With the words “change is coming,” everyone raised their fist in a display of solidarity—a symbol that would become synonymous with support for then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte, who would amass near fanatical levels of reverence among his supporters.
However, Duterte’s presidential campaign was also mired in controversy from the beginning, with his polarizing views on key issues alarming the masses. Yet, beyond this seemingly “unpresidential” behavior is an appeal that captured the votes of more than 16 million Filipinos—those who truly believed in his mission. What was it about Duterte that, despite the rape jokes, death threats, and the seeming lack of concern for human rights, appealed so strongly to the Filipino voter?
Dark horse from Davao
“It’s all about differentiation…While everybody else was traditional, he was different,” shares JL Liongson, vice chair of the Department of Marketing and Advertising.
A 2016 report from Malcolm Cook and Lorraine Salazar described Duterte as a stand out among old-school politicians. He was not part of major political parties, nor was he the heir to a long-standing political dynasty. His humble beginnings presented him as an “outsider” to the typical ruling elite. Armand Dean Nocum, founder of public relations company Dean and King Communications, shares similar sentiments, citing Duterte’s background as another aspect that set him apart from other candidates. “For Mindanaoans…meron din sila ‘yung…pride of place na…‘Oh, finally, Mindanao has a voice,’” he explains.
(For Mindanaoans, they had a pride of place, where they said, ‘Oh, finally, Mindanao has a voice.’)
Lacking the connections of the big name politicians he was up against, Duterte instead heavily relied on a populist approach, bringing himself closer to the masses and ensuring that they related to him. “He used the language of his audience, and that’s why he became relatable…he was one with the masa, and that’s what you need to win,” shares Liongson.
His competitors, on the other hand, lacked the authenticity to pull off the same strategy. “Who [would believe] that Mar Roxas would ride the MRT [or] go to the palengke…when he is an Araneta?” Liongson emphasizes. He adds that a candidate’s popularity plays a huge factor. “If you’re unpopular [to the masses], I don’t think you stand the chance.”
Digital die-hard supporters
Moreover, another factor can be attributed to Duterte’s success: social media. As of January 2021, the Philippines hosts the largest number of active social media users in the world for the sixth consecutive year. It is no surprise then that politicians and their campaign teams have shifted to social media for their engagements, the Duterte camp included.
Despite having a weaker social media presence compared to other presidential candidates at the time, Duterte and his followers—infamously known as die-hard Duterte supporters—dominated public discourse online. As Nocum explains, by the 2016 presidential elections, “people realized na, ‘May power pala ako [magsalita]; hindi pala one-sided [‘yung conversation’].”
(People realized that “I have the power to speak; the conversation is not one-sided.”)
Armed with this knowledge, Duterte’s team—with the help of internet trolls—transformed this meager social media presence into a juggernaut of political advertising. Nocum even recounts one instance during the said elections, “Nabalitaan namin [na] Cambridge Analytica [was] teaching them to [troll] na…wala nang respeto kasi they bank on this…[kind of publicity].” Aside from raging comment wars, narrative-twisting tactics inciting pity and loyalty became vital in Duterte’s success story. This scheme, as Nocum says, was a way of “[propping] up their popularity” for the elections.
(We heard that Cambridge Analytica was teaching them to troll without respect because they bank on this kind of publicity.)
Thus, trolls have become a dangerous influence on our political environment. In fact, Nocum even confesses, “The effect [of trolling] is very dangerous because they have stolen the narrative of how the country should move forward.”
However, he asserts that there are ways to combat trolls. One of the best responses would be to “starve” the trolls. “Meron iba diyan, they are [paid for] every comment, and they are [paid] pa for every counter comment. So…don’t argue with them; it’s useless,” he elaborates.
(There are some who are paid for every comment, and even some who are paid for every counter comment.)
Despite having a relatively lower approval rating compared to previous years, the Duterte camp still reigns over the country. While a candidate’s outward branding does not define their true intent for the nation, many are still attracted to the magic that was the meticulously arranged Duterte campaign.
For some, change did come; for others, a horrifying reality came to life—an image that is, to this day, highly backed by many Filipinos.
With reports from Ramon Castañeda and Helen Saudi