Column: We are not Obama’s America

After almost five months of inactivity (!), allow me to resume “blogging” (I have to put that in quotes) by first uploading the missing columns. There was none for February 9, on account of the first Inquirer presidential debate. The following piece was published on February 16, 2010.

Following in the self-critical steps of Amando Doronila, who gave the Inquirer presidential debate a negative review, allow me to criticize the contributed commentary of the controversial marketing executive Winston Marbella, which appeared on Monday’s front page. In the first place, an analyst ready to judge “the Internet and social networking sites” as the “technological weapons of choice” in the 2010 presidential election ought to leave some kind of trail online. Google his name and the name of the think tank he founded, however, and you get—links to Monday’s contributed commentary!

In other words, aside from one other reference I found, a 2007 news story about the mid-term elections that attributed a quote to him, Marbella’s online presence is limited to the commentaries he contributed to the Inquirer. His Institute for Policy Research and Strategic Studies doesn’t even seem to have a website. (I cannot say for sure, but after poring over the first four or five pages of search results, I am led to think the institute follows a policy of deliberate obscurity.)

But if Marbella’s online presence is puzzling, the substance of his commentary isn’t: it is conventional-wisdom pabulum. It is heavily Obama-centric, and readily assumes, indeed asserts, that “Obama’s insurgents [the digital warriors of his political army] were the hi-tech precursors of the social and political changes sweeping the world today, including the Philippines.” But there is no evidence—I repeat, no evidence—that any presidential campaign in the running for May 10 is structured like Obama’s political army. Certainly, there are cell phones, and data-mining servers, and Facebook fan sites, but to mistake these for the Philippine version of the “biggest digital activism campaign in the world” is wishful thinking.

That last quote is from Mary Joyce, who throughout most of the general election period in 2008 served as the operations manager of the Obama campaign’s New Media group. (I interviewed her when she came visiting last year.) What struck me most about her experience were how organized and disciplined the entire campaign set-up was, and how much of a role the campaign’s digital media operations played in collaborating with so-called old media. From what I’ve seen of this year’s presidential campaigns, many are indeed “wired” (a word which Marbella describes, an entire generation after the computer age started, approvingly and in quotes, as “the language of the computer age”). But wired in the Philippines is different from wired in the United States; this is the simple answer to the fallacy that lies at the conventional wisdom which holds, breathlessly, that Obama-style campaigning will reshape Philippine politics.

At best, only about a fourth of the Philippine population has access to the Internet; compare that with the United States, which until 2008 had the world’s biggest population of Internet users, at over 200 million. Obama could raise half a billion dollars online; that’s where the people were. Obama had over six million fans on Facebook; Obama had a mailing list of over two million—because that’s where the people were. Despite the number of cell phones in use in the Philippines, the situation here is not (yet) comparable to that in Obama’s America. To say it is is to mislead the public.

I would be the last person to say digital campaigning has no role to play. In the first place, online is the only medium without specific spending restrictions; it is a gray area candidates will certainly exploit. (His digital ads have made Sen. Manny Villar a universal presence even there too.) In the second place—and this is the considered opinion of experts who have actually studied the matter—what online does very well, even in the Philippine setting, is to create buzz. It is not (yet) a tool for converting the undecideds or for raising substantial campaign donations, but it can certainly be used to create word of mouth, to pique public curiosity and interest, to drive old media coverage.

For the 2010 vote, the deciding factors will continue to be TV exposure and free media.

* * *

Speaking of buzz, take a look at this list of the most-read columns of 2009, online. (A couple of readers asked; I had the data, so I thought I’d oblige.) Ranked according to number of page views, as computed by INQUIRER.net:

1. May araw din kayo — De Quiros
2. Sona 2009 — Evangelista
3. Three — De Quiros
4. Why reps in Vegas are not Pacquiao — De Quiros
5. May araw din tayo — De Quiros
6. Dear Erap — De Quiros
7. Why did the flood rise so high and so fast — N. Cruz
8. Yes, he can — De Quiros
9. Thanks, Kris, but are you sure you want it? — Nery
10. Noynoy for president — De Quiros
11. Destiny — De Quiros
12. Teyktu — De Quiros
13. Korina’s wedding and other ploys — Nery
14. By way of goodbye — De Quiros
15. The morality of Sen. Bong Revilla — Evangelista

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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