ABOUT two years ago, I had an epiphany of what social media really was about. In a mall’s hardware section, on a grumpy morning trying to buy a replacement for a busted light bulb, I saw a young salesgirl dancing, with her co-worker taking a video of her with her Chinese-made cellphone.
In Filipino of course, I told her in an admonishing tone: “What the hell are you doing?” She replied, still smiling: “Para sa TikTok lang ho, para dumami followers ko.”
She captured in essence what social media, or at least what its huge shallow part has become: a venue for creating for the user the illusion, the delusion, that the world is acknowledging her existence, no matter how silly she was.
Especially as social media has engulfed the planet to be used by the masses — practically 77 million Filipinos or all of its adult, literate population are registered users — the essence of what many Facebook, Instagram and Twitter denizens are posting are merely verbal versions of that underpaid salesgirl’s TikTok dancing.
Of course, the posts in Facebook or Twitter show not their hips swaying or whatever, but their ideas, political beliefs, whims, travels, pets, school report cards to be seen by the world — which confirms to the world that they exist, defying the silence of an uncaring universe, or even that of their families.
The old “cogito, ergo sum” has been replaced in the 21st century, “I’m in social media, therefore I exist.” But that idea will be ending soon.
The more the number of “followers” and “likes” the more the pressure is on pleasure points in one’s brain, that many underpaid young workers put off their lunch money just to reload their cell phones so they can dive again into their social media paradise. This is perhaps the only source of joy in their difficult lives, which even allows them to “talk” — i.e., post comments — on the Facebook page or Twitter accounts of famous actors and celebrities. Why, even Inday can say hello to Kris Aquino and tell her she is praying for her recovery from her illness.
Indeed even relatively well-to-do and intelligent people have sacrificed much to the altar of social media. A very popular blogger with hundreds of thousands of followers vibered me months ago: “I earned this (his fame). You can’t imagine how many hours daily I spent hours (before his followers increased) doing monologues to attract followers.”
Social media is harmless as long as it merely feeds the ego, brings people some cheer in their sad lives. But it had been converted into a propaganda machine, a political tool, and a system for molding people’s minds, as US President Trump spectacularly demonstrated, with his Twitter account directly addressing 89 million followers, that he was able to have his followers storm the Capitol in a few hours’ notice.
A recent article in the US magazine The Atlantic entitled “The age of social media is ending” explained how social media — and Trump — could do this: “Social-media operators discovered that the more emotionally charged the content, the better it spread across its users’ networks. Polarizing, offensive, or just plain fraudulent information was optimized for distribution. By the time the platforms realized and the public revolted, it was too late to turn off these feedback loops.”
What has mostly flooded social media have been the equivalent, as one American writer pointed out, of the gibberish of drunk barflies. In the Filipino context, it would be either the “kwentong barbero,” or discussion of the crowd who hang out at twilight in the benches of sari-sari stores in urban poor and rural areas. The simplistic “analysis” (if these may even be called such) and conspiracy theories by these sources would have gone viral, their authors “top influencers” if they had the advantage of an internet spreading them.
Because of these features of social media, it has spawned a type of public discourse that consists of simplifications, sound bites and hysterical commentary, which unfortunately has been embraced by masses of people.
A perfect example of the power of social media, which the Yellows used, was the popularity — with 200,000 followers at its height — of the Pinoy Ako Blog of one Jover Laurio. Particularly during former president Duterte’s term, it spread exaggerated figures on the casualties in his war against drugs, and reduced the complex issue of our diplomatic relations with China with the meme, “Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China.”
So much so seemed her power to advance the Yellow cause, that the Philippine Daily Inquirer named the blog’s author Laurio as “Filipino of the Year” for 2017. Even the New York Times ran an article (by an obscure Filipino writer) that romanticized her as the Philippines’ heroine of press freedom.
The Pinoy Ako Blog is no more, its website taken over by an Indonesian online gaming firm. Laurio’s (and the Pinoy Ako Blog’s) Facebook page is still there, but has only 217 followers, and has only staid posts, the last of which was in September. Laurio’s Twitter self-description “Summer Skye Travel and Tours owner. Single Mom”
That “single mom” description is strange as her wedding in 2019 was a big bash, with almost every who’s who in the Yellow gang — such as Vice President Leni Robredo, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, Maria Ressa, Mely Nicolas, Leah Navarro, Howie Severino and Florin Hilbay even attending as godparents of the couple.
While Pinoy Ako Blog’s huge success was partly due, I was told, by financing and support extended to it by the Yellow forces — as hinted by that wedding — it was largely because of the features of social media that awards the dumbing down of discourse, and, as that Atlantic article put it, the spreading of “emotionally charged content, polarizing, offensive, or just plain fraudulent information.”
People though are losing their taste for or simply getting bored of those unprincipled features of social media. The spectacularly successful term of Duterte — Pinoy Ako’s Satan and punching bag — had disproved its lies beyond any argument, that it had lost all its credibility, so much so that Laurio appears to have shunned all political commentary.
I suspect that Rappler.com — funded by US entities — has entered the same road to ruination that Pinoy Ako has gone to. As in the case of Pinoy Ako, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s overwhelming victory in the May elections, the debunking of the lies — especially those involving human rights abuses — against Duterte, the exposure of its losing candidate Leni Robredo as a vacuum-minded candidate have drastically eroded rappler.com’s credibility, making it look like an old toothless tiger.
Who would want to read an internet news site that published proven falsehoods and disinformation? Its banner stories have become boring, uncontroversial and mostly non-partisan, which leads me to believe it might have a plan to survive, through a deal with a faction of the Marcos administration.
There have been pro-Duterte and/or pro-Marcos versions of Pinoy Ako, especially during the election period. One has been spectacularly successful, although it appears to be losing its luster. This may be due to the fact that Filipinos are getting bored — and even suspicious — of its unwavering defense of the administration’s flaws.
I suspect though that the bigger factor for this involves the change in preference of people all over the planet regarding social media. They have become tired of “cuteness,” dumbing-down discourse, shock and emotionally charged argumentation.
Furthermore, social media, because of its features of being “emotionally charged,” is effective — and draws more followers — as an offensive weapon, rather than a shield. For instance, followers of one “Twitter blogger” Maharlika, who has been a supporter of President Marcos rose steeply after her criticisms of the first lady.
That Atlantic article was quite categorical, that the age of social media is ending,
It even compares the popularity of social media with that of cigarette smoking up to the 1980s, a good analog, as it has been as addictive as social media has been.
Giving up social media, the article claimed, “will be difficult, because we have adapted our lives to conform to social media’s pleasures and torments. It’s seemingly as hard to give up on social media as it was to give up smoking en masse, like Americans did in the 20th century.
“Quitting that habit took decades of regulatory intervention, public-relations campaigning, social shaming, and aesthetic shifts. At a cultural level, we didn’t stop smoking just because the habit was unpleasant or uncool or even because it might kill us. We did so slowly and over time, by forcing social life to suffocate the practice. That process must now begin in earnest for social media.”
I don’t agree though that social media will vanish. As the title of this column says, what will disappear will be only its shallow part. More on that topic on Wednesday.
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