For four consecutive years since 2015, Philippines has been at the top spot worldwide in terms of the amount of time people spend on social media, based on the report published by advertising agency We are Social and social media management platform company Hootsuite in January this year. According to the same report, Filipinos spend an average of three hours and 53 minutes on social media on any device everyday, hence the label ‘social media capital of the world’ (Pablo, 2018; Mateo, 2018). The report also shows that the average number of social media accounts per internet user is 9.9. Surprisingly, despite these figures, Philippines lags behind its neighbors in Southeast Asia when it comes to internet speed and cost (Pablo, 2018), although recent figures show that average internet speed in the country is fast increasing (We are Social and Hootsuite, 2020).
The report showed that Philippines has 73 million active social media users. This figure bears more significance if contextualized – the total population as of 2020 is roughly 109 million. An overwhelming 98 percent of these users access social media networks through their smartphones. These figures are higher than the numbers in some highly developed countries like Japan and South Korea (House of IT, 2018).
Facebook is the most widely used platform – 96 percent of internet users use the network, much higher than the U.S. figure (We are Social and Hootsuite, 2020). This is followed by YouTube (95 percent), Facebook Messenger (89 percent), Instagram (64 percent), and Twitter (56 percent).
Social media is also used somewhat extensively in e-commerce as 29 percent of the internet-using population search and purchase products through social media (We are Social and Hootsuite, 2018). Commercial firms maintain at least one social media account as a way of promoting products or services and getting in touch with the market. Furthermore, as of January 2020, Facebook reported that its adverts reach 70 million Filipinos at a given time (We are Social and Hootsuite, 2020).
Many government agencies and public figures, as well as private enterprises, have social media accounts to disseminate information and discuss with their ‘followers’. Advocacy groups and even belligerent forces are managing social media accounts to communicate their cause and establish a wider audience base. The Moro International Liberation Front and the Communist Party of the Philippines, for example, are publishing some campaign materials and other related content in their Facebook accounts.
Most of the news consumption is now done through television and social media (David, San Pascual, and Torres, 2019, p.4; Newman et al., 2020). Much of the traffic to the news websites was generated by social media, particularly Facebook (David et al., 2019, p.4), and media outlets now employ social media managers or community managers to manage audience engagement and expand reach. A lot of political engagement among Filipinos also happen in the Facebook social space. Based on an online survey with 978 Filipinos, David et al. (2019) found that following political figures and institutions on Facebook is ‘associated with higher levels of political interest and engagement’ and that using Facebook as source of political information is positively correlated with discussing politics frequently with others (p.1).
However, social media has become ‘weaponized’ in this setting (Ong and Cabañes, 2016, p.1), as groups and individuals were found to be implementing massive disinformation and discourse-hijacking campaigns for political agenda (p.5). Ong and Cabañes’ (2016) conducted in-depth interviews and online observation with operators of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts and the strategists who manage them. The researchers found that click farms, fake news, and troll armies were used systematically by players across the political spectrum to sow disinformation in social media. In another report, the political party of the incumbent president Rodrigo Duterte, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino Lakas ng Bayan or PDP Laban, was found to be hiring fake account operators especially during the campaign period (Bradshaw and Howard, 2017, p. 17). Duterte himself admitted that during the presidential campaign period in 2016, people were paid about USD 200,000 to ‘defend him on social media’ (Ranada, 2017).
The researchers noted that ‘disinformation production is a professionalized enterprise: hierarchical in its organisation, strategic in its outlook and expertise, and exploitative in its morality and ethics’ (Ong and Cabanes, 2018). They added that there is a system ‘has not only normalized political deception, but made it financially rewarding – especially for people at the top’.
This systematic campaign to sow disinformation and delegitimize non-state sources of information – ‘cyber attack (and) online harassment/trolling’ – is perceived by Filipino journalists as the ‘second worst threat’ in the current practice, according to a 2018 survey done by the International Federation of Journalists and Southeast Asia Journalists Unions (International Federation of Journalists, 2019).
Critics fear that Facebook and other social media networks can become venues for cyberattacks against perceived enemies of the government. For example, in June this year, hundreds of Filipinos reported dummy accounts on Facebook – accounts with their name (sometimes misspelled) but with no profile photo and few or no friends. One fake account reportedly sent a message to the real account, calling the person a ‘terrorist’ (Cabato, 2020). The hashtag #HandsOffOurStudents went viral as many netizens believe that these fake accounts could be used to implicate people in what could be considered as ‘terrorist’ acts online, especially because the fake accounts emerged at the time of the strong backlash against the then proposed anti-terror law (see CNN Philippines Staff, 2020b; see also Rappler, 2020b).
The social media scene in the Philippines has also become spaces for gender-based violence (offensive language, online harassment, among others). In fact, ‘cybercrimes against women’ is among the top three complaints received by the Anti-Cybercrime Group of the Philippine National Police (Occeñola, 2018). An empirical study also proved the link between depression and use of Facebook among Filipino college students (see Maglunog and Dy, 2019): Based on a survey with about 350 college students, there is a ‘moderate positive association’ between depression levels and time spent on Facebook.
Although social media has become a hostile space according to the experiences of many people, it played an important role during natural disasters (see Tandoc and Takahashi, 2016; Tandoc, Takahashi, and Carmichael, 2015). When super typhoon Haiyan barreled across the Visayas region of the Philippines, the victims used Twitter ‘mostly for dissemination of second-hand information,
in coordinating relief efforts, and in memorializing those affected’ (Tandoc et al., 2015, p.392). Others used Facebook for ‘collective coping strategies’ (Tandoc and Takahashi, 2016, p. 1).
As the pandemic crisis continued, more Filipinos turned to online selling particularly through Facebook (Rivas, 2020b) as face-to-face interaction and gatherings were restrained and millions lost their jobs during the lockdown (Lopez, 2020).