Mocha Uson sweeps into her office at the presidential compound, assistant at her booted heels. She’s late, rushing in from another engagement that ran longer than planned. But she appears composed, almost reserved, as she arranges herself on a faux-leather settee and waits for the interview to begin.
In this setting it’s hard to picture Esther Margaux Uson, known countrywide as “Mocha,” sashaying across a stage in vinyl hot pants or dispensing advice on sex and relationships. Yet for the better part of a decade, provocative entertainment was the core of her career – first fronting for the Mocha Girls, an all-female music group known for racy numbers, and later responding to intimate reader questions via a series of written and video blogs.
Then in 2015, she learned about Rodrigo Duterte.
“He was different from traditional politicians. And at the time … there weren’t any well-known personalities who publicly supported him,” Ms. Uson says in a mix of English and Tagalog. “So I said, ‘I have to make a stand.’ ”
Through the first few months of 2016, she stunned the Philippine political world by converting the Mocha Uson Blog to an online rallying point for supporters of President Duterte. Its transformation was in some ways the singular product of a nation that regularly elects celebrities into government and ranks first in the world in social media use.
Her ascent, however, also reflects an evolving global political landscape, where information is democratized and every opinion has the opportunity to find a platform. Citizens can directly hold institutions like media and government accountable, while the latter can respond to their constituents sans mediator. Given reach and charisma, anybody with a voice – sex symbols, high-school students, TV comedians, real-estate moguls – can scale the heights of political influence and authority.
The price is often decreased civility, and consensus, say experts. Tribal lines are quickly drawn and held, and fact becomes flightier, hard to pin down and easy to manipulate. The social-media savvy – both individual and corporate – possess more power than ever to shape the tone, trajectory, and themes of political discourse.
Few countries today epitomize this new reality as clearly as the Philippines, the social-media capital of the world, with a norm-breaking president whose campaign supporters harnessed this shifting online landscape to win the election. And few individuals embody it as clearly as Uson. As the 2016 campaign season picked up steam, her name became inseparable from the Duterte lobby, drawing animosity and acclaim in near-equal measure from Filipinos at home and abroad. Her Facebook base has since ballooned from 2.5 million to more than 5 million – a figure that remains unrivaled even by the head of state she serves. In May 2017, after a brief stint with the government’s entertainment regulation board, she was named assistant secretary at the Presidential Communications Operations Office.
Uson shrugs when confronted with her apparent success. “The journey has been colorful and exciting. And I have a sense of fulfillment,” she says. But to her, much of the road thus far seems inevitable. Her feelings about Duterte’s candidacy compelled her to speak out on his behalf, she says, and she felt just as obliged to use Facebook to do so. Because what better way to spread an idea than on a platform that boasts up to 67 million users in the Philippines?
“Everything is on social media,” Uson says. “We can’t avoid the fact that it’s the direction information dissemination is going.”
Experts around the world have been making similar pronouncements since at least 2008, when Barack Obama became among the first politicians to leverage social networks to get out the vote. Less than three years later, the Arab Spring – the series of revolutionary protests that, thanks to Twitter, swept across Tunisia, Egypt, and the Middle East – became, briefly, a symbol of social media’s potential to reinvigorate democracy. “It was the era of the revolution down through the wires: time was collapsed and geography shrunk by the use of social networking,” Irish novelist Colum McCann wrote for The New York Times in 2011.
Today about 2.6 billion people use social media worldwide, up from fewer than a billion in 2010. From India to Sudan, the US to the U.K., social media – and the very public web of information and misinformation it weaves – has helped elect leaders, birth movements, crush rebellions, and intensify divides.
Mr. Duterte’s election proved to be the watershed moment for social media and politics in the Philippines. Leading up to 2016, frustration with political leadership after decades of what was widely perceived as weak and corrupt government coincided with a rise in affordable mobile data plans. Filipinos yearning for political change had better access than ever to the online political sphere.
“It made it so much cheaper to engage with each other,” says Tony La Viña, former dean of the School of Government at Ateneo de Manila University. “People felt very liberated to be able to participate in debates, to have [their] opinions disseminated.”
For those who understood the social media space, it also meant new opportunities to amass both profit and political capital. Bloggers like Uson – “influencers,” in public relations parlance – rose to prominence, becoming the most powerful voices for those who had felt excluded from public discourse. Indeed, much of the success of social media in Philippine politics has pivoted on the perception that it is the unvarnished and authentic alternative to traditional media: the newspapers, television and radio stations, and online news sites that Duterte supporters say all but ignored the president’s campaign and continue to smear his administration with negative stories.
“It was the erosion of trust in mainstream [news outlets]. People were looking for an alternative voice,” says pro-Duterte blogger Rey Joseph Nieto, also known as “Thinking Pinoy” (a Tagalog slang term for Filipino). “They found me, [blogger] Sass [Rogando Sasot], and Mocha – for better or for worse.”
“Fake news” is a constant preoccupation of bloggers on the other end of the political spectrum, as well. But their goal is to support, not subvert, traditional media.
“Most of my posts are about debunking false propaganda and calling out the shortcomings of government officials,” says Jover Laurio, whose Pinoy Ako Blog (“I am Filipino”) drew attention for its cutting letters addressed to the administration and its allies.
“And to stop the killing,” she adds, referring to the president’s violent antidrug campaign. “Every time I write a letter, I pray that they read it.”
Less conspicuous than the blogger cohort are the PR and marketing firms who manage politicians’ social media campaigns. A report released earlier this year explored the extent to which such firms, and the strategists who run them, have developed a blueprint for manipulating political opinion in the Philippines via social media. Using the techniques of corporate marketing, these “architects of networked disinformation” hire teams of “digital influencers” to push a particular message on Facebook comment sections and Twitter feeds. The campaigns, which can involve seeding revisionist history or hijacking attention through artificial hashtags, are motivated largely by profit, according to the report.
“The thing about social media is, its incentive structures are about visibility,” says Jonathan Corpus Ong, co-author of the report and associate professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “What comes up on our news feed is the one that is more popular and is most liked. There are ways in which these algorithms can be gamed and manipulated. That’s made it easy for particular operators to weaponize [it] for politics.”
The effects of all this on the Philippine political space have been far-reaching – and familiar, to audiences following social media’s effects in the West. Online vitriol is at an all-time high. Trust in traditional media outlets is at an equivalent low, with Filipino webizens saying they trust social media more than mainstream publications.
And there’s the sense that, especially on social media, there exist two realities. In one, the Philippines is a place of fear and chaos, where innocents are gunned down in the streets and a foul-mouthed despot encourages ruthless justice against those who defy him. In the other, the country is just beginning to ascend to economic heights and international prestige through the ministrations of a strong, if somewhat vulgar, leader willing to do what needs to be done.
In the living room of a modest apartment, Laurio – feeling under the weather, and in pajamas – fumes at the president’s crusade against the news outlets that have criticized his actions. Her own quest to bring the administration to account has led to daily threats against her life and person on Facebook and Twitter. Recently, a stranger pretending to be a cable guy allegedly cased her home, forcing her to move to this borrowed residence.
Laurio grieves most over the deaths that have piled up in the wake of Duterte’s drug war – and the war of perception being waged online over the killings. During his campaign, Duterte vowed to eradicate illegal drugs from the country, however violently, and the ensuing body count has earned international condemnation. Reports, however, conflict on how many have been killed and by whom. The government says some 4,000 suspects who resisted arrest have been killed in police operations, but watchdog groups allege that the total slain runs thousands more.
“What hurts the most in this country today is that we’re not fighting about who was killed,” Laurio says. “We’re fighting over the numbers. ‘There weren’t 13,000 dead, just 3,000.’ It’s like life has no value anymore.”
She casts much of the blame on Duterte’s online defenders. “If these people post fake news and nobody corrects them, how is the ordinary person – many of whom look up to these figures – supposed to know any better?” Laurio asks. “Of course they’ll believe them.”
Crying “fake news,” however, has become an equal-opportunity game – one that many Duterte critics fear has already harmed press freedom. In January, the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission revoked the license of news organization Rappler for violating laws against foreign ownership. Rappler’s management has called the move politically motivated, given the outlet’s coverage of the anti-drug campaign. The outlet is still operating while it appeals the decision, but the presidential complex has barred a Rappler reporter, and the government is now investigating it for tax evasion.
At her office on the other side of town, Uson argues “fake news” is proliferating online, but Filipinos see the truth: a president who drew thousands of supporters to his rallies, rejects the pomp and ceremony of traditional politics, and responds to the needs of the nearly 2 million overseas Filipino workers whose yearly remittances help prop up the economy.
She also dismisses the notion that he curtails free speech. The media, bloggers included, should be held accountable for biases and inaccuracies, says Uson, who has criticized journalists as “presstitutes.” “They’re saying: ‘[We need] freedom of expression,’ but when these ordinary people, Filipino people, execute their freedom of expression, they can’t accept it,” says Uson, emphasizing that she faces her share of venom online.
Perhaps the one thing the two women, and their respective camps, would agree on is that for the foreseeable future, social media will remain a chief battleground over the nation’s prospects and politics – and how the Filipino people see both. And neither Uson nor Laurio have any intention of backing down from the fight.
“We can’t keep going on ‘the straight path,’ because the country gained nothing from it,” Uson says, referring to the previous administration’s platform. “We’re still drowning in poverty … corruption, criminality. That’s why we fought for Duterte.”
“Sometimes I get scared,” Laurio admits. “But I think of the people who tell me, ‘You are our voice.’ People who are afraid to speak out. So whenever I start to regret getting into this, I think about them.”
Part 1 of 2: The Duterte dissonance: One leader, two Philippines?