Last of Two Parts

FOR NETIZENS already inured to the sight of presidential candidate Manuel ‘Manny’ Villar Jr. peering back at them from what should be their private Facebook or email pages, what’s one more Villar ad? Already acknowledged as the biggest spender in the 2010 presidential race, Villar has established a broadcast and online presence that is simply overwhelming.

Manny Villar's ad was Photoshopped onto a screenshot of a porn site

So when a supposed Internet screenshot featuring Villar began circulating via email last February, Netizens were uncertain if they should sound the alarm, or just shrug it off as one candidate taking the campaign to an all new level.

A screenshot is an image taken of the computer screen at any one time. Now that sounds harmless enough, but this particular screenshot depicted a popular pornographic site. On the left side of the page was a young lady in the act of showing off her bountiful assets. On the right was the now familiar orange banner ad for Villar, with the Nacionalista Party standard bearer flashing a really toothy grin.

The screenshot was apparently Photoshopped; in the interest of journalism, we visited the porn site itself (as identified through the screenshot’s URL or uniform resource locator, or its Web address) and found no evidence that Villar had left his mark in a most indiscreet place.

The incident, however, underscores the extent with which the 2010 electoral campaign has infiltrated, some say invaded, cyberspace, and the succeeding backlash from the online community to this saturation campaign.

Pushover bets

And as the campaign heats up out in the hustings, so, too, are temperatures in cyberspace, with candidates and their handlers coaxing, cajoling, co-opting, and  — some say — compromising members of the online community in order to get the attention and support of the country’s 24 million Internet users.

Indeed, Netizens are now not only taking swats at candidates who they think are pushing them too far. Member of the online community are also currently locked in a fierce debate over whether they should police their own ranks or, at the very least, impose standards especially when they are faced with temptations from politicians.

And yet many of them recognize that this in itself may be problematic, given the Web’s all-encompassing nature and blogging’s free-wheeling nature.

There are even those like blogger Ernesto Sonido (more popularly known online as Juned) who say that informal policing already exists.

“Nothing is written in stone, but there are still standards to judge an action or non-action,” Sonido says. “There are still expectations that the community will enforce a form of self-regulation, in a sense that the community will condemn you for that (wrongdoing).”

Trailblazer

Indications are, though, that even the hardiest of Netizens had not foreseen the extent politicians would go in their online campaigns. They certainly didn’t three years ago, when it took a candidate under maximum security detention, and with no Internet connection, to blaze the trail for online campaigning in this country.

The candidate was Navy Lt Sg. Antonio F. Trillanes IV, who used the Net to launch his bid for a Senate seat from behind bars. He ended up bagging 11 million votes in a campaign that was both unprecedented in its unusual style as well as its low cost (P5 million, according to Trillanes himself).

Now marking his seventh year in jail for his part in the aborted Oakwood mutiny, Trillanes tapped into the social networking site Friendster. Friends and supporters also put up a separate website to recruit members to the Magdalo movement.

“In 2007, the only candidate who was visible in populating online fora looking for virality was Trillanes,” recalls blogger Pierre Tito Galla, a.k.a. Jester-in-Exile in the online world.

How times have changed. If 2007 showed what the Internet could do for candidates, 2010 may show what candidates are capable of doing — or in some cases, overdoing — online.

“Sometimes, there’s already an ‘ad nauseum’,” says Sonido. “It’s already intrusive, in a sense counterproductive.”

He says that while exposure must be a good thing for a candidate, overexposure could cost candidates more votes, and risk a backlash from the online community.

And so there are reactions like that of blogger Caffeine_Sparks, who in FilipinoVoices.com, a collaborative political blog for the Pinoy online community, complains of “drowning in Manny,” apparently a play on Villar’s campaign jingle that has a line asking if one had experienced bathing in a sea of trash.

Drowning now

“Manny Villar seems to have taken possession of my body,” Caffeine_Sparks writes. “He haunts me everywhere I go and whatever I do… he stalks me on YouTube and Facebook. By the looks of it, he is pulling out all stops, using all sorts of media platform to deliver messages. We are drowning in you Manny V. You may yet pummel the electorate into submission.”

Netizens explain that Villar’s online ads are taking the most flak because they appear in places that some people would think of, rightly or wrongly, as private. Says Sonido: “Villar’s a major player. Early on, he already put ads both on Facebook and Yahoo!.”

Galla hints that the photoshopped Villar ad could be a message to the candidate’s camp:   that Villar was everywhere, even where he was not supposed to be.

“It changes things when people you don’t necessarily like… appear in your pages,” Galla says. “The saturation (point) is already there.”

But Villar isn’t the only candidate who has become a target of peeved people on the Web. At around the same time the emailed screencap of Villar’s purported ad was circulating, his closest political rival was having online issues of his own.

Several photos, apparently also the result of photoshopping, circulated on the Net, showing Liberal Party presidential candidate Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III’s two-year-old nephew, ‘Baby James’ Aquino Yap, giving people the dirty finger.

Baby James’s mother, TV celebrity Kris Aquino, was quoted as saying that her brother Noynoy was the real target of the malicious photograph.

“There’s an edited picture of Baby James na naka-dirty finger,” she tweeted her followers a day after the photos started circulating. “How foul naman to pick on a 2-year-old! Super major karma whoever is behind that.”

Click, click, click

Others have resorted to less complicated means to take revenge for the perceived invasion of their privacy. According to Galla, some people click repeatedly on online political ads as a way of getting back at the candidates.

Many ads are paid for on a cost-per-click basis, and deliberately repeated clicking can drive up a candidate’s expenses without necessarily getting him more exposure.

“You look for a way to turn off a certain political ad,” says Galla. “If I don’t like seeing this person, I just go click-click-click.”

But candidates have not been content with saturating cyberspace with their ads, images, and jingles. They have also been trawling the Web for those they perceive to be influential members of the online community: the bloggers, who they invite to meet-and-greets, informal sessions, often in coffee shops.

Meet-greet affairs

As early as 2007, several politicians had already laid the groundwork for these meet-and-greet sessions. Among them were three presidential hopefuls at that time: Senators Villar, Mar Roxas, and Francis Escudero. Of the three, only Villar remains in the presidential race; Roxas slid down to make a bid for Post No. 2, while Escudero backed out entirely.

Interestingly, these meet-and-greet sessions evolved from an earlier marketing practice of inviting tech, lifestyle, and travel bloggers to product launches and such.

After these earlier meets, the bloggers were expected to write a candid, although hopefully positive, review of the product. In this new evolution of the product launch, the product is, of course, the political candidate.

But unlike traditional press conferences that are normally covered by political reporters, blogger meet-and-greet sessions may be attended by professionals, students, bums, or simply anyone who writes a blog.

As a result, the range of topics in these sessions may be pretty broad, depending on the composition of the group asking the questions.

“You have moms, professors, wives, husbands, children, writing about different things,” says Galla. “The only commonality is that they write about things that interest them.”

Batman or Joker?

In one meet-and-greet, a blogger surprised Aquino by asking his position on athletics; another blogger asked candidates whom they identify with more: Batman or Joker? (One candidate instead chose Two-Face). Yet another blogger asked Villar if he was wearing a wig, and gave his hair a tug just to make sure.

Galla says many candidates are often caught off-guard by the kinds of questions that come up in these meet-and-greets, having gotten used to the “chummier” and more deferential questions of traditional journalists.

“Usually,” he says, “they expect a pushover crowd. Most politicians expect deference and they get surprised when they don’t get it.”

“Most bloggers come from the middle class, so the questions are skewed to middle class questions,” Sonido observes. “Often, the other types of (political) questions come from bloggers who are from the academe, or political bloggers.”

The meet-and-greets are appreciated by the online community that has been long used to being relegated to the sidelines. But bloggers are nevertheless wary about the candidates’ motives in inviting them. Notes Galla: “As a private citizen, you don’t get invited for coffee by some presidential candidate. You expect to be bellyaching from the sidelines based on what you read from PCIJ or Inquirer.net. Pero ngayonmay invites ka na.”

“It has been a practice even before elections,” Sonido also says. “Two, three years ago, bloggers came to be used for marketing. There would be new products, and a number of bloggers would be tapped by PR people to try their products. This is not much different.”

Through the meet-and-greets, candidates court the blogger community, which by its very nature is quite aggressive and passionate. This is why online debates and quarrels tend to be more bitter and polarizing than their offline versions.

Freebies, etc.

The “May 2010 election” posting of the popular online forum Pinoyexchange.com, for example, already has 40 pages of threads, with some of the most strident arguments erupting among supporters of Aquino, Villar, and administration bet Gilbert Teodoro.

But this relatively new relationship between bloggers and politicians has turned out to be double-edged, with both sides discovering many unexplored and untested grey areas.

For instance, bloggers in general are not constrained by the common conventions that govern the conduct of traditional journalists with their sources. Since bloggers are simply people interested in writing on the Net, there is no employer-employee relationship, and no journalistic code of conduct. If politicians and their handlers choose to pay certain bloggers, there appears to be no clear consensus within the community on whether the practice should be stopped.

One public relations man says a then presidential candidate had already hired some bloggers early on to write about him, as well as the issues he was pushing. These bloggers were also supposed to convince colleagues of the merits of the candidates, and encourage discussion of his candidacy in the blogosphere.

Since the presidential wanna-be eventually changed his mind about running for the cou try’s highest office, the bloggers were probably called off. But Sonido says some bloggers seem to be on some politicians’ payroll, with the objective of wooing other bloggers to their side. On the surface there is nothing wrong with this; even a PR practitioner can be a blogger. There are bloggers, however, who do not disclose their dealings with candidates, and put other bloggers in compromising situations.

“There are people paid for PR, but they won’t admit it,” says one blogger. “Also, there are (bloggers) whose background is PR talaga, or former journalists.”

The volunteer nature of the online community also raises some problems within its ranks. Some of the questions include: Since they write without pay, would it be wrong for them to accept freebies? And would these freebies influence their writing?

A giveaway at one meet-and-greet with a presidentiable, for example, left some bloggers in a dilemma. The candidate’s media handlers had given out flash disks, which, the bloggers were told, contained the media kit. The flash disks, however, had unusually large capacities – way too big for a press kit’s digital documents. In other words, they weren’t cheap. One blogger estimates that each flash disk cost at least P10,000.

But if some of the bloggers wondered if they were being bought; others saw no problem. Observes Galla: “There are several points of view here. You went to a meeting, you got a sample, don’t you feel the responsibility to write about the product? If you can’t afford it out-of-pocket, iffy na iyun.”

‘Dark Side’ tricks

To complicate matters, candidates and their handlers are not necessarily passive about winning friends in cyberspace. By many accounts, some candidates have taken to launching black or grey operations on the Internet to either boost their presence and influence or undermine the campaign of their opponents.

It’s had some bloggers bringing up “Star Wars” parallels and references as a result. In the online world, they say, Death Stars and Sith Lords stand side-by-side with political candidates.

Sonido explains that a Death Star is a situation in which bloggers are placed by their colleagues in a circumstance where they are tempted or seduced to join the “dark side.” In the “Star Wars” movie series, Luke Skywalker is brought by his father Darth Vader to the Death Star in order to meet and be seduced by the Evil Emperor.

“(A blogger) once called a meeting but failed to say that there would be a politician there,” says Sonido. “So his fellow bloggers went, not knowing this politician would be there. That’s where the ‘Death Star’ (reference) started.”

Another blogger who asks not to be named confirms this. According to the blogger, the incident sparked resentment among some of his colleagues, not because there was something wrong with meeting politicians, but because the blogger who called the meeting did not disclose that the politician had requested him to set it up.

And so this is what it was like for the other bloggers: “Luke enters the Death Star, and the Emperor and Darth Vader try to bring him to the dark side.”

In a way, the blogger/meeting-caller was a  Sith Lord, who Sonido describes as a blogger who “does not disclose his other motives, that he is already working for politicians.”

In “Star Wars,” the well-respected Senator Palpatine hides his true identity: Darth Sidious, the Dark Lord of the Sith. He succeeds in fooling the entire empire into thinking that he is a well-intentioned and respectable public servant. In the blogworld, says Sonido, Sith Lords would be those “doing the role of the PR companies, by aggregating bloggers, and they are getting paid for that.”

Black hats, too

 

But trust bloggers to keep their film references eclectic. The current electoral campaign also has them trying to spot “black hat” operators, or tech specialists who write programs that would tamper with the results of online searches, and make a particular candidate more visible, or a scandalous issue less visible.

Apparently, the term “black hat” comes from old cowboy movies, in which the bad guys wear, well, black hats and the good guys wear white hats.

In the cyberworld, though, there is no shootout. Says Sonido: “It’s about search engine optimization. The black hat will use certain techniques to increase your hits, or to make you more searchable.”

For example, when someone types in “2010 presidential candidate,” a link of a client candidate could be the first to appear. Conversely, a black hat could bury a recent scandal or controversy so that a search would give it a lower ranking in the search engine.

Political operators may consider black hat operations all the more critical with the campaign running into its last month before the elections.  Unfortunately, these are far from figments of the bloggers’ imaginations.

Yet another blogger who wants to remain anonymous says that his group was approached by a presidential candidate who wanted several specific issues now in the mainstream media headlines to be buried so that these would not appear prominent should someone google the issues online.

Bloggers say that there is no law that penalizes black hat operations, although sites like Google have rules against them. The bloggers themselves aren’t sure what to think. Says one: “’There are debates online, ‘What is black hat search engine optimization? Is it really cheating’?”

Chances are, none of them is waiting for a candidate to supply the answer to that one.