two years now. I have directed two convergence reports for the Inquirer, working with online media, TV, and of course print (both in broadsheet and tabloid format). I have worked closely with Inquirer.net, and in 2004 wrestled with the paradoxes of mobile, which is simultaneously transparent and opaque. At the same time, I remain a firm believer in the possibilities of print, having edited newspapers, magazines, and books.
It is from this background, then, that I join the conversation on new media and old democracy.
Allow me to begin with a borrowed idea, cribbed from Henry Jenkins of the Center for Future Civic Media. Let me ask a question: What does our democracy look like? And then let me offer the following image as an answer.
This Agence France Presse photograph was taken on August 12, 2006, when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo paid a quick visit to Legazpi City to survey preparations at a danger zone under the shadow of a restless Mayon. The next day, I wrote in my Newsstand blog:
“This photo, taken yesterday by the peerless Romy Gacad of AFP in the vicinity of Mayon volcano, spoke to me on so many levels I knew I just had to use it … The composition is so exact it seems almost posed, until you consider the subjects involved: President Arroyo, of course, under the umbrella, facing (or receiving tribute from) Albay Gov. Gonzalez, Reps. Salceda and Lagman, and volcanology institute chief Solidum. (Note the triangle that the officials form.) Other photos, taken by Gacad and by other photographers too, remind us that this particular tableau was very much a product of the moment; in fact, most of the pictures taken at this volcano-gazing event yesterday show either the President by herself or in a huddle with officials. But the veteran lensman saw something different, perhaps a shift in movement, perhaps a blurring and then a coming-into-focus of color. Was it perhaps the presidential umbrella that drew his attention?”
In the 15 months since I wrote that, I have become more and more convinced that this candid portrait of the hierarchy of political power, caught on the wing, tells us something true about democracy, Philippine-style.
But if this is democracy, where are the demos? Three possibilities. The people are implied; the leaders from the executive and the legislative branches are discussing their fate. The people have been warned off; note the sign that can be glimpsed in the space between the President and her umbrella-toting guard. If we fill in the blanks, we can read: Warning Don’t Go Beyond The Line. Not least, the people (and the press) are outside the frame, watching the scene.
You may have other images in mind that illustrate democracy, Philippine-style. Any of the iconic photographs from the four heady days of Edsa Uno, for instance, would be similarly evocative. Familiar images of Philippine elections—yellow ballot box, blue-stained index fingers, seminarians in white—remain resonant. A photograph taken by Inquirer photographer Rem Zamora during special elections last May casts the eternal triangle of ballot box, armed guard, and election volunteer in a new light, literally through a different grid.
But back to Bicol. I hope you will agree with me when I say that the Gacad photo does two things wonderfully well: It captures the elite nature of our representative democracy today, and at the very same time it recalls the datu-and-tribute origins of our history.
Democracy’s incomparable datu, Thomas Jefferson, famously wrote: “The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”
I would like to suggest that these propensities are greater, more rapacious, harder to control, in what Benedict Anderson calls cacique democracy. And that, correspondingly, in such a limited democracy the need for a free press and universal literacy (“every man able to read”) is all the greater.
So-called Internet democracy has been offered as the cure for many ills; in diagnosing elite domination of both politics and the media, many of democracy’s doctors have suggested that Internet democracy may yet be the best medicine.
There is no doubt that the “revolution” that has come to be associated with the word “Internet” is real in some respects.
Let me quote media theorist Roger Silverstone, who sums up the reality quite nicely. “Firstly, the scale, extent and speed of network connection … Secondly, the opportunity for individuals and groups to create spaces for themselves in what otherwise would be … an enclosed and exclusive media territory commanded by private enterprise and global capital. And, thirdly … the relative freedom of personal movement, perpetual contact and the enhancement of choice enabled by the digital revolution.”
In this light, or in the late great Silverstone’s silver gleam, the Malu Fernandez scandal is most instructive.
Who has not heard of Malu Fernandez? The People Asia and Manila Standard Today society columnist provoked a storm of controversy last August when an article she had written for the magazine was repackaged for the newspaper and then surfaced on the Internet.
In it, she wrote of suffering through a long flight crammed into coach with dozens of Filipino contract workers. The article, marked by the shallow superlatives that pass for social commentary in society columns, can be reduced to the following deathless line: “Meanwhile, I wanted to slash my wrist at the thought of being trapped in a plane with all of them.”
Never mind the wrong idiom (this particular euphemism for suicide is plural: slashing one’s wrists.) It is in the off-handedness, or rather the underhandedness, of that throwaway, enough-about-them-let’s-talk-about-me word, “meanwhile,” that the columnist’s disdain is most acute.
But enough about her. What happened soon after was unprecedented. A virtual storm arose. Blogger Nick of Tingog.com started a boycott campaign (his first post received almost 700 replies). The offending column was circulated by email, and emails denouncing the columnist’s bigotry started bouncing off overloaded inboxes. After Fernandez’s first, defensive response, more bloggers joined the fray. More commenters filled the comment threads. Almost all were personally offended by the column; quite a number went on the offensive against the columnist.
Threats were issued against Fernandez, some implying that a quick death was too good for her. Pictures of the columnist, who is unfortunately on the plump side, were posted, provoking another wave of mean-spirited, pig-in-a-poke, an-Axe-cologne-for-your-Jo-Malone retaliation.
After a couple of weeks, a chastened Fernandez apologized, and then resigned. Her resignation letter, quickly carried by online news sites, acknowledged both the unprecedented scale and unusual source of adverse public opinion.
“I am humbled by the vehement and heated response provoked by my article,” she wrote. “To say that this article was not meant to malign, hurt or express prejudice against the OFWs now sounds hollow after reading through all the blogs from Filipinos all over the world.”
All the blogs. From Filipinos. All over the world. Malu Fernandez must be the first public figure in our history to have been done in by this new combination, this new iron triangle of opinion—and in large part this happened because of the “scale, extent, and speed” of Internet communication.
We should also note that the offending stories came out in mainstream media, within “an enclosed and exclusive media territory,” and that the first responses, and eventually the bulk of responses, were mediated through those “spaces” Internet users have the opportunity to create for themselves. It was precisely because of pressure from these virtual communities that the “real world” (I place that phrase under ironic quotes) took notice of the Fernandez scandal. First, the rest of the mainstream media started devoting airtime and space to it, and then People Asia and Manila Standard Today finally, grudgingly, acknowledged the controversy.
The interesting thing is, the many people Fernandez offended (most but by no means all of them OFWs) had the choice not to read her offending story. That is to say, she was writing for a different public, indeed a different market, and it was only when her article appeared on the Standard website that irate overseas workers started reading it. They chose to read it, and they chose to pass it on in email after email, to link to it in their blogs, to post comment after comment on it.
But that precisely is what the Internet offers, and why so-called Internet democracy excites our imagination. What Silverstone calls “enhancement of choice” is in play; what political organizers call “mobilization” is on display. On the Internet, we are free, and we are many.
But the Malu Fernandez scandal also points to the limits of so-called Internet democracy.
In the first place, the scandal illustrates that “scale, extent, and speed” do not necessarily equate with depth. To be sure, the “vehement and heated” response was justified, but much of it was expressed in bite-sized rants, bursts of angry opinion, expostulations, and of course insults and threats.
Secondly, the scandal proves that our “created spaces” often lead to what communication theorists call group polarization, where discussion among like-minded people tends to move participants to the extreme. Law professor Cass Sunstein describes its impact on the Internet succinctly: “With respect to the Internet, the implication is that groups of people, especially if they are like-minded, will end up thinking the same thing that they thought before—but in more extreme form.” That, I would wager, helps explain why it was hot-knife-cutting-butter easy to move from feeling personally insulted by Fernandez’s expensive crassness to hurling personal insults at her.
Thirdly, the scandal tells us that the “relative freedom of personal movement, perpetual contact and the enhancement of choice” that the digital revolution makes possible still comes up short at times, in part because it remains largely virtual. Case in point: despite the controversy, or rather because of it, her newspaper finally decided not to accept Fernandez’s resignation.
And so, to the question before us this afternoon: What is the role of media in a democracy? This is the kind of question that veteran journalists do not like answering—not because they do not have answers, but because the answers are simultaneously obvious and intimate, like answers to questions about belief in God or love of country.
Fortunately, two journalists have done both the asking and the answering for all of us. In The Elements of Journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel distill the content of hundreds of conversations with journalists into a simple, all-too-obvious but often-forgotten principle. “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”
In other words, it is all about the informed consent of the governed. Sunstein, a leading theorist of the Internet, identifies two “distinctive requirements” for a citizen-based, information-oriented (that is to say, democratic) society.
“First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.”
In a radical sense, the dramatic improvements in what is now called information and communication technology or ICT allow us to hope for the best. In Sunstein’s formulation, they widen our horizons. But by filtering out information and information carriers we do not like or are not interested in or have never heard of or do not want to be bothered with, we may be undermining democracy itself. The democratic experiment, our own history since the first Philippine Assembly a hundred years ago tells us, depends on both diversity of information and commonality of experience.
I started with one image, let me end with another. What does the future of our democracy look like? I found one possible answer on the blog of Jeremy Wagstaff, who writes on technology for the Wall Street Journal and the BBC. It shows a hospital worker in Jakarta talking on her cellphone while using the space created by an older technology, the phone booth.
It is easy to suppose that the woman is wrapped up in her own little world, oblivious to the world rushing past her. She has taken refuge in the old-fashioned phone booth, in a bid to immerse herself even deeper in her world. But it is also possible, is it not, that she is in fact firmly in two worlds, present and active in each of them. And that the cellphone, that vanguard of the digital revolution, serves as the bridge between them.
The point is: that tension, between greater isolation and greater participation, will continue to mark any citizen’s involvement in democracy. It has ever been thus; it will always be so. In that sense, in that very limited sense, the Internet revolution never happened.