Why does Maria hate Mocha?

First part of a series rapping Rappler

‘Maria’ is Maria Ressa, CEO of the website Rappler.com, which she claims has become the third largest news website in the country in just four years.

Mocha is Mocha (Margaux) Uson, a pro-Duterte blogger whose blog has built up a huge following in just a few months of 4 million viewers. Ressa herself doesn’t dispute that data, and even wrote that last September Mocha’s blog had a bigger audience than Rappler.

That points to why the former CNN reporter and ABS-CBN executive hates Mocha. In her article in her website, Ressa oozed with a convent-bred señora’s disgust for Mocha when she described her “as a singer dancer whose trademark gyrations and near-explicit sexual moves titillated Filipinos since 2006” and “who pivoted from sexy dancer to political blogger after an interview with President-elect Duterte.”

The subtext of Ressa’s article is obvious: “How can this sexy-dancer-turned-blogger with little money have a bigger audience than Rappler, funded by a big foreign and local businessman?”

It also doesn’t seem coincidental that right after her piece on Mocha was posted, Maria announced in her tweet: “Time to take back the Internet. Time to take back social media.”

While that haughty call is not even original, used before by many of similar temperament, recently by US presidential candidate Donald Trump, it riled Filipino netizens who asked the obvious question, “Did she ever own it?” Rocky Gonzalez of the popular pro-Duterte site mindanation.com branded her as the cyberworld’s equivalent of a hacendera with “a deluded sense of ownership” of the Philippine web.

After Ressa’s article and tweet, there has been a surge of tweets and Facebook posts against Mocha, with not a few calling her a slut. In her anger, did Ressa have a hand in the online petition asking Facebook to close down Mocha’s blog? “The Days of the Mocha Uson Blog Are Now Numbered,” was the obviously happy headline of the article on it by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler’s ideological sister.

Left, Rappler’s CEO and executive editor Ressa; right, Mocha of Mocha Uson’s blog
Left, Rappler’s CEO and executive editor Ressa; right, Mocha of Mocha Uson’s blog

Ressa in her article, however, didn’t claim that Mocha’s blog has got to have a big following because male Filipinos are titillated by the fact that a former sexy dancer is now writing about politics, especially as the blog has lots of her photos, which I would think is the logical explanation.

Instead, Ressa implies (as she couldn’t present an iota of evidence) that the success of Mocha’s blog is the result of artificial “techie” methods she alleges are used mostly by President Duterte’s operatives on the web. Among such tricks she says, are bots (“robots”) that multiply netizens’ “likes” of a website and fake Facebook pages. She implies – as she can’t prove – that these tricks explain Mocha’s huge following.

Demonizing Facebook
What is very surprising is that Ressa even demonizes Facebook, and its “algorithms” which, she says, are “harmful to democracy” and “caters to human weaknesses.” What Ressa is saying, really: Since Facebook has given Mocha a huge following, Facebook’s algorithms, its formula for driving netizens to a particular FB account, are flawed.

Ressa is either being hypocritical, or she just doesn’t know what Rappler really is.

In an interview in the Nieman Foundation magazine just a few months after Rappler went online in 2012, Ressa boasted that in just a month’s time, the site reached a web traffic (roughly, the number of people logging in to it) that took the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s website a decade to achieve.

She didn’t realize what she was really boasting about.

Rappler grew that fast in a month not because of excellence in its news reportage, opinion pieces, or exclusive investigative pieces that broke new ground, so that people rushed to log on to it. Indeed, it still lacks these three features of a good newspaper. Can you remember any real scoop or enlightening opinion essay in Rappler?

Rappler grew to its huge size today because of its use of expensive web technology, and techniques most of the biggest commercial websites in the West routinely use to expand their internet presence, which are really of the same type of tech tricks on the web, Ressa alleged Mocha and Duterte operatives were using.

Ressa criticized Facebook and its algorithms, apparently ignorant that Rappler had allegedly contracted in the past four years not a few tech firms specializing in what’s called search-engine optimization, a discipline that analyzes such algorithms in order to tweak websites so that these will rise to the upper rungs of a Google search, or will result in more Facebook users going to that site.

Think back, how did you first learn of Rappler’s existence? In Facebook or Twitter. Rappler, I was told, spent huge amounts of money to have Rappler’s posts or those of its agents boosted on Facebook.

Rather than focusing on good journalism or providing new content (e.g., the highly successful Huffington Post had dozens of commentators and bloggers, whom mainstream media could not have accommodated), Rappler has resorted to cheap commercial tricks to increase its traffic, such as giving away coupons for products and services. Indeed, after four years, none of its more than two dozen reporters have distinguished themselves as journalists breaking new ground, except of course one who because of her weird antics and questions in a press conferences Duterte couldn’t resist making fun of.

I should know about these web tricks for increasing traffic. I was senior vice president and editor-in-chief of inq7.net, the joint website of Philippine Daily Inquirer and GMA7 News in 2000 — 16 years ago.

Inq7.net was the first major, and adequately funded, business enterprise aimed at creating the country’s biggest, multi-media news website. Even in those early “days” in 2000, a number of US tech firms had approached us claiming that they could increase our traffic significantly — if we bought their atrociously priced technology and software for doing so. I rejected the offers, as I thought it was better for Inq7 to focus on content and not on artificial technology-based tricks. And after all, I didn’t think the newspapers’ owners would be interested or could afford such huge “soft” investments.

A post at Uson’s blog to protest the petition to Facebook to close her down.
A post at Uson’s blog to protest the petition to Facebook to close her down.

Our business model was that inq7.net would increase its traffic if the newspapers’ reporters and columnists continued doing good journalism, if the website delivered real-time news (which the print edition couldn’t), and if GMA7 provided the news and entertainment video clips which would surely attract page-views. GMA-7 though turned out to be planning to set up its own website. Our model, though, was proven correct: the websites of GMA-7 and ABS-CBN are the two biggest websites in the country because of their video content.

Rappler owes its phenomenal growth to its two tech executives, its chairman Manny Ayala (no relation to the Spanish magnates, but which triggered rumors still circulating that they are bank-rolling the news site) and board of directors member Nix Nolledo, both of whom I was told are minority shareholders.

Ayala has had a 12-year experience in entertainment media enterprises, and had been well plugged into the US website industry, whose continuing preoccupation is how to increase a website’s traffic. Nolledo is the local internet industry’s rock star, now a billionaire after his Xurpas recently raised P1.3 billion in capital through the stock market. Nolledo has been an expert in expanding a website’s traffic. His breakthrough was his pinoyexchange.com, which in just a month after it was launched, Nolledo boasted, accumulated 20,000 registered users.

Rappler is Philippine journalism’s “Brave New World,” in the fearful way Aldous Huxley used those words from Shakespeare as his novel’s title. Just as in Huxley’s dystopia, technology and the state had taken over the human spirit. Rappler’s technology and social-media tricks have replaced journalistic excellence and professionalism.

In the past, newspapers grew mainly because they provided citizens with accurate news, opinion columns that helped them understand events, and with investigative pieces that broke new ground. Rappler has demonstrated that in this brave new cyber world, a news outfit doesn’t need to do so for its growth, and can rely on technology and social-media tricks.

Mocha’s blog though has become Ressa’s nightmare: That a blog with little money and practically no staff could overtake such a huge web enterprise as her Rappler. What if some big businessman bankrolls the website Mocha Uson Blog, as big businessmen finance Rappler?

Chief Justice Corona
I wouldn’t have written a word about Rappler, if it simply reported objective news. But it has been spewing out biased reportages and opinion pieces, and the website’s reach has had an impact on Filipinos’ minds, especially those of the youth who prefer this medium.

For instance, its dozens of articles reporting against Chief Justice Renato Corona during his impeachment trial, led by one of its main editors, were so biased as to be immoral. Indeed, a thesis by three UP mass communications students concluded that Rappler’s news content was no different from that of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which had also been rabidly anti-Corona, anti-Binay, and pro-Aquino.

Antonio Contreras, a La Salle professor with a Ph.D., and a hundred times more active in and knowledgeable about social media than I am, recently described Rappler in a recent column as “the mouthpiece of anti-Duterte rants masquerading as thought pieces… at the forefront of a crusade demonizing anyone who dared to fight the Aquino dynasty and its extension, the Liberal Party, from Renato Corona, to Jojo Binay to Bongbong Marcos, exposing all their dirt, whipping up hatred against them.”

One of Rappler’s  biggest failing is this. Its medium depends on the telecommunications industry, which obviously it should be very much concerned about. Yet in its four years of existence is hasn’t posted a single news article or opinion piece pointing out the inefficiencies of our telephone companies, foreigners’ dominance of it, and the corruption in this sector. It has even often run to the defense of the duopoly when it had been criticized. It was vicious in its criticism of the attempt of the San Miguel-Telstra joint venture to enter the industry.

That makes me suspect that one of its hidden owners or at least financiers could be the owners the two telcos.

Its section for opinion pieces, pretentiously labeled “Thought Leaders” have been dominated by a has-been editor in the late ‘70s who writes nothing but anti-Duterte pieces, by leaders of the pink Akbayan Party (such as Walden Bello and Risa Hontiveros), and by a communist party cadre of the likes of Teddy Casino.

I bet they’ll be surprised that the outfit that’s posting their rantings are owned by foreigners and one of the country’s biggest, yet low-key magnate, who will be laughing on their way to the banks when the site starts making money. That, in succeeding parts of this series.

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