Buyer beware

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By common agreement, except among those in the dirty tactics departments of the groups behind the leading candidates for the presidency who think of it as just doing a job, the 2010 election campaign is turning ugly. With a little more than three weeks to go, however, it’s likely that the use of such tactics as leaking false “psychiatric reports” and circulating rumors of varying degrees of outrageousness has not reached the “historic lows” some analysts have observed in these elections.

Smear campaigns, mudslinging, muckraking and similar tactics are the staple of all Philippine elections, together with violence, intimidation, bribery and fraud.

At the local level, the politicians’ use of these methods to gain ascendancy over their rivals is sustained by the wealth (usually ill-gotten through exploitation and/or graft), arsenals, and goon squads of contending families, to whom political posts are only icing on the cake, a way of consolidating and enlarging their feudal fiefdoms. At this level, however, mudslinging is not so much the weapon of choice as the use of violence, fraud and vote-buying. (Think Maguindanao. Think Ampatuan versus Magundadatu. Think Crisologo and Singson, circa 1960s.)

Vote buying, the use of violence against rivals, and the intimidation of voters give way at the national level to backroom deals and muckraking, among other reasons because that’s what the voters have been conditioned into expecting. As has been repeatedly said, Philippine campaigns are not about platforms and policy issues. They’re entertainments first and last: circuses and freak shows for an electorate that has learned to expect the least from those courting their votes — and for whom seeing politicians dance and hearing them attack each other is the only time they can exact some form of vengeance for the decades of bad government they’re been getting.

Has there been no change then, no progress towards the “maturity” that analysts have been saying for years can rescue Philippine elections from the parodies of democratic choice they have become and their devastating consequences on governance?

Though glacially slow, the change has been mostly among the electorate, some segments of which have demanded that the politicians address the country’s most pressing problems, while others have taken a pro-active role in assuring better elections by urging the candidates to discuss the issues, as well as by monitoring both the campaign and the conduct of the elections, particularly how the Commission on Elections is doing its job (badly).

It is the politicians who have not changed. Most have been forced into presenting some kind of platform and to discuss the most pressing issues that confront a country in crisis, but they reserve these for the talk shows and the university forums. For the crowds in the plazas and the other venues of their campaign sorties, they resort to the same tactics of dancing, singing and mudslinging. Those who need the education most are not getting it from the politicians.

If there are any changes at all in the way the campaign is being waged, it is in the sophistication of the methods through which smearing each other is being accomplished. Both the old (print and broadcasting) and the new media (the Internet), plus mobile phone communication are the main instruments the evil geniuses of public relations are attempting to manipulate. They’re succeeding in more cases than the public has noticed.

The smear campaign tacticians know that television is the key medium into which they must introduce both misinformation and disinformation. Internet access may be growing, but include among the 24 million or so who regularly go online children and teen agers yet to reach voting age. Print barely has access even to the middle class. On the other hand, television is accessible to 96 percent of all Filipinos, who look at TV as the most credible of all the media precisely because it’s what they customarily watch, primarily for entertainment, but also for information. Television thus shapes not only the aspirations and values of most people, but their ideas about the country and the world as well.

That is why television network ABS-CBN’s airing of the false “psychiatric report” on the mental health of Senator Benigno Aquino III was a major coup not only for his main rival, Senator Manuel Villar, but even for currently third placer Joseph Estrada.

The manner in which ABS-CBN aired its April 8 report on that fake document — it began by describing at length what the supposed document contained, relegating at the end the supposed author’s denial that he ever wrote it — tended to leave viewers with the impression that the document was authentic. This was not so much the result of bias, but of a lapse in professional judgment.

News writing conventions require putting the most recent in a chain of events ahead of a story, but the ABS CBN report focused on the contents of the “document” rather than its fraudulence. The “document” had also been published over the Internet, in one more demonstration of how the new media can spread disinformation — the use of deliberate falsehood to further an agenda — and even compel the media mainstream to reproduce it because too many bloggers don’t observe accuracy and fairness protocols.

Despite the denial by the supposed author that he wrote it, and subsequent reports on the document’s fraudulence, it nevertheless provoked a pointless discussion on the merits of mental health tests for the candidates, which had for subtext the assumption that suspicions about the state of Senator Aquino’s mental health need to be addressed, anyway.

The central lesson in all these is that by whatever name it goes by — smear tactics, mudslinging, sustained slander, black ops — disinformation has become an even deadlier, and in some cases more effective component of a campaign that’s primarily being waged in the media. Television particularly has become the main object of various groups’ attempts at media manipulation for its reach into practically every household. The media have every reason to be even warier than the electorate in this campaign season.

(BusinessWorld)

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