How Rodrigo Duterte Hacked the Internet

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On April 15, 2016
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By Chris Marasigan

With less than two weeks to go before the May 9 elections, Rodrigo Duterte leads both the latest SWS and Pulse Asia surveys.

The leading candidate is also arguably the most popular presidential candidate in social media. How can social media account for his meteoric rise? To understand his popularity, it’s inevitable to compare him to his opponents.

We took a sample of 10 videos posted on each candidate’s Facebook page to measure how effective their reach is. Mayor Duterte, hands down, is the winner. The chart below represents the total views of their videos. STACK INFOGRAPHX 700x500_SOCIAL MEDIA AND ELECTIONS - 1 (2)Through an informal survey, we also asked 35 digital and social media marketing professionals who among the candidates has been the most effective in using social media as a tool for political campaigning: Majority said it’s Duterte, followed by “none.” 

We define an effective social media campaign as a set of activities where candidates are able to generate engagement with their audience and amplify their message online. Their content succeeds in getting more likes, shares, comments, and following. Their social media accounts are also responsive to comments posted online. 
STACK INFOGRAPHX 700x500_SOCIAL MEDIA AND ELECTIONS - 2A Yet when they were asked who they would be most comfortable standing beside with for a 20-minute MRT ride on a morning rush, most would like to stand beside Grace Poe. STACK INFOGRAPHX 700x500_SOCIAL MEDIA AND ELECTIONS - 2B What accounts for his remarkable rise, given that his rivals have supposedly more resources than him  and are more visible on TV than him?  

One of the plausible explanations is that social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, has opened up opportunities for outsiders like him, who would otherwise rely on traditional media to introduce themselves to the public. Through social media, Duterte has been able to directly  talk to his audience, put his message out for free, and in the process, build a formidable mass of supporters who make content for him.

Citizen-led political campaigning

His rise is also driven by demographics: there are more Filipinos who are active onlineand majority of the these active users belong to the millennial generation.

Millennials account for 46% of registered voters. In the February 25 Pulse Asia survey, for instance, 21% of the registered voters aged 18 to 21 and 30% of those aged 25 to 34 chose Duterte as their preferred candidate.

“Social media will have a major impact on the youth or millennial voters, considering that online is their media of choice,” said Ramon Osorio, who teaches public relations at the University of Santo Tomas. Since our electorate is mostly composed of young voters, who are predisposed to social media, using the platform will be highly critical.”

How Duterte mounted an effective campaign, digital marketing professionals say, all boils to one critical factor: His campaign is citizen-led.

It seems very organic. He stated in an interview that he doesn’t have that much budget and machinery to equal other candidates’ campaigns and asked the people to do it for him if they can, and I believe that is exactly what is happening right now,” one digital marketing professional said.

Content is created by his supporters and spread by them. When there’s an attack against him, his supporters deal with it. Another marketer noted: “The effect of the social media campaigns snowballed into a crowdsourcing of content in support of the candidate.”

Another one said: His social media pages extend to those of his supporters. He doesn’t only have a team who works under him and for him, I believe. He also has various followers to campaign for him on social media,” one said.

In short, Duterte’s persona easily lends itself to amplification. 

Whether these are personal accounts, or friends’ and family members’ testimonials, the content shared by his supporters makes him human. “Insightful stories about Duterte have given the guy more mileage and shares in social media. The content is actually shareableat most, readable. These are striking stories that could generate a lot of eyeballs, even if you don’t support the guy,” one respondent noted.

How Obama won the presidency

Despite the various differences in temperament and communication styles, this mirrors how Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. He capitalized on the web and social media to raise funds, organize volunteers, and get everyone to vote on election day.

According to one Stanford study, the Obama team understood that social media could bring in a new element in political campaigning. While grassroots campaign typically revolves around vote-getting and funding, social media could provide time to voters, meaning involving them and engaging them in the process.

Obama’s use of social media in political campaigning didn’t come as secondary to grassroots, offline campaigning. It was integral to Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Content and video helped in fundraising activities. For instance, the Obama team blogged about the 75,000th donor, inspiring a chain effect. The email platform with about 7,000 customized emails delivered the message, mobilized people, and helped raise funds.

But what made the Obama campaign successful was that there was a deliberate attempt to link the online with the offline campaign. The Stanford study noted that supporters who visited his website would be given information on offline events near them or those who had given email address received a reminder to vote along with polling locations and hours. Whether Duterte’s campaign also makes this deliberate attempt, however, remains to be studied in depth.  

The authenticity of content

Digital marketers whom we talked to say mounting an effective campaign depends on three critical ingredients. It’s about content, authenticity, and effective targeting.

First, content should be relevant and relatable to their target audience. Part of making relatable content is understanding the “sentiment” of the people. STACK INFOGRAPHX 700x500_SOCIAL MEDIA AND ELECTIONS - 3A  “The message should be based on the sentiments of the people, preferably a solution to their problem,” said one professional. Another respondent noted the need to “[package] the client carefully according to the perceived needs of the clientele.”

The audience should also feel they own the content and the candidate should be open to crowdsourced content. “Let the people speak for you,” said one professional. Another said, “testimonials from people gain traction.”

One approach, according to one professional, is to “create more emotional advertisements that people can relate to and share.”

Second, content should also show who the candidate really is. According to these digital marketers, it has to be authentic, especially now that the public can see right through what appears to be a manufactured persona. STACK INFOGRAPHX 700x500_SOCIAL MEDIA AND ELECTIONS - 3B This clamor for authenticity reflects the shortcomings of traditional campaigns as well as the broader skepticism of voters towards candidates.

Social media has changed the rules of the game, breaking the top-down style of managing the candidate’s image making. Unedited testimonials offered by social media users in the form of memes and videos have provided a raw, personal look into the natural behavior of candidates.

Third, authentic content should be distributed via the right platform to reach the intended audience. Effective targeting should also start genuine engagement with supporters and potential voters. STACK INFOGRAPHX 700x500_SOCIAL MEDIA AND ELECTIONS - 3COne approach offered by one respondent is to “strategically [partner] with other social media pages created by volunteers to express certain feelings of gratitude to the volunteers for their efforts.”

Execution should also be agile. “The political campaign is unpredictable. The team must have the ability to move in different directions of the campaign with ease,” one respondent noted.  

Formal tone versus tropa tone

Presidential candidates differ in style when it comes to campaigning online.

Duterte, for one, has a more millennial-targeted campaign than his opponents. He uses as a platform viral social media accounts on Facebook such as the account of the antagonistic Senyora Santibanez and the sexy all-girls dance group Mocha Girls. Towards the tail end of 2015, he has been featured in various playful and naughty videos that project him as a friend, a tropa, to his fellowmen.

In one video, he greeted drug pushers and thieves a Merry Christmas, and advised them in jest to enjoy their last Christmas on Earth.

According to a source who funded the production, there were three shots taken for variation: a formal presidential-like video, a more casual video, and the last one that was released. “We didn’t want to brand him as a formal president. We wanted him to be known by the public as the president that Davao City knew,” the source, who asked not to be named, said.

Mar Roxas adopts a more formal tone for his campaign materials, which are geared towards promoting his advocacies. On his Facebook page, his campaign team seems to reply to queries and offers a generic thank-you note.

Like Roxas, Grace Poe’s social media strategy is more formal. Contents on her Facebook page are usually shared news items related to her advocacies.

Miriam Defensor-Santiago has a more balanced take on her social media campaign. On Facebook, she uses wit to convey to her audience her plans when she wins the elections, and banks on the popularity of pick-up lines.

Jejomar Binay’s Facebook has a personal tone, with posts usually written in Filipino.

‘I am I’ persona

Duterte is quite unlike the rest.

Even if electoral politics is admittedly rowdy and dirty, seasoned politicians feel the need to speak the language of political correctness. Duterte, on the other hand, trades this with the crassness of kanto (street) language.

Sociologist Randy David noted that this is one of the reasons why voters resonate with Duterte’s brand of political rhetorics. Talking bluntly is what makes him authentic to his supporters, who see politicians espouse political correctness to hide the ugly truth of their ineptness.

This is where social media becomes an effective tool to portray his “I am I” persona. Social media, after all, are designed to make us talk more openly and intimately about our life.

Duterte refuses to be bound by political norms. It reaches, some argue, to the point that it blurs the line between being truthful and being insensitive.

Last week, Duterte laughed about a rape joke. He refused to apologize, saying that’s the way he talks. In the last presidential debate, he explained that what was captured on the video was just a pure narration of what happened.

His supporters came—and continue—to defend him. They admitted that what he said was wrong, but quickly pointed out the many accomplishments he did for the women of Davao City. Under his term, Davao was the first city to pass a women’s ordinance.

For now, it’s too early to capture the fullest extent of how this event, which had its beginnings on social media, could affect his shot at the presidency.

While the latest surveys saw him leading the race by a wide margin, the survey fieldwork took place during the early period of the incident. The next survey round will more or less provide us a clearer picture.

This rape joke incident also brings to the fore the dark side to the various campaign and how social media could be used to sow discord online.

The rise of political trolling?

While social media empowers voters to participate in democracy making, it’s also cheapening public discourse with the rise of internet trolls. The accessibility of social media, low labor costs, and very rabid supporters have led to accusations on different sides of the campaign that their rivals use paid trolls.  

By virtue of anonymity, trolls engage in hostile discussion and attack those who don’t support their beliefs. Trolls, often hiding in fake accounts, operate via deflection and misdirection: they keep conversation off topic by posting the same message multiple times. In some cases, discussions to political posts are littered with trolls attacking another.


Ironically, the most important contribution of social media to political participation is also its worst contribution: while it has allowed the public to create content for their candidates, it nonetheless gives trolls the power to operate without accountability. It has given the public the freedom to speak up, but it has also given rise to a nasty culture of political incivility.

With online incivility seemingly on the rise,  political trolling has raised legitimate concerns whether politicians might be gaming popularity, thereby setting off a bandwagon effect among online users, particularly the undecided segment of the voting population.  

As social media has become integral to politician’s campaign, it now begs a question whether black ops one—this illegal, incognito space where trolling takes safe haven—have been mainstreamed.

Giving the public the power to define the politician’s online image, as we’ve seen, entails a sense of self-regulation within the organization, for online campaigns now transcend the boundaries of traditional campaign. 

Offline-online duality

But it remains to be seen whether social media campaigns help boost the probability of winning an election. In the Philippines, experts say the online campaign should be linked to the traditional campaign.

It has to be proven if this [using social media in political campaign] is an effective way to reach the voters other than the younger, internet-savvy generation. It’s effective only when amplified by trimedia.” – Political analyst Ramon Casiple

The challenge for candidates, according to Osorio of UST, is how to push voters to go to the precincts to cast their votes.

There’s a precedent for this cautious analysis of social media’s impact on election outcomes. In the 2013 elections, some candidates used social media as a campaign tool, but still failed to win posts. That’s according to a study  written by UP undergraduate political science student Maria Elize Mendoza, who noted that the candidate’s challenge is to ensure his or her social media campaign reach the target audience.

“Some candidates might have used social media to aid their campaign, but it was not enough to win elections,” Mendoza said in her thesis. “A potential reason behind the disparity between the online popularity and the actual number of votes received is that the number of techie voters is too small to make a difference.”

While it remains contested how big the impact social media has in shaping Philippine elections, there’s one truth that holds: it’s been redefining not only how politics plays out, but also how the electorate both access the candidates and information.   

For one, social media gives cash-strapped candidates a free platform to spread their message. This is true for Duterte, whose name has been searched more often than other candidates who have already spent at least a billion in TV ads. 

To see whether spending billions on TV ads could help boost the online popularity of a candidate, we looked into the data from Google Trends and compare this with ad spending among candidates.

What the data reveal is this: huge TV ad spending sometimes may not be enough to boost online popularity, as measured by web searches. As the chart below shows, Duterte, who decided to run in December, spent P146 million in pre-campaign TV ad, but had higher web searches than Roxas, who spent P969 million from March 2015 to January 2016.

More than helping the candidates, social media has indeed democratized access to vast informationalthough the quality of content remains debatable. This election period, for example, there’s a bigger volume of web searchers for the names of presidential candidates, indicating although crudely the electorate’s increasing consumption of information via the web and social media.

The graph below shows the weekly score assigned by Google Trends for all names searches of candidates who ran in 2010 and are running this year. Google Trends works this way: stories are ranked  based on the relative spike in volume and the absolute volume of searches.  STACK INFOGRAPHX 700x500_SOCIAL MEDIA AND ELECTIONS - 4A revised 16 APR



What these charts reveal is that presidential candidates in this year’s elections have been getting more searches compared to the candidates who ran in 2010. This suggests two points. One is the growing number of Filipino online users. There are currently 44.2 million active internet users, 42 million active social media users, and 36 million active mobile social users.

Another explanation, which can be seen as a positive sign, would be that voters who are connected online are growing more interested in getting to know their candidates. After all, the average daily use of internet via PC or tablet is estimated at 6 hours. Mobile internet users now spend on average 3 hours browsing the net. 

The chart above also shows that online users were making more web searches for the candidates’ names even five months before the official filing of candidacy—something that hadn’t happened in the 2010 elections. 

What’s interesting to note in this year’s election is that this period of social media experimentation  has broad implications to the future of Philippine political campaigning, given the growth of internet users in the next two rounds of election: the mid-year election in 2019 and the national election in 2022.

For politicians, there’s much more to be done in social media. Fundraising is one. There are also social media that haven’t been explored. As online consumption of video content is predicted to rise in the coming years, channels such as Snapchat, Facebook Live, and Youtube are game changers—because not only do they disrupt TV political advertising, but also affect the way politicians package themselves. Through these video channels, voters will want to view a more raw, visceral, and authentic side of the candidates.

Whether these web searches or the millions of FB likes turn to actual votes remains to be seen come election day.


Chris Marasigan joined Stack as a freelance writer. He covers telco and tech innovations.

is Voyager Innovations' thought leadership platform for science, technology, and innovation.

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  1. Tep Misa says:

    Chris, This is an excellent article! Very well written. Well researched. Easy to read. Very meaningful!
    Great job and keep it up!

  2. jay papa says:

    Well done chris,hope this phenom transcend on how we work together in making our country grow strong amid our differences and the present world order.

  3. jugee says:

    Very good article!

  4. Mir says:

    Thanks great information

  5. Junito P. Gelbolingo says:

    Very informative and encouraging article….

  6. Lito Dailisan says:

    A balanced well-researched read.
    It still remains to be seen whether the sharply-elevated expectations created by crowd-sourced and troll-based campaigning are accurately reflective of the capacities and intent of the Duterte administration. This is akin to the reality gap created by overzealous advertising. One thing is sure. The bar was raised high. Perhaps too high.

  7. Olive says:

    Very nice article easy to understand thanks for the good information

  8. Norman Mendoza says:

    Very informative..

  9. Nilo Endoso says:

    Thanks Chris! I have been wanting to understand the web brouhaha about the recent campaign and your article is the answer!

  10. Dale Gozar says:

    “The Future of political warfare will take place online.
    I therefore urge you to fight back against social evils, using your wits and with your words.
    Be the tides that will cleanse the Philippines of the corrupt and the useless”. – Miriam Defensor Santiago.

    SOCIAL MEDIA Battlefield

    Conditions before (EDSA Revolution) are very different from today because Internet was not available in the 80’s. BRAINWASHING, DUMBING or conditioning the mind of our people was easy, the Aquino/Cojuangco (Oligarchy) need only to invest on the following

    1. Media such T.V. Radio, Newspaper, tabloid – (c/o Lopez ABS-CBN, GMA, )

    2. Showbiz Celebrities (c/o, TVJ, APO, Ogie, Kris,

    3. Religion (c./o Cardinal Sin)

    Now with the advent of Internet (World Wide Web) or digital world and smartphones, our Media/Religion no longer have that monopoly. Informations are readily available, sharing of ideas is easy/fast and distinguishing truths/facts from lies/propaganda is now possible. And nobody has full control of Social Media because it’s impossible to pay everyone on the Net.

    Filipinos are the text/social media/selfie capital in the world.

    “Give me 10,000 Filipino soldiers and I will conquer the world”
    – Gen. Douglas MacArthur

    Give me 100 Filipino Keyboard Warrior and will I conquer and change Philippine Politics.

  11. WilliamMi says:

    Awesome article.Really thank you! Keep writing. Hospkins