Unsolicited advice to the Duterte trolls

IN January 2017, The New Republic, a liberal US magazine, ran an article by journalist Sean Williams entitled, “Rodrigo Duterte’s Army of Online Trolls”:

“Since Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines last June, he has waged a brutal crackdown on drug dealers and addicts. Nearly 4,000 people have been killed by government forces…Duterte’s authoritarian rhetoric has elicited sharp condemnations from human rights advocates and foreign leaders. But there’s another front in his war on drugs that has escaped international attention.”

This front, according to Williams, is manned by “a vast and effective ‘keyboard army’ that Duterte and his backers have mobilized to silence dissenters and create the illusion that he enjoys widespread public support.”

Williams added: “Each day, hundreds of thousands of supporters—both paid and unpaid—take to social media to proselytize Duterte’s deadly gospel. They rotate through topics like corruption, drug abuse, and U.S. interference, and post links to hastily cobbled-together, hyper-partisan web sites at all hours of the day and night.”

Williams mentioned Nic Gabunada, social media manager of the Duterte presidential campaign, as the key man behind the online propaganda effort. In an interview with Rappler in June last year, Gabunada spoke freely about his role, but in a deservedly positive vein, mainly because of the significant contribution that his group’s work had made to the success of Duterte’s candidacy.

It is in this context that I would like to offer this unsolicited advice to whoever is now masterminding the activities of the army of trolls, as well as the Chief Communicator of the Duterte government.

To set the issue in perspective, I think that their efforts may have already become counter-productive, at worst, or have not been “positively productive”, at best.

I am using the term “positively productive” advisedly because they might be of the belief that this army of online guerillas has been delivering “positive results” in the sense of overwhelming the opposition, intimidating critics and institutionalizing The Fear of Duterte among the citizenry.

But creating enemies and an instilling an atmosphere of fear does nothing for Duterte’s legacy. At the end of his term, do they really want Duterte to be remembered as The Butcher, and little else?

On a recent trip to Manila, I had occasion to talk to a friend who was one of the creative brain trusts of the Duterte presidential campaign, Greg Garcia, retired chairman and chief creative director of the ad agency, Hemisphere-Leo Buernett. Greg is now the chairman of the Bases Conversion and Devclopment Authority (BCDA).

BCDA, as described in official literature, is the “government instrumentality mandated to transform former US military bases into alternative productive civilian use.” This refers, specifically to Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, although the BCDA’s scope of authority and operations has been expanded to include facilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

The facilities over which the BCDA has management oversight and authority are the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, the Clark Freeport Zone, the Clark Tourism and Business Complex, the John Hay Special Economic Zone, the Poro Point Freeport Zone, the Atmanda Eco Park in Morong Bataan and Fort Bonifacio and Villamor Airbase, sections of which are now more impressively known as Bonifacio Global City and Newport City, respectively.

It was during the incumbency of President Corazon Aquino that the BCDA was established by virtue of Republic Act 7227, following the closure of Clark Field and Subic as US military bases. Throughout the tenure of Aquino and Presidents Fidel V. Ramos, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III, the BCDA has undertaken its mandate at a relatively steady pace.

The most dramatic and impressive conversion was that of the Subic Bay Naval Base into the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, administered by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, chaired by now-Senator Dick Gordon. This was during the Ramos presidency. What made it dramatic was the fact that Subic was taken over by the Philippine government in the wake of the devastation caused by the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, and the heroic efforts of Gordon and a corps of volunteers to literally rebuild it, like the Phoenix, from the ashes.

The Clark Field conversion was undertaken with much less fanfare, although this facility may have suffered the brunt of the volcanic catastrophe. During the tenure of Arroyo, the development of Clark went into full throttle and the airfield became known as the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport, with plans for using it as an alternative to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. But the achievements were overshadowed by Arroyo’s continuing struggle with accusations of massive corruption in her government,

On the other hand, Gordon was not only a visionary and a dynamic manager, he was also a super salesman. He thus generated a great deal of awareness and support for Subic.

In the course of my conversation with Greg Garcia in Manila, he enthusiastically described an ambitious and impressive development program for the BCDA properties. Even while he knew me to be a relatively harsh critic of the Duterte administration, Greg offered to make a presentation to me of the government’s plans for BCDA.

Just as enthusiastically, I accepted the  offer. I also promised to write about the plans in a positive light. Unfortunately, the demise of an elder brother and an overseas trip of Greg prevented the presentation. But I still hope that it can be scheduled on my next trip to Manila.

But whether or not I write about BCDA and what it plans to deliver to the country, I am confident that Greg will be more than capable of getting the positive word out. After all, he is one of the most accomplished practitioners in the advertising and communications industry.

The point I’m making is that there must be other developments in the Duterte government that one can feel upbeat about, aside from the BCDA. I understand that there are certain cabinet heads and bureau chiefs who are performing excellently. They certainly deserve to be portrayed in the most enthusiastic and positive manner to the public, and not just in the Philippines but overseas, as well.

Social media, with its international reach and coverage, would be the perfect vehicle for delivering the message that President Rodrigo Duterte isn’t just a mass murderer – that he is a visionary and a doer, a president who produces concrete benefits for his people, a leader who delivers on what he promises and one who can motivate the bureaucracy into doing their job for the public good.

Indeed, the Filipino is easy to please. Concrete results, when promised and delivered, have a tremendous impact on a government’s image. I recall how then Philippine National Police Director General Ping Lacson captured the imagination of the country after he instilled discipline among policemen and virtually put a stop to their petty extortion activities. People were so impressed, they considered Lacson fit to be president.

I also recall how Louie Morales, another ad industry friend and colleague, posted on Facebook a photo of his newly-acquired plastic driver’s license (no longer just paper). There was genuine joy on his face. After six years of the Aquino administration where car plates and licenses were more difficult to secure than a visa to the US, Louie had reason to feel good.

This is where Duterte’s army of trolls can be put to effective and truly productive use. Properly guided by a knowledgeable communications manager and supported by what Gabunada refers to as online “influencers,” these trolls can build a legacy for Duterte and his government worth being proud of.

The only caveat is that the trolls and Duterte’s propagandists should resist the temptation to exaggerate and overpromise – a cardinal sin that most politicians seem to be guilty of.

That caveat applies to President Duterte, as well. (gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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