Making a difference

THE DECISION of Google and its subsidiaries such as YouTube and about a dozen others not to accept political advertising during the official campaign period of the 2022 elections invites approval as well as hopes that  Philippine media organizations would do something similar. It would be in affirmation of their public service function, and, as  in Google’s case, in furtherance of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of being accountable to their stakeholders and  the public. 

“Something similar,” however, should mean television,  radio as well as online media’s putting a stop to the airing of political advertising during the current, pre-official campaign period instead of  from February 9 to May 9, 2022 as Google has decided.

The cynical would dismiss that possibility as a form of idealism to which the dominant media organizations are immune. Philippine media corporations collectively make millions in political advertising specially during  Presidential elections: they are practically sustained by it. Exercising their CSR through that option would be directly contrary to their  interests as basically commercial, profit-driven enterprises. 

But while it would certainly reduce their earnings,  those losses, or at least part of them, can be recovered through the reduction of the taxes their parent corporations pay government. It would be a small price to pay in  exchange for meeting the urgent need to make Philippine elections and governance more meaningful for everyone including the media themselves, the business community, the poor and the dispossessed, and the rest of Philippine society.

Surely the Philippines’ own media corporations are aware that their power to provide information through editorial and advertising content influences the public mind  enough for the results of elections and their consequences on the quality of Philippine governance to be partly their doing and therefore their responsibility. 

It should be equally evident that they have an interest in good government.  Bad government, as the events of the last five and a half years have shown, has an even higher cost in terms of the  suppression of media freedom, harassment, intimidation, and —as in the case of ABS-CBN—huge losses in profitability. Any media organization whose news reporting, analyses, opinion columns and editorials, among others,  are perceived to be independent and critical of incompetent, self-aggrandizing and corrupt governance can be similarly victimized.

Editorial content  does help shape citizen opinion on such public issues  as who to vote for and why.  But political advertising  specially of the disguised kind is arguably more powerful. Political advertising has for decades endowed those candidates with the biggest campaign war chests the distinct advantage of constant  media exposure over their less financially-endowed rivals. 

That power is not limited to ads that are either identified or identifiable as such; it also includes advertising disguised as editorial content.  “Stealth advertising,” as the latter practice is known, is not only used to sell toothpaste, fruit juice, food supplements and other consumables but also ideas and candidacies.

One study  found that some broadcast networks offer candidates shady  arrangements such as being featured or interviewed in  their news programs in exchange for a fee. In some cases this kind of advertising  has also consisted of a candidate’s publicist’s being identified as a “political analyst” whose views are presented as academic and non-partisan while actually in  support of their employer. Some “polling firms” that release to the media supposedly scientifically validated results on which candidates the public favor most are also widely suspected to be similarly in the pay of  those running for office whom they claim are the most popular among  the voters.

The results of advertising that’s identified as such as well as of stealth advertising are essentially the same. Both keep the candidate’s name in the public sphere in a country  where name recall rather than a candidate’s platform and track record can make the difference between losing or winning an election.  Because both forms of advertising can cost hundreds of thousands, they also contribute to Philippine elections’ being primarily decided by money rather than platform, competence, honesty, or character. 

The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) has many complicated rules on the conduct of elections, among them a ban on “ premature campaigning.” But the same rule has a loophole huge enough for a truck to pass through. It does not regard as such what are obviously early campaigning  stratagems via the old and new media, or through tarpaulins, posters and other means of communication  as long as a presumed candidate has not filed a Certificate  of Candidacy (COC) and  has not officially qualified.  In addition, a candidate cannot be penalized for that offense for so long as his or her ads do not directly solicit votes.

As a consequence, despite the prohibition against campaigning early, some TV and radio networks had already been airing the political ads of various candidates even before they had filed their COCs. The present stream of political ads since the deadline for the filing of COCs last November is likely to swell into a tidal wave  as the year 2021 ends,  election year 2022 begins, and the official campaign period from February 9 to May 9 commences. 

During that three-month period both the old media of print and broadcast and the digital-based new media will  inundate  their audiences with even more ads from the candidates  for President, Vice President and senator, as well as those vying for local posts. But it will impose some restraint on an otherwise unregulated system of campaigning via the mass media by putting a limit on the space and length of advertising airtime candidates are allowed under COMELEC rules. 

Some  candidates’ campaigns over social media did not end with the 2019 elections, however.  In its wake, and as the newly-elected senators, congressmen and other elective officials began their terms of office, the troll farms did not stop celebrating, exaggerating and outrightly  concocting the “achievements” of their patrons, while name-calling, insulting and spreading false information about those groups and personalities their patrons  regard as critics and/or as possible candidates in the 2022 elections. The result is an information crisis among the vast legions of Netizens who uncritically accept and share disinformation with hundreds of thousands of users who in turn spread the same to hundreds of thousands more. 

The  decision of Facebook to continue to accept political advertising does dampen hopes that the dissemination of false information through social media can be controlled. But Philippine-based  media organizations with online news sites can help correct this state of affairs by fact-checking the claims of candidates for public office and through their own adherence to the standards of ethical reporting.

Because informed choice is at the heart of electoral politics as a democratic exercise, what little remains of Philippine democracy is further eroded by the many advantages, among them via advertising, of those candidates with the most campaign funds. Because of persistent doubts over the COMELEC’s capacity, readiness and independence to conduct and oversee fair and honest elections, the media organizations could do this country and the  democratization process the singular service  of helping level the electoral playing field.  

They could pro-actively put a stop to the wealthier candidates’ using for their own benefit  the power of media to influence  the public mind.  

Perhaps the qualified and the competent, rather than the corruption-ridden and mostly incompetent members of Philippine political dynasties, would then  have at least a fighting chance of winning the  power they need to make a difference in this country’s  troubled present and uncertain future.

This opinion piece was first published in the BusinessWorld website on December 16, 2021.