(ANALYSIS) Samira, Imee, and Pia: What can we learn from politicians’ social media profiles?

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Three lessons from three politicians who used social media in different ways during the elections and beyond.

Editor's note: Samuel Cabbuag teaches sociology at the Department of Sociology, University of the Philippines Diliman. His research interests include the sociology of media, popular culture, and digital cultures. Rossine Fallorina is a graduate student of sociology at the University of the Philippines Diliman and was a research assistant for the Digital Disinformation Tracker. He is the managing editor of Television and New Media and editorial associate of Philippine Sociological Review.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Social media has transformed the way citizens relate to politicians. The distance between people and power now seems to be closer, more personal, and interactive. How exactly do politicians use social media? Is there a relationship between popularity online to popularity offline?

From January to May 2019, we were part of a research team that examined how Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube were used in political campaigns (full report here). We closely followed senatorial candidates’ social media accounts to learn about their campaign strategies and how voters received their online persona.

In this piece, we share three lessons from three politicians who used social media in different ways.

Samira Gutoc’s most retweeted post criticizes President Rodrigo Duterte for his controversial remarks on women. Screenshot from SAMIRA GUTOC/TWITTER

Samira Gutoc: The most talked about candidate is not the most popular on the ballot

Candidates from opposition slate Otso Diretso took the internet by storm with Twitter Philippines recognizing them as “most tweeted about candidates during election.” Samira Gutoc, in particular, caught the attention of many. She was eloquent in millennial speak and gay lingo, mastering the callout culture on Twitter. She was as feisty on Twitter as she was on television debates, with her tweet calling out the President’s sexist jokes going viral at the peak of campaign season.

From a media analysis perspective, Gutoc ticks all the boxes of a media-savvy politician who has mastered the digital cultures appropriate in contemporary times.

Gutoc’s performance on the ballot, however, reminds us that the most talked about candidate online is not the most popular candidate on the ballot — she ranked 25th in the official COMELEC tally.

Contrast this to Senator Cynthia Villar, the top-ranking senator, whose digital campaign was much more restrained compared to Gutoc’s. A quick preview of Villar’s Instagram page shows how her campaign values traditional ways of courting votes — giving speeches in front of massive crowds, sticking to campaign colors, and posing with the Duterte fist bump. Villar had none of Gutoc’s millennial speak, clap backs, and #AskMeAnything cyber townhalls. Instead, she used social media in the most traditional and conservative manner: to document her experiences in the campaign trail.

One clear lesson we can glean from this comparison is the continued importance of political machinery in generating votes. While social media holds the promise of deepening engagement with constituents as Gutoc shows us, it also has clear limits if one takes a narrow view of politics where winners and losers are defined by the ballot.

Does this mean Gutoc was wrong to overly rely on social media? Not necessarily. Given limitations in campaign resources, Gutoc had little choice but to use social media as the main vehicle for her to reach out to constituents. That she continues to be active on social media today matters to democratic life, even though she did not land a spot in the Senate. Today, Gutoc uses her social media influence to advocate for indigenous peoples’ welfare and health, among other issues, retweeting content from the United Nations and the World Health Organization. Her use of social media outside campaigns showcases active citizen engagement beyond the ballot.

Imee Marcos calls for the revival of popular government programs associated with President Ferdinand Marcos. Screenshot from IMEE MARCOS/FACEBOOK

Imee Marcos: Romanticized past, relevant present

Imee Marcos, without a doubt, has one of the most successful social media strategies even before the campaign season. She maintains strong presence across all platforms, including YouTube where her channel produces short and engaging talk shows and Instagram where she documents her campaign engagements, uploads her TV ads, and posts endorsements from fellow politicians.

Her digital campaign team effectively uses the combination of what we call the romanticized past and the relevant present.

The romanticized past refers to her posts that softens the image of Martial Law. She tells stories about the best legacies of the Marcos presidency, from social welfare initiatives like the Nutribun, Kadiwa, and BLISS (see image above). Critics describe this as part of the Marcos’s blatant attempt at historical revisionism, where the accomplishments of the dictatorial regime are amplified while casting doubt on historically settled controversies of corruption and human rights violations. In light of the controversies, Marcos has repeatedly invited her critics to forget the past, be more forward-looking, and judge her candidacy on her track record in governance. She revisits the past when it’s convenient to her narrative but excludes those that would tarnish her family’s legacy.

Imee Marcos, however, does not just dwell on the past. She has strategies to claim relevance in present times. Her campaign hashtag #IMEEsolusyon is a play of words that Imee “has the solution” (ay may solusyon) to pressing perennial socioeconomic problems. This branding panders on the failure of politicians to solve these issues as she claims her current track record in governance would translate into her being a good leader.

Another strategy to claim her relevance in present times is her appeal to groups that have gained more traction like the LGBT+ community. In a campaign sortie, Marcos claims to be a “tunay na bakla” (true queer), placing herself on a pedestal as the sole candidate to claim such. She uses this not only as a license to engage in gay lingo and/or internet speak in her tagline, “Keri yan!” (It can be done/It’s possible) but to also appeal to the masses who use gay lingo in daily conversations online and offline.

A screenshot of Pia Cayetano’s YouTube channel featuring lifestyle videos during the campaign season. Screenshot from PIA CAYETANO/YOUTUBE

Pia Cayetano: Embracing influencer culture

One candidate is a cut above the rest in displaying creativity in her official social media campaign. Administration-backed Pia Cayetano ran an online campaign that mainly published lifestyle content through vlog-style aesthetics. Her carefully curated grid on Instagram, casual use of Facebook’s Live Video feature, and maximization of her YouTube channel blends particularly well with her advocacy on youth, women/gender, health and wellness.

Cayetano’s embrace of the influencer culture means that candidates are now more concerned at finding innovative ways of capturing audiences. Politicians are wary to capture the younger voter demographic present in online platforms through increased emphasis on authenticity and relatability. Not only should politicians establish their presence online, but they also need to engage them in the language they speak or are familiar with. In general, we see politicians adapting and innovating based on shifts and trends in popular culture exemplified by Cayetano’s branding as an influencer.

Politicians on digital

These three examples demonstrate the many ways politicians can build their online identities and the different implications of these identities to democratic life. By observing these social media accounts, we are starting to learn that politicians extend the electoral campaign in the digital space and show their skills in making use of what social media can offer. Based on the lessons presented, it becomes clear that social media campaigns offer a glimpse of the evolving state of Philippine politics.