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Exposés, Campaigns, and Propaganda in the Digital Age: Talk of the Town

A decade after the birth of the iPhone and Facebook, these very powerful tools of information are proving to be both useful and dangerous.
IMAGE FACEBOOK/ Kimberly Jones/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/ YOUTUBE/ TBA STUDIOS
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In the first decade of the new millennium, two very extraordinary things took place that changed our lives forever.

One was the birth of the iPhone—a mobile phone-cum camera-cum-super computer that fits in the palm of your hand—and the phenomenal rise of social media through Facebook. Together, these two things reversed the flow of information. Instead of moving from traditional media to consumer, consumers became sources of information, with social media being the primary platform for sharing information.

Today, a decade after the birth of the iPhone and Facebook, we take a look at how people are using these very powerful tools of information, which proves to be both useful and dangerous.

1. Raising Awareness and Online Campaigns

This week, a video of a crying boy who had been bullied went viral. Keaton Jones, the boy in the video, asked why people bully others for being different. You can hear his mom, Kimberly Jones, inquiring and prodding him to keep going. The video garnered millions of views and became a rallying point for raising awareness on bullying. Dozens of Hollywood celebrities threw their support behind Keaton on their respective social media accounts, and decried bullying.

However, other reports have since surfaced alleging that Jones is a bully, and that the mother’s motivation for shooting the video was to make money. Since these allegations have surfaced, Kimberly’s GoFundMe account for her son, which had raised $58,000, has been frozen by the hugely popular crowdfunding platform.

Mixed Martial Arts fighter Joe Schilling says he reached out to the Joneses and invited them to watch a fight for free. However, he was allegedly turned down by Kimberly, who insisted on having him promote her GoFundMe page instead. Kimberly denies these allegations, including one that accuses her of being racist and flying a confederate flag.

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2. Exposés

Often, people use social media to discredit deplorable practices and state of affairs. Most of these posts gain little to no traction. However, in the past weeks, dozens of major celebrities have fallen from grace in Hollywood and other industries, owing to the sexual misconduct exposés levied against them by colleagues and acquaintances they happen to have met.

This week, another celebrity is in the crosshairs of public opinion in the person of celebrity chef and restaurateur Mario Batali. He is being accused sexual misconduct separately by four women, who allege that Batali inappropriately groped them. Batali decided to take a leave from work after news of his alleged sexual misconduct broke.

In the absence of a formal complaint filed in court, these celebrities are being tried in a court of public opinion instead of a court of law, while their accusers often hide behind anonymity or the convenience of obscurity. Undoubtedly, these types of accusations, which are shared on social media, can be an efficient way to destroy the careers of rich and successful persons overnight, as in the cases of Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, and 95 other celebrities.

3. Propaganda

Merriam-Webster defines propaganda as  “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person”. Social media, very particularly Facebook because of its global penetration and reach, has become the perfect platform for launching such campaigns.

While propaganda can be used to spread truth and useful information, it can also be used to spread hatred, lies, and distrust. Fake news is one of the most challenging problems faced by social media users. Filipinos are especially vulnerable, owing to the amount of time they spend on social media.

The Philippines is considered as the world’s social media hub, leading the world in terms of the amount of time and frequency in using social media.  A survey in January found out that Filipinos spend more time on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and Facebook Messenger than anyone else in the world.

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Last week, Bloomberg published an article on how the Philippine government has turned Facebook into a weapon, which was done, ironically, with Facebook’s help. It detailed how, before the 2016 elections, Facebook received questions from Philippine presidential candidates on how best to utilize Facebook for greater effectiveness. And it coached them on strategy.

While Facebook has made attempts to stamp out the circulation of fake news and other inappropriate content on its site, this has only backfired on reputable news sources such as the BBC, the Economist, the New York Times, and The Guardian, among others.

A former Facebook executive has even denounced the use of social media, branding it as a tool that rips apart the social fabric of how society works. In a scathing speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Chamath Palihapitiya reveals how he feels guilty after serving as Facebook’s vice president for user growth.

4. Uplifting the Independent Movie Industry

In 2015, the cast and crew of the independently produced film Heneral Luna braced for defeat at the box office, as cinemas closed their doors on the film after a week of poor ticket sales. But then a grassroots initiative started a vigorous campaign on social media urging Filipino viewers to support it. It succeeded. Heneral Luna became the highest-grossing local film of all time, earning over 300 million pesos nationwide. That is, until another independent film broke that record. With a meager budget of 10 million pesos, Kita Kita proved its worth as a box office phenomenon with record-breaking ticket sales that beat Heneral Luna’s.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is a film by Raya Martin based on the novel with the same title by F.H. Batacan.  It follows two Jesuit priests who are trying to solve a series of murders in Payatas. The independent film is being buoyed by an active social media campaign and has been featured on various websites that enumerate the reasons viewers should watch it. The hashtag #SeeSASC and #LookCloser trended nationwide this week and has helped keep the film alive in cinemas.

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