Two years ago in the midst of torrential rain not unlike what we’ve been experiencing last month, a man drove into a road in Quezon City which, at the time, was unfortunately submerged in thigh-high floods. His car, the poor thing, found itself floating in the newly formed body of water. Its startled driver was interviewed by a news team that conveniently happened to be present, and who dove right into the opportunity.
Complaining about the lack of road signs on the public street, the man explained to the reporter why he drove into what looked like a small lake.
The interview was then broadcasted and spread like wildfire all over social media channels. At one point, the man’s name ranked as the world’s 8th most discussed topic on Twitter, and netizens were particularly well-informed and quick to express their opinions, most of which were less than polite.
The issue has died down since then, and it was with pleasant surprise that I found myself sitting across one Christopher Lao two years after all of that. With a law degree and a starring role in an insurance advertisement under his belt, he seemed well adjusted and open to discussing the incident. He recalled not wanting to go outside his house or even take his bar exams after being flooded by insults online. He wonders still how an individual, who once enjoyed a life of privacy, can rise into national exposure in just a few days, as opposed to public servants or celebrities who have lived so long under the spotlight.
Christopher Lao driving into a road turned river wasn’t really a matter of national significance, and perhaps the decision to air the interview on national television was questionable. After all, his name was plastered on television sets across the nation, effectively exposing him to an entire country for ridicule – something we happen to be especially talented at.
But what is worse, I think, is how he was treated after being delivered into the waiting hands of the public. The news report indicated his name, but underneath it was ‘DRIVER NG TUMIRIK NA SASAKYAN,’ not ‘UP LAW STUDENT’ or ‘WAS NOT INFORMED’ – netizens found those things out for themselves and highlighted them extensively.
It was the online Filipino community that created dozens of hate pages and heaped on post after post of vile commentary. It was the average Filipino citizen with internet access that bombarded an unfortunate fellow citizen with hate mail and callous criticism for months following the news report.
Perhaps it is the kind of anonymity granted us when we operate behind an online persona, or the added power in being able to broadcast opinions to a wider network of people without getting off our seats, but social media arms us with the ability to challenge and be critical of the things around us while providing a platform to air out our thoughts in what Habermas would deem this century’s public sphere.
With social injustice, political violence and widespread corruption rampant in seemingly every corner of the country, one would wonder why an entire nation chose to zero in on Lao and other viral personalities who came after him (do the words I’m a liar ring a bell?).
Lao’s is just one of the countless flood stories in perennially submerged Manila, and flooding is just one of the many issues experienced in Metro Manila alone. And yet his story was the one pushed into the center of the online arena for all the netizens and their rabid bandwagons to claim as public property.
Why aren’t there more hate posts and videos, say, about the misuse of pork barrel and the systematic looting of public funds? Why aren’t there more angry status updates about the demolition of the homes of thousands of Filipinos as well as the appalling state of the relocation centers they get shuffled off to? What about the displacement of indigenous people from their ancestral domains or even the rising poverty, hunger and unemployment rates?
To say that these issues aren’t raised online is wrong, of course. I know that there are bloggers, journalists and citizens out there willing to fight the good fight, and that there are groups that are active in tackling socio-political issues on social media. But have the tags #NoToCorruption or #WhereIsDemocracy or #UseOurTaxesRight ever made it to trending lists the way #NotInformed and #ChrisLao did, and so swiftly at that? A quick scroll down your average news feed would inform you of what your friend had for lunch or the song your aunt’s best friend’s daughter is currently listening to, or the funniest Vine your friends are all sharing, but not how the homeless and helpless survive in a country that turns their back on them, both online and offline.
More than ordinary individuals going about their merry flooded way or getting especially vocal towards a security guard, there are larger, graver injustices that deserve more comments, posts and shares. Lao might not have been completely faultless, but he did not deserve the collective anger of an entire nation. Other people do.