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Local governance in the time of social media
by Jermaine Beltran

The rainy season brings problems to a lot of people, especially when rain and wind go together to create social media frenzy.

Remember this suspenseful scene? Heavy rains strong winds drenching the city a night or day before. While people enjoy their hot food and brewed coffee, they are also busy on their social media accounts; swiping or scrolling through their news feeds, looking for the mayor’s account profile.

Students and their parents become instant fans or followers of the city mayor (town mayor and provincial governor) for a different reason – class suspension announcements. They wait for almost every hour on what the local chief executive has to announce for the next day. As the night falls, and the weather worsens, they become weary and start to flood the mayor’s account with streams of comments. Most of them, begging for the mayor to suspend classes.

 



Then at last, a graphic with a caption pops up. It is either the mayor acceding to the begging or has decided based on his intuition, but guided by an advisory from the weather bureau. Did he take into consideration what the reactions and comments will be? The suspense is as fluid as the weather that spawned it. It is a virtual tug-of-war of who wins the battle, the student or the mayor? Whatever the outcome then, it became the policy for the day, to suspend classes or not.

This scenario repeats when Mother Nature decides to test the highest official at City Hall. Indeed, nowadays, social media has gained great influence that governments must understand and can no longer ignore.

Netizens and an alternate world

Look around you. There are people who stoop down, endlessly swiping away on their smartphones or scrolling through Facebook or Twitter or some other social media site, seemingly having their own world.

This is because these social media platforms provided a whole new virtual world where physical boundaries are non-existent.

Without restrictions, people from all walks of life can create social media accounts or profiles in which they may present themselves truthfully as they are in the real world or make a whole new person with just an e-mail, password, and fabricated personal information. Ever watched the “Matrix” movies where humans have an alternate world?

These people have a public square – the news feed – where they can “post” anything they want to share under the sun. It is an endless stream of information and various media of people’s days, thoughts, and literally “whatever” the time they posted.

Since the news feed is public and free, anyone could react or comment to anyone’s post, even share any post from other people’s accounts.

It is technically a free-for-all environment. Freedom of expression and information knows no limits. Gone are the days when information could only be accessed by reading newspapers, listening to radio, and watching TV. Even the lowly “tsismis” is no longer just confined to the sari-sari store.

Although traditional mainstream media in the country are still the preferred credible source for news and information, the Internet’s tools are much more democratic or relatively free platforms for whatever one may want to write. It is evident in social media with status updates and comments being publicly shown for everyone in virtual space to see and interact in one way or another. The freedom to disseminate information, through the information super highway, has given new sense of democracy.

Based on “We are Social and Hootsuite’s” digital annual report for 2018, Filipinos topped the world on spending time on the Internet. The Philippines ranked number one with people spending more than 10 hours a day in the Internet where the global average is more or less six to seven hours. More so, social media penetration is at 99 percent of Internet users having at least one type of social media platform where four hours is spent using social media platforms. And there is no let-up in the growth of social media use in the Philippines. According to Statista Research, the Philippines could have around 62.5 million users by 2023 considering the forecasted population of around 118 million.

The activity done by millions of users on these sites is astounding and powerful enough that sites have certain intelligence to analyze the behaviors of users. Facebook is somehow programmable wherein interaction of users with relational activities such as liking or sharing may in turn influence the flow of communication and information. Algorithms within the social media sites are affected by the number of likes, shares, or comments of a certain post.

The more of these interactions in a post, the higher that post in people’s news feeds. Popularity is affected by way of “distinct mechanisms for boosting popularity of people, things, or ideas, which is measured mostly in quantified terms.” For example, Facebook’s “EdgeRank” is an algorithm, relying on quantified data, push some topics higher on the feed, and devalues others subsequently suggesting popularity or “trending.”

Twitter also has its own algorithm similar to Facebook’s. However, these algorithms can be manipulated by “trending” techniques whereby groups of users who decide something needs to become trending can orchestrate a publicity wave to promote a particular item. Public relations managers take advantage of this feature in order to reach more people in a virtual environment.

Elections and social media

The past four elections in the country since 2010 have been touted by political observers as when social media have made an effect or dent on voting behaviors.

No other election has made social media abuzz than the 2016 national polls. It is much more pronounced in Facebook where campaigners have added more focus on resources. That year, Facebook had 49 million active monthly members from the Philippines alone. With that number, campaign managers have seen a way to easily reach millions of people not only to make people aware of their candidates but also to engage them as well and further their candidate’s popularity.

A notable effort to use the power of social media was during the 2016 presidential elections when supporters of then Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte have actively use the tools afforded by Facebook to sway voters. They created news pages and social media accounts that spread fake news. Bogus accounts were made to malign or “troll” other candidates and their supporters. Facebook has since deleted these accounts and pages.

Social media have played a role even in local politics, especially in the recent election. While a number of candidates have social media accounts, the most active of them were able to set the tone of the election campaign to their advantage.

Then candidate Benjamin Magalong’s Facebook account was more active than the other candidates for city mayor. Photos and status updates showed Magalong campaigning and doing medical missions in the barangays. This made the former police general more attuned to the voters and netizens as well. His Facebook group and supporters were also frequently seen on people’s news feeds. The other candidates were a distant blip. Together with other factors, he eventually won the race as the city’s top executive against formidable and experienced opponents.

Like in the national level, some candidates has brought traditional politicking online during the city’s election where mudslinging and other forms of black propaganda reached their peak with a wide degree of tolerance. Thus, even supporters joined the fray that made campaigning more complicated than ever. One post can spark an endless conversation which may be blown out of proportion to the point that an accusation, even if still unproven, may become a reality to many.

An interesting note about social media is the tendency of people to just glance over information rather than read further and reflect. This is brought about the rather bottomless scrolling of news feeds and the problem that users just read the first few sentences. And most of the time, information of any kind in social media is rarely fully presented. Twitter has only very limited characters. Even Facebook has limited characters on screen but if one needs to read a long post, either he or she needs to click “See more” which is cumbersome for many preferring to swipe to the next post in their feed. If one has to see a full story, such as news, one is redirected to the main website outside of Facebook. Being led to another website may not be the best option for many because of the cost of data and or time constraint for a reader plus distraction that social media platforms have such as ads and other users’ posts too.

In a study by University of the Philippines Prof. Cecilia Fe Abalos, she said incomplete portrayal of ideas, opinions, and information in general, “elicits more questions and confusion about information contained in the post and in the thread of comments.” This has built a shallow sense of public opinion. She added users of the social media sites get temporarily satisfied eventually lead the formation of shallow political opinion.

Abalos’ argument explains how shallow discourse among political players, particularly supporters of candidates in an election, emanates in the online space. Thus, the terms “Dutertards” or “Dilawans” and other undesirable tagging have become a norm for some. Fortunately, the city’s political rivalry is more rhetorically toned down compared to the national elections.

These are just some of the factors that social media have affected, for the good or worse, in our elections but as social media has affected elections, so do governing. As the winners get into government, the role of social media transcends and changes too.

Immediate feedback --  Social media is truly a powerful tool and a world rich of information, personalities, conflicts, and entertainment.



Social media and local governance

As traditional media were mostly one-way communication where the reader or viewer needed a reporter to expose problems in society especially in government, freedom afforded by new media have empowered ordinary citizens to be vigilant and ready to make public officials accountable for their actions. One just needs a smartphone to take photos and video clips, an Internet connection, and a social media account.

Social media nowadays have increasingly made important strides in running a city.

The relative ease of local residents on posting problems in a city in the online space is advantageous to local governments such as Baguio. It essentially boils down to the participation of citizens and political will in governance.

With a limited workforce, monitoring the city’s barangays is sometimes much more comprehensive and faster with netizens. The resources meant for monitoring and implementation purposes may be reallocated to other priorities of the government. It also lifts some burden to the police force as these netizens become “citizen patrollers” as a broadcast station suggest during their election coverages. A number of Facebook groups have steadily increased, as many residents report issues from illegal parking to environmental concerns, among other local problems.

Wonder why a lot of people post their concerns in social media than reaching out to concerned government officials and offices?

Social media sites offer fast, easy, and convenient “reporting,” compared to reporting to government which may entail a long process that may include filing a court case, which many citizens want to avoid. Some would even go on to say, “at least sa FB, may nakikinig at sumasagot,” referring to the government’s lack of care and action on their problems.

This is starting to slowly change especially in local governments. Disseminating information to their citizens could be done in just a few minutes especially during a crisis. For public information officers, communicating the city’s policies and projects is more economical and faster with a post in social media as against the time that an article or news report would be printed or broadcasted.

As a result, social media has also made the need for transparency in local governance. Many would say that if they don’t see it in social media, it did not happen. For a number of City Hall offices and departments, they now have accounts which are frequently updated of photos and videos showing their accomplishments and activities. Although it may be as mundane as participation in the weekly flag ceremony to as serious as rescue operations, their constituents get informed and made aware that taxpayers’ money is properly spent.

Knowing the pulse of the people is even easier with social media. Before, a mayor needs to allot time and resources to know what’s going on with their constituents. Sometimes, the mayor needed to read the newspapers or listen to broadcast news for information. Today, local officials can easily grasp information through the social media. An informal poll could also be done online without spending huge resources for surveys.

However, governments cannot rely too much on social media. A lot of people are not technology savvy and do not have social media accounts.

Social media are platforms for ideas, opinions, and whatnots but it is prone to slacktivism where netizens express and show support online and officials offering their promises to people but both never translate their virtual “commitments” to actual, real action. There are some good signs that this is not the case in recent months but officials and the citizenry cannot seat on their laurels. Both sides must be proactive and consistent as problems come and go.

Social media can be used as a way to involve and engage constituents but this must lead to action. Nothing beats the personal touch of officials going to the ground and seeing the situation for themselves on what is happening with those whom they serve. More so, citizens need to be active in local governance, not merely being keyboard analyts and screen swipers.

Social media is truly a powerful tool and a world rich of information, personalities, and even opposition. However, leaders need to balance between appeasing the netizen’s personal interests based on their reactions and comments, and what is the greatest good for all.

Government can no longer ignore what social media is today. From just pure technological, social media has truly become, social.
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:: Baguio – the origin of a geographical name
:: Baguio: Where every piece of land is valuable
:: Chasing Baguio’ dream as ‘Safe and Smart City’
:: Looking forward to a sustainable & responsible tourism for Baguio
:: A dream Baguio public market in the making
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:: The need to innovate towards a disaster – resilient Baguio
:: Sustaining Baguio City as educational capital of the north
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:: Baguio, as a ‘high–tech’ city, vies for efficient, fast services

Philippine National Police – Police Regional Office – CAR
R.A Gapuz Review Center

Baguio Central University
Baguio Country Club
Benguet Electric Cooperative Inc.
Congressman Mark Go
Data Center of the Philippines of Baguio City, Inc.
Department of Health – CAR
Kings’ College of the Philippines
Mayor Benjamin B. Magalong
Pines City Colleges
Sangguniang Panlungsod
SiTEL
SM City Baguio
Social Security System
Veterans Bank

Albergo Hotel and Residences
Baguio Center Mall
Baguio Water District
C & Triple A Supermart
Congressman Nestor B. Fongwan
Curamed Pharmacy
Department of Agriculture – CAR
Department of Environment and Natural Resources – CAR
Ganza & Solibao Restaurants
GMS Technology
Governor Melchor D. Diclas
John Hay Management Corporation
Mayor Romeo K. Salda
MMS Development Training Center Corporatino
Mother Earth Deli Basket
Philipppine Science High School
Regional Development Council – CAR
Sutherland

 



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