Facebook: No Longer A Democratising Agent?

The logo of social networking giant Facebook is reflected on the spectacles of a student browsing the popular website in Manila. (AFP Photo)

Social media, digital media, collaborative platforms and the like, have become an essential facet and feature in many democratic societies. They don’t only act as a means of communication furthering inter-personal relationships with friends, family members, and even strangers across borders, but also as powerful communication tools in advancing work, activities, dissent, and even communicating with government related programs, policies, and advocacies.

Social media has gained significant traction, especially nowadays when physical inter-personal communications is challenged by the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken its toll globally.

In the Philippines, now more than ever, Filipinos have turned to social media, especially Facebook (FB) and Twitter, not only for communications but also for carrying out public affairs and exercising “active citizenship” (i.e., expressing political opinions/perspective, dissent and criticism, news and information) virtually, as access to conventional democratic spaces such as public meetings and other social gatherings is constrained and limited because of the pandemic.

The various social media platforms have become all the more relevant and essential not only to social life but also to the political life of every Filipino regardless of their political affiliations and wherever they may be situated in the political spectrum.

Social media in the Philippines is used nowadays as a communication tool through which Filipinos engage the state, state apparatus, power-holders in the affairs of the government, and even the private sector. It is also the primary means of directly participating in discussions and debates on issues both, local and national that affect their very lives, and more importantly influence local, national, and even international agenda.

In short, social media for Filipinos has become the most relevant, real-time, and peer to- peer “democratic space” for information exchange, espousing advocacies, medium of expressing criticisms as well as appreciation of their leaders in government and even in the private sector.

Source: Hootsuite, We Are Social

Tidying-Up

However, recent events, have somewhat challenged this perception. The tidying-up of some FB accounts and pages allegedly connected to the Philippine military and police, for allegedly violating Facebook’s policy concerning foreign or government interference, is somewhat a blow to social media’s role as a “democratizing agent” that provides a “democratic space” to empower peoples and communities alike regardless of their political leanings or affiliations.

The social media giant has taken down about 57 Facebook accounts and 31 pages, with a combined total of 276,000 followers, and 20 Instagram accounts.

According to FB, they had pursued such action because the FB and Instagram accounts and pages in question were a network of accounts that attempted to influence public debates and discussions via coordinated/connected activities and inauthentic behaviour, and posted local news and events about domestic politics, military activities against terrorism, information about the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, criticism against the Communist Party of the Philippines – National Democratic Front – New Peoples’ Army (CPP-NDF-NPA), among others. Also, allegedly, the said accounts were also fake.

Hindsight And Perspective

The unilateral actions of FB, to a considerable extent, not only has had a chilling and unsettling effect on free speech and freedom of expression, but to a greater extent, smacks of censorship. This will affect certain sectors of Philippine society, especially those who are supportive of the government’s programs and advocacies, given that all, if not, a majority of the accounts and pages taken down had pro-government postures and standpoints.

By so doing, it is as if FB tacitly professes to have the right and moral high ground to decide what information Filipinos should know and what is good for them, and what ought to remain obscured and hidden from their view. Such action may be less dramatic than a “coup d’état” or a “putsch,” but equally injurious and damaging to the soft “guardrails” of democracy such as political freedom, mutual toleration and restraint, and freedom of speech and expression.

Likewise, the recent unilateral and arbitrary act of censorship by the social media giant is somewhat problematic because there was little or no transparency in how FB censored those FB and Instagram accounts and pages.

This arguably makes it easy for politically or ideologically motivated members of FB’s workforce and affiliates like “fact-checkers” to arbitrarily influence or direct the removal of pages and accounts on the pretext that they are “fake” or under the façade that they are championing “harmful content,” or advocating ideas/perspectives that run counter to a certain set of political/ideological ideas and narratives different from, or other than their own.

This situation is also quite problematic because it somewhat connotes that FB has the right to direct, dictate, and decide how Filipinos should think, and who gets to participate in public discussions/debates. That’s not only far-fetched and ludicrous, but quite precarious.

Facebook to some extent has somewhat silenced the voices and ostracised the many FB and Instagram users who were attached to those accounts, pages, and content that was taken down.

FB is supposedly a free market place of ideas and the bastion of free speech and expression. Nonetheless, the recent crackdown on several FB pages and accounts, of which a number were to some extent legitimate like the “Hands Off Our Children” FB page, that advocated against the recruitment of children as child soldiers/combatants by some insurgent groups, says otherwise.

The alleged targeted action against several FB and Instagram pages and accounts was somewhat partial and politically biased. Hence, amid a pandemic, such displays of political bias by FB becomes all the more disquieting given that many Filipinos turn to FB predominantly, not just for news and information, but much more for voicing their thoughts and perspectives on various issues.

To note, as of July 2020, Statista, a German company specialising in market and consumer data, indicated that the Philippines is the country with the sixth largest number of FB users in the world, totalling around 76 million users.

Conclusion

It is ironic and paradoxical to see that a supposedly “democratising agent,” and a purportedly thriving “democratic space” in the time of the coronavirus pandemic such as FB, has unilaterally curtailed and silenced the voice of some segments of Philippine society.

Filipinos have to take cognisance of the fact that the arbitrary nature of such action by FB is a public concern both, from a freedom of speech and expression perspective.

This concern is as vital as access to basic needs like water and electricity. Participation and access to public discourse as much as possible should never be controlled nor be at the mercy of any private company or corporation; for it is a public good and a vital right of every Filipino.

Source: The ASEAN Post
https://theaseanpost.com/article/facebook-no-longer-democratising-agent

Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is Professor of Political Science, International Relations, Development Studies, European Studies, SEA and China Studies. She is a researcher-writer, academic and consultant on a wide array of issues. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs as a consultant. She is President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines.