WHAT regulations?

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) may be keeping tab on political ads in the broadcast and print media, but so far it has refrained from issuing guidelines on online campaigning. This has helped lead to a digital free-for-all among candidates in the upcoming polls who have made the so-called New Media yet another battleground for votes.

A typical page on Facebook littered with political ads

These days, the number of Filipino Internet users is pegged at around 24 million and mobile phone users at around 63 million. Not surprisingly, candidates for both national and local posts have taken interest on those figures, and have been busy putting up complex, interactive websites of their own, even as they litter popular online publications, blogs, and social networks with political propaganda. Text-blasting, or the sending of unsolicited SMS messages, appears to be on the rise as well.

Regulation, of course, has always been taboo in cyberspace. But with candidates using digital platforms to the point of driving Netizens nuts, there have been those who now think it’s high time the Comelec stepped in. It’s not only because the online battles have sometimes turned nasty and dirty; the critics also point out that not everything on the Net is free, which therefore brings up the issue of campaign expenditure caps.

As it is, candidates with deeper pockets have taken to advertising on Facebook, Google, and Yahoo!, while both well-oiled and cash-strapped campaigns are uploading campaign material on the video-sharing site YouTube, where it’s still free to do so.

Many of the presidential aspirants, among them the Liberal Party’s Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, Nacionalista Party’s Manuel ‘Manny’ Villar Jr., the administration’s Gilbert ‘Gibo’ Teodoro Jr., Eddie Villanueva of Bangon Pilipinas, Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino’s Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, and Bagumbayan Party’s Richard ‘Dick’ Gordon, have taken this a step further by establishing their respective channels on YouTube, where specific content is uploaded for online consumption, aside from featuring recycled TV ads.

Cost-effective?

For sure, though, part of the allure of online campaigning comes from the perception that it is more cost-effective. Arlene Amarante, country sales director of Yahoo! Philippines, even asserts that candidates do not have to spend as much on online advertising because of the nature of the platform. Tools like YouTube, plus the social networking site Facebook, and group email service Yahoo! Groups, she says, allow candidates to maintain a presence without having to spend a single centavo. But online ads, she explains, will help shape the conversation and how a candidate’s message is received.

All of the candidates sought by the PCIJ for interviews declined to reveal how much their respective campaigns spent for their online efforts, save for saying that any amount for these has been “minimal.”

In general, however, paid online campaigns are measured by the number of times an ad is displayed (impressions) and the number of times users click on it (click-through). Ads could be customized to be displayed only to specific users, such as those who are 18 years old and above.

A Manny Villar ad on Yahoo! Messenger.
Yahoo requires all advertisers to present a
letterof authorization from the candidate
or party before approving political ads.

Yahoo! requires a minimum buy of only about P250,000 for a campaign. Published rate cards for Philippine Entertainment Portal (PEP), meanwhile, show that its prominent leaderboard banner ad at the top of the website costs P105,000, which is good for 300,000 impressions. “Five hundred thousand pesos can do a lot of things for you on the Internet, in terms of click-throughs and impressions,” says Amarante.

Have money, will click

That not all candidates have taken to placing online ads, however, is not only a question of whether they have the money or not. Advertising industry veteran Nonon del Carmen of Mad-888, whose work deals mainly with television ads, for one says that unlike TV or radio commercials, which are intrusive, online ads require some effort on the part of the user – a click – for these to be effective.

Del Carmen also says that online campaigns, whether they are paid or not, are not effective in converting votes. “They are just for die-hard supporters,” he says, insisting that most people who go online to search for information on candidates have already made up their minds and use information on the Web like a drunk person would use a lamppost: for support rather than illumination.

Third Domingo of Ideas X Machina, an agency that runs TV, radio, print, and online campaigns, also thinks that money and effort on the part of the candidates could be better spent elsewhere. “Political ads require reach, which the Internet does not yet have today,” he says. “If we are talking about all (Filipino) voters, online reach is still significantly small compared to other media.”

According to Domingo, per capita, advertising on the Internet is actually more expensive, and the math seems to bear him out.

Networks such as Google and Facebook charge advertisers a certain amount for each click that an ad receives. Facebook counts some 11.7 million Filipino users, including 9.36 million of voting age, and the site charges an average of $0.07 for each ad click. If those users were targeted and each of them clicked on an ad once, the advertiser’s bill would run up to more than P30 million, about an average week’s worth of bombardment on primetime television.

Exposure, engagement

But Amarante contends that it isn’t that simple. “TV gives you exposure, Internet gives you engagement,” she says. “That’s where you win the votes.”

Edna Belleza, general manager of the media group of GMA New Media, which is in charge of selling advertisements for websites such as GMANews.TV and PEP, adds that the Internet allows immediate feedback and true, two-way interaction, a necessity in today’s environment where “consumers now have a lot more say in how a product, or a person, is perceived.”

“The most important thing about the Internet as a medium is that consumers themselves have become involved in spreading a marketing message,” she says, even as she notes that there are more creative possibilities available to advertisers online. Or, for that matter, for digitally savvy political campaigns.

For instance, Vicente Romano, who heads Aquino’s new-media team, says that networking on various social media on the Web aids their campaign in practical terms. He cites how it has been “a big help” in organizing their volunteers from different parts of the country. “Instead of finding contacts on the ground when you go to an area,” he says, “there’s already a small group of hard-core supporters, which is already in touch with our volunteer coordinator prior to the visit.”

Facebook in particular proved handy in organizing Aquino supporters online to attend one campaign rally at the Araneta Coliseum last February 25, says Romano. In addition, he says, supporters can download campaign material from the official campaign website, while volunteers get updated with the latest events related to the campaign.

Mike Toledo, spokesman for the Teodoro campaign, also believes that their efforts on the Internet will help their campaign. He revels over the fact that the youth is being pinpointed as the sector that is “really using social networking sites nowadays, or making use of non-traditional media.” Since his candidate is “very strong with the youth,” Toledo thinks tapping the Net can mean a bigtime payback for Teodoro come election day.

In fact, Teodoro’s campaign is so taken by the medium’s potential that even with the advantage of a political machinery, Toledo predicts, “He who will not place importance on the technology will definitely lose.” He is also hopeful that the campaign’s online efforts will help those who are undecided veer toward Teodoro. Says Toledo: “There are a lot of closet-Gibo out there, but slowly and surely, they are being converted.”

Manny Villar is another candidate who has upped the ante in terms of campaigning in cyberspace. A Net campaign veteran, Villar has had an official online presence since 2007, when he ran for re-election in the Senate, and now has Google and Facebook ads popping in blogs and elsewhere on the Web.

OK for hardcore

By contrast, a Bagumbayan Party campaign insider says that their limited budget has meant they have been unable to place a single advertisement online. But, says the insider who declines to be named, they aggressively campaign on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Admittedly, he says, “unless they’re hardcore fans of your product, people will not really go there.” And so his presidential candidate, Dick Gordon, recently ventured out of Facebook and let his hair down on YouTube, dancing with two young YouTube celebrities.

The similarly cash-deprived Villanueva camp has also been maximizing social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Multiply to reach out to Filipinos here and overseas. To Villanueva’s web developer Ramil Joaquin, campaigning on the Internet is somewhat symbolic as well for a reformist candidate such as his, and chides candidates “na sumisigaw ng pagbabago (who shout change)” and yet use “old tools to reach out to the public,” referring to TV advertising.

Still, Joaquin is among those who want some regulation on online politicking, particularly on advertising. Joaquin seems to be upset over the online ad spending of some candidates, but others have expressed more concern over content.

Negative attacks

It’s a worry with basis. A study by the online marketing and advertising agency Netbooster Asia, for example, has found that mudslinging and negative attacks are part and parcel of Internet discussions involving Aquino and Villar specifically.

Recently, too, an ad against Villar appeared on the Google advertising network, which displays ads containing text links. Screamed one ad: “Villar Took Our Land: Read about the land-grabbing case by Dumagat tribesmen against Villar.”

The link leads to an anonymous blog that contains election-related stories lifted from mainstream media publications. The blog only contains a vague description of the owners: “We’re a group of concerned Pinoys who believe that the Ballot is the most powerful weapon we have to save and protect our country. But even before Election Day, politicians already steal our votes by spreading LIES.”

An ad placed on Google by anonymous bloggers
highlighting an issue against Manny Villar.

In an email to the PCIJ, the blog’s administrator says that 10 Filipinos based in the Philippines and in the United States put up the site. “Our funding comes from our own pockets,” the administrator says. “We all put in $20 to start our little venture, and we just add a few dollars here and there where we need them.”

For now, the group chooses to hide behind its online cloak, explaining, “We are very aware of the bullying and threats both online and in the physical world, by people whose interests we may have crossed.”

But it sees itself as doing a public service: “We don’t make money off the site. A little donation is nothing compared to the price we will later have to pay if we elect the wrong president.”

The ad, according to the email writer, is part of an experiment testing the effectiveness of targeted online ads for the group’s information campaign. It chose to place ads related to Villar because of the high level of user interest on issues involving the NP bet. “Our internal stats also showed us, before placing the Norzagaray-specific ads, that the highest traffic went to Villar-related posts,” the administrator adds.

The Norzagaray issue was selected because “not much has been said about it, so we figured, this would be ‘new’ to online users, and therefore they’d be more interested in hearing about it.”

Then there’s the series of provocative paid advertisements that have popped up on Facebook attacking frontrunner Aquino. “Kahihiyan Mula Kay Noynoy (Shame from Noynoy),” one ad’s headline read. “03/14/2010 The New York Times on Noynoy Aquino’s Hacienda Luisita: ‘No greater example on the failure of land reform,’” it continued, below a thumbnail picture of a farmer from the Hacienda.

As with all Facebook ads, it also displayed which friends of the user ‘liked’ the ad. Clicking on the link directs the user to The New York Times story on Hacienda Luisita written by Norimitsu Onishi, which featured a controversial statement from Aquino’s cousin, Fernando Cojuangco.

The ad did not identify the placement’s source, but The New York Times confirmed that it did not place the ad on Facebook.

Barack’s playbook

Carlos Conde, the Philippine correspondent for The New York Times, says that he has mixed feelings about the ad featuring the paper’s Luisita story. While the article is available publicly and anyone can link to it, he says that Facebook should be the one to have a policy on this matter. “I imagine that it would be immensely difficult for every paper or media outlet in the world to monitor how their stories are being presented or linked by those with vested interests,” he says.

Then again, it’s a strategy that is right out of the U.S. Democratic Party online playbook during its then presidential candidate Barack Obama’s run against Republican presidential candidate John McCain. MoveOn.org, a liberal group identified with the Democrats, took out several Facebook ads that linked to stories that included negative portrayals of McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin.

In a Wall Street Journal story about the issue, Facebook said that the ads were in line with the site’s policies. “Facebook allows advertising that advocates both for and against candidates and follows standard industry practices for acceptable content,” Facebook spokesman Matt Hicks told the WSJ. In the same story, the news organizations whose stories were used expressed concern that readers might think they were behind the ads.

The Aquino campaign advertises its anti-smear site on
websites such as the Philippine Entertainment Portal

Unlike in the MoveOn case, however, the people behind the anti-Aquino and anti-Villar ads have not identified themselves. Google and Facebook each run self-service advertising systems, where anyone with a credit card can start placing ads in each company’s network. Campaigns on Facebook have a minimum daily budget requirement of $1, while there is no minimum requirement for Google.

Interestingly, Aquino’s online media bureau has dedicated a lot of its efforts to answering charges levied against the candidate with an anti-smear site, TruthAboutNoynoy.com. The site discusses issues ranging from Hacienda Luisita to the supposed “inheritance” of Aquino of fans of his mother’s Facebook page.

Apart from enjoying a prominent place in the homepage of the official campaign site, the link is being advertised heavily in websites such as PEP and in blog advertising networks. So far, while more and more attack ads are coming out on the Internet, Aquino seems to be the only one spending money to play defense online.

Careful, careful

Speaking for GMA New Media, Belleza says her company takes extra care when it comes to political advertisements. “As a news organization,” she says, “we have to be careful about these things because we don’t want to be perceived as being part of the campaign of any political group.”

Amarante, for her part, says that Yahoo! was also very careful about dealing with political advertisers. She adds that if the Comelec were to ask Yahoo! to open its books, they could and would gladly comply. “We ask agencies for a letter of authorization from the candidate or the party. We don’t just allow anyone to advertise,” she says.

Neither Google nor Facebook seems to have any such scruples, though. Emails to Facebook for comment were not returned. The PCIJ was able to reach Google’s country consultant Aileen Apolo, but she referred all our inquiries to a public relations firm the company retains in the country. The firm told the PCIJ that Google refused to answer questions related to this report because its advertising product, Google Adwords, had not yet been launched in the Philippines.

Curiously, the Google Adwords product is advertised heavily in related searches in Google’s domain for Philippine users. A test account created by the PCIJ revealed that Adwords also offers the option of charging customers in Philippine peso denomination. The service also includes a Filipino translation of its website.

The PCIJ’s difficulty in getting information from Google and Facebook does not bode well for the Comelec if it were to formulate guidelines to level the playing field for online advertising in future elections. Additional legislation might need to be crafted, and even then, such regulation might just end up outdated come implementation time.

Belleza thinks that the job of regulators is cut out for them. “Tracking or monitoring every single political ad (online) and even sanctioning websites that violate the rules will be quite a challenge,” she says.

“Even if the Comelec requires established media websites to report political ad revenues, it will still not be sufficient and would, in a way, be discriminatory. What about search engines, social media sites or even the millions of blogs out there? Web technologies also continue to evolve at such a rate that it will be difficult for our regulators to catch up.”

Compel reports

Election lawyer Luie Tito Guia of Libertas (Lawyers’ League for Liberty), agrees that the technology’s transient nature would make it problematic for the Comelec to monitor online political ads. But he says it is still within the commission’s mandate to track the spending for these ads. “Perhaps the Comelec could use its plenary powers to compel those responsible for placing ads to report to them these figures,” he says.

Comelec legal experts have told PCIJ that the body cannot act on online political ads in the absence of a specific law allowing it to do so. Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez did say, however, that tracking candidates’ online spending is something the poll body is studying for submission to Congress for consideration in the next round of elections. Jimenez stressed the need to address this “blackhole” in campaign expenditures, noting that “the Internet can be a spending dump, where you can hide a lot of expenses.”

But according to Guia, there are already existing laws that require candidates disclose all expenses anyway – “everything that is used by the candidate to promote his election or the defeat of his opponent.”

For most candidates nowadays, that includes spending on many things digital. To be continued,