Thanks to social media, the May 9 elections may turn out to be one of most polarising in the country’s recent history, with followers of rival candidates virtually getting into the bruising fray and sliding into mob rule.
Emboldened by the relative anonymity of the Net and the various guises they can assume, so-called trolls have taken to cyberbashing, verbally abusing and even threatening with grave bodily harm those with contrary political views.
Some months back, for daring to ask “rude and disrespectful” questions of presidential candidate and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte in a student forum, UP student Stephen Villena was mercilessly flogged on social media, the abusive posts spiked with threats to Villena and his family.
Another student, John Paulo delas Nieves, was similarly pelted with threats on social media for filing a petition of disqualification against the same candidate, with his girlfriend included as a rape target.
The rape threat is particularly odious, being the favorite menace directed at women and even the toddler of television star Melai Cantiveros.
The venomous threat was apparently a comeback for Cantiveros’ TV ad endorsing another candidate.
How have we descended into such barbaric behavior, when threats of death, rape and all manner of physical harm are freely traded on the Net and inflicted on those who do not share our politics?
How can the prospect of rape and murder be so commonplace that netizens think nothing of hurling them as convenient vehicles to shut down public discourse? Where is all that vile coming from?
Could the candidates themselves be generating it?
After all, fish rots from the head; so if the leader thinks it fine to bash the Pope for traffic woes, or joke about the rape-slaying of a missionary, or deliver vituperative remarks about other countries for reacting to his extreme comments, what can people expect of his followers?
As Delas Nieves noted: “The issuance of threats from Duterte’s supporters may not have the mayor’s go signal, but what he did was to inspire them.
After they heard Duterte saying "I can kill you", they now share the same view that killing those who do not agree with you is the right way to serve justice.”
How do we then step away from the brink of self-destruction that all that back-and-forth on social media breeds?
Environmentalist Renee Juliene Karunungan filed this week charges of cyberbullying against 20 Duterte supporters who had called her names and threatened her with death, rape and other abuses.
This is one step toward the right direction.
By falling back on the law, Karunungan showed that lawlessness cannot be allowed to thrive even, and especially not, on social media.
Her move also underscores the importance of not passively accepting victimhood, nor surrendering to mob rule.
“Online threats of murder, rape and serious physical injuries are no laughing matter. These constitute crimes under the Revised Penal Code, Cybercrime Law and the Omnibus Election Code. These kinds of criminal behavior need to stop,” she said.
“There is a difference between freedom of speech and speech that incites violence. It is time that people know the difference. We should not condone violence especially on the basis of political views. This kind of behavior is unacceptable, and is a threat to our democracy and violates our basic rights,” she added.
Netizens who had probably keep their counsel to keep the peace might have asked: Couldn’t she have just ignored the candidate’s provocative remarks instead of taking them personally?
But oh, when one is a candidate for national office, nothing stays on the personal level.
Indeed, faced with the possibility of leading—and in fact, representing—the country’s 100 million Filipinos in the international community, such candidates should be more circumspect in their public pronouncements.
Never mind that mere words (as when Duterte rudely ordered the United States and Australia to shut up when they commented on his crude rape joke) could unnecessarily damage or complicate our relations with other countries.
Just consider how an entire nation could be judged solely by the lack of civility of its leader.
As Duterte’s own counsel rightfully cautioned, we must “exercise civility, intelligence, decency and compassion when engaged in any discourse.”
Free speech, whether online or offline, is enshrined in our Constitution, and is particularly valuable when an informed choice is needed—such as in the coming elections.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.