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Cyber campaining trailblazes in Cordillera’s traditional election
by Harley Palangchao

Just as you thought many politicians in the northern highlands – including long-time public servants – are computer illiterate, think again.

And if you have not opened your Facebook accounts lately, you might be surprised that one of the mayoralty candidates, who was the subject of a long-time joke for asking his secretary, who is “Mr. Fax Tone” after answering a phone call, has now more than 4,000 friends on Facebook and still counting.

There’s more.

Friends from the media community were invited to be online friends by one of the gubernatorial candidates in Benguet. The politician is 57 years old but he turned decades younger as he was registered to be born on June 12, 1979, the birth date of the person who created the politician’s account. Funny but it’s true.

Long before the campaign period started for the May 10 elections, a number of politicians went campaigning online, taking advantage of the absence of a clear cut policy by the Commission on Elections against early electioneering on the Internet.

The most popular scheme politicians and their public relations teams did was to create accounts on Facebook and other social networking sites and invited people to support their bid for seats in the national and local levels. 

Politicians, especially in Baguio and other emerging urban areas in the Cordillera, share a common view that campaigning online is their portal to get the votes of the youth, young professionals or “yuppies,” and possibly solicit the support of Filipinos overseas to campaign for them. 

Admittedly, however, some politicians hire the services of IT experts and computer savvy individuals with backgrounds on photo and video editing and blogging to be the administrators of their online social network accounts.

This, as a majority of politicians still believe that traditional campaigning ranging from holding sorties, house-to-house visits, and shaking hands with people from all walks of life will bring them the much needed votes to earn a seat.

Facebook or FB votes 

To determine the merits of online campaigning given the low access to the Internet by people in the Cordilleras, interviews particularly on Facebook were conducted to some people who either helped pioneer the creation of Baguio-based websites or developed the campaign materials of politicians now posted online.

Baguio-based artist and ad creator Ferdie Balanag said that having an FB account is quickly becoming a necessity for every political candidate in areas with high access to the Internet. He said online campaigning cuts down exhausting house to house campaign legwork.

He, however, said that the scope and reach of online campaigning on Facebook and other social networks in the Cordillera region is limited only to those who have Web access.

“In Baguio, the best way to attract voters is to launch an intelligent campaign that presents feasible solutions to problems and issues plaguing the city. Of course, the usual flyers, posters, and events are needed,” Balanag said.

Gideon Omero, business development officer of the Cordillera Communications and Info-Tech Connections, Inc., agreed that online campaigning is effective citing the success of U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign.

“I think Obama of the is a prime example of a politician who has exploited the affectivity of Facebook, among social networks, as a campaign media,” he said.

He also agreed that the main clients of online campaigning are the youth, which in most areas of the country, compose bulk of the votes. “About 80 percent of Facebook and other social networks memberships are mostly youth,” he added.

Creative and public relations consultant Karlo Altomonte, for his part, said that social networking sites are fast becoming an effective tool in political campaign because it has become a hub for people of all ages and from all social classes.

“The platform, being interactive, is one of the reasons for its effectivity. Unlike printed collaterals, TV, and radio ads that are directed at a passive audience, Facebook is interactive, and in real time,” Altomonte said.

He explained that in Facebook, the audience may directly react to or comment on anything that was posted or that they can read written posts, or watch a video, or listen to an audio file posted by a candidate at their leisure, and they can even review the post at any given time.

But can the number of fans or friends online be transformed into actual votes?

Interviewed sources have varied answers.

“No guaranty!” was Omero’s response, saying that voters now, especially the youth, have become wiser and more prudent.
 “Not really,” was what Altomonte said, as he cited possible reasons why people agree to become “fans” of personalities on Facebook. He said the fans are either true admirers of the politicians or actually non-fans at all and are out there to “throw dirt around” against the politicians.

 “I think, to establish a personal connection between the voter and the candidate is still the best way to gain votes,” was Balanag’s comment.

Cheaper but with global reach

A review of the interactions in some of the Facebook accounts of Baguio politicians showed a common pattern that campaigning online means soliciting support from the global community. Politicians who win the hearts of voters have the edge for they are being endorsed by Filipinos overseas for their relatives back home to vote for these candidates.

City administrator Peter Fianza, who is eyeing a seat in the 14-man city council, said in an interview that he also does online campaigning, particularly through Facebook, adding that he maintains his account personally.

Fianza, however, said that there are limited “players” in online campaigning referring to the absence of other rich-vote sectors like the senior citizens and marginalized sectors.

“Most Facebook accounts and other social network accounts belong to the younger generation,” he said.

Baguio journalist Frank Cimatu in his recent article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer stated that almost all politicians in Baguio have Facebook accounts, including the oldest congressional candidate and former city mayor Braulio Yaranon.

At least two candidates for city mayor also have a personal homepage or website aside from their Facebook accounts.

Cimatu’s report also stated there are almost 30,000 Facebook accounts with Baguio as the registered hometown of the users. That’s Facebook alone, plus thousands more in other social networks like Friendster and Multiply.

In March 2009, Digitalfilipino.com (www.digitalfilipino.com) accounted 61,000 to 612,000 logons on Facebook among users based in the Philippines with women aged from 18 to 34 composing bulk of the users. The figure surely increased in the past months.

Given the figure, politicians, who personally manage their online accounts, find time to go online at night after the actual campaigning to respond to friend requests and answer queries and to comment on posts.

Interviewed politicians and their supporters said that campaigning in the cyberspace is relatively much cheaper and less time consuming plus the fact that Internet cafés are located in every nook and cranny in this mountain resort.

No less than Baguio election supervisor Atty. Modesto Bahul acknowledged that campaigning in the Web can help in terms of name recall in favor of the politicians.

“The votes courtesy of campaigning via the Internet might be small but every vote matters to the politicians,” Bahul said.

Low access to the Internet

The supposed success of online campaigning may be limited to Baguio and it will take more years before people in other developing areas in this landlocked region will have access to the Internet.

Political consultant and journalist Delmar Cariño said majority of politicians in Benguet  are busy campaigning the traditional way and have less time for the Internet.  So far, the capital town of La Trinidad has the most number of Internet cafés and residences with Internet connections provincewide. 

“Online campaign has no niche yet in rural areas in the province,” he said.

Cariño, however, said that time will come when online campaigning will be considered by politicians and their supporters in fast developing urbanized areas in Benguet like Sayangan in Atok; Abatan in Buguias; and Poblacion, Mankayan.

A check of online social networks show that a few politicians, especially those who reside in Baguio and Manila but decided to throw their hats in politics in their respective hometowns, have created Facebook accounts purposely to reconnect with friends and to promote their political ambitions.

The Facebook accounts belong to politicians running for seats in the capital towns of Tabuk, Kalinga; Bangued, Abra; Lagawe and nearby town of Banaue in Ifugao; and Bontoc, Mountain Province.

In fact, a candidate for governor in Mountain Province is using his Facebook account to educate voters by posting the latest announcements from the Comelec central office.

Comelec regional director Atty. Julius Torres agreed that online campaigning helps in soliciting for votes but such scheme is highly concentrated in highly urbanized areas.

“It is highly concentrated in urban areas but such form of campaigning will be considered by politicians in the rural areas not now but maybe in the future elections,” he said. 

He said that politicians and their supporters in the countryside still prefer the traditional mainstream media referring to radio, television, and newspapers to share their platforms of government.

No Comelec guidelines 

While the Comelec has issued guidelines on political advertisements on radio, television, and print media, both Torres and Bahul admitted there are no clear-cut guidelines on online campaigning.

This makes the cyberspace a vulnerable tool for both local and national candidates to launch early campaigns even during periods when campaigning is prohibited like the Holy Week. Other politicians and/or their supporters use the cyberspace to post ads in free websites with impunity as there is no Comelec-imposed ceiling. 

Under the Comelec guidelines, local candidates are allowed only 60 minutes on national or cable television and 90 minutes on radio. Political ads in newspapers must not exceed half page. 

“Comelec has no specific guidelines to other forms of campaigning like soliciting votes in the Internet,” Bahul said. 

Torres, for his part, said he is aware that some politicians in the region are campaigning online but he could not categorically comment if there were violations committed with the use of social networking tools by the politicians or their supporters. 

In Manila, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) reported that national and local candidates have taken interest in online campaign as the number of Filipino Internet users increased by an estimate of 24 million. Facebook has almost 12 million Filipinos, including 9.63 million of voting age.

PCIJ reported that another tool used is YouTube, one of the world’s most popular video sharing sites. This, aside from placing ads on Google and Yahoo. 

While social networks are free for use by politicians, it does not mean a budget cut for them. This, as most of the social network accounts of politicians are maintained and administered by individuals who were paid even before the campaign period started last March 26. 

Elections without borders 

All told, social network tools like Facebook have turned local elections into a global event with Filipinos around the world taking part and keeping abreast with the latest developments until the automated elections unfold on May 10.

But while social network tools are free channels to reach out to constituents, politicians and supporters must still consider responsible online campaigning as they will soon pay the price depending on their use of the cyber tools.

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