Reflections of an Activist / Blogger / Legislator
*Rep. Mong Palatino’s speech at the Yahoo! Philippines forum on social media last Tuesday
I prepared a speech because sometimes politicians talk too much, sometimes bloggers rant too much, and sometimes activists are carried away by their emotions. Since I’m an activist, blogger, and politician, I’m worried that I might speak for more than an hour….
I started blogging in October 2004, although my first online column was written and published in 2001. Why did I decide to blog? For so many years I convinced myself and others that I became a blogger because I wanted to use this medium to broadcast my advocacies. It was only recently that I began to accept the idea of an unconscious motivation: In October 2004, my wife was five months pregnant and I had no job. Perhaps I saw blogging as a wonderful distraction, an escape tactic to briefly forget my problems. Blogging as an effective stress reliever. Maybe this was also the reason why the very first blog article I wrote was about my parents and siblings who are based in the United States.
Distraction or not, I enjoyed my initial foray into blogging. It was more fun than Friendster because I can criticize everyone without fear of being unfriended.
My first problem was blog traffic. Nobody nobody but me was reading my blog. Even my friends are not aware of my virtual journal. And so I bloghopped from one blog to another, posting comments and hoping that more bloggers will return the favor by also visiting my blog. Luckily, my blog traffic didn’t improve. Lesson: it takes time to build a community of followers around your blog. Readers will return to your blog if you have something original to share. So sana, huwag naman palaging copy-paste ang gawin natin. Don’t repost news items without giving your opinion on these issues. Respect the intelligence of your readers.
My next problem: blog content. What should I write about? An online diary? But I’m old school, I keep a real diary under my bed. If blogging is an extension of an individual’s personality or work, then my blog should be about activism. In 2004 I was already an activist. There were few activist bloggers during that time. And so I became known as an activist blogger.
I do not upload the press statements of our group in my blog. We have awebsite for the publication of these materials. I write commentaries. Dahil ang mga aktibista ay may opinyon sa lahat ng bagay, hindi ako mauubusan ng isusulat.
I do not blog everyday. An activist has to spend more time in the offline world. We should develop social interaction, not virtual interaction. Besides, Big Brother is always monitoring us in cyberspace. I always tell students that if they really want to change the world, do not simply add causes or twibbons in your internet profiles. Close your computers, mobile phones, and mp3 players; and together with your friends, volunteer, be part of an activist organization. Karl Marx is still correct: Philosophers have interpreted the world, the point however is to change it (and not to blog it).
Fast forward to 2010. I’m still a blogger. I’m still an activist. I’m still married. I’m now a congressman, but my wife is the Speaker in our house. Blogs are no longer the major internet medium to broadcast advocacies. More tools are available like facebook, twitter, plurk, google earth, youtube. The convergence of mobile phones and internet is also good for activism. How do I use these tools in my work?
Let me share my internet habits. I blog at least once or twice a week. I use twitter to follow news updates and to find recommended web links. Facebook is essential in organizing events, especially reunions. I read online newspapers, magazines, blogs – if time permits it. I check email in the office. Although most of the time, I open my email to delete emails in my inbox.
Before I discuss the importance of using social media tools in my work as an activist legislator, let me highlight the value of reading blogs and even online newspapers. There is a dangerous tendency in the internet to build a community of like-minded individuals. We read the email and facebook status updates of friends who share our interests, opinion and even biases. We follow twitterers and plurkers who are the same people in our limited circle of friends. We are comfortable with the familiar. This is not wrong. But it may lead us to think that the worldview of this community is the only correct interpretation of the world. It may prevent us from tolerating a difference of opinion. It may hinder us from exploring the wonderful possibilities of the internet. By reading blogs, by reading online newspapers, we can stumble upon new topics that might be of interest to us. We can appreciate the creative opinion of our adversaries. It can remind us about the original goal of social media – of empowering individuals, of giving voice to ordinary netizens.
I recommend the Global Voices website. It is a citizen media group powered by more than 200 bloggers around the world. It is my source of global news. It complements the work of mainstream media by highlighting the outstanding output of citizen journalists. By reading Global Voices in the past week, I learned that the water buffalo was banned by the Indonesian government in rallies because the president was likened to the animal in a protest action last month. I learned that Valentine’s Day was first celebrated in Cambodia in 2000. I learned about the pantyless movement on Valentine’s Day in Malaysia.
We should join the global conversation. Hindi lang dapat tayo nagbabasa tungkol sa kalagayan ng ating paaralan, komunidad, at bansa. When we upload something on the internet, it can be read by everybody in this planet who has access to internet. The next time we write about the nakaligo ka na ba sa dagat ng basura ad of Manny Villar, we should add a sentence or two about the issue for the benefit of our global readers.
Now back to my work as an activist legislator. I blogged my first week in congress, my committee memberships, my first time to interpellate a colleague, my first privilege speech. I even blogged about the food we are eating inside the members only lounge: Last February 2, we were offered cream of mushroom soup, pasta with bolognese pinoy style or roast vegetable and tuna, southern fried chicken, steamed buttered corn in cob, tacos with cheese tomato salsa, sour cream, beef, roast beef panini sandwich, cheese puff, banana coffee cake, sweetened banana
Ofcourse there is twitter. There is free wifi in the plenary. I tweet plenary proceedings. But I cannot tweet, I cannot blog if I am speaking on the floor. Sometimes, livetweeting does not help because instead of mingling with my colleagues, I’m surfing the web. So I try to balance my internet activities and my offline parliament duties.
Why do I blog and tweet my legislative work? Because it promotes transparency. Because it is both a public service and public duty. Because it allows me to articulate my views about progressive legislation. By inviting conversation, I can hear the views of my constituents about good governance. Blogging reminds politicians like me that an informed constituency can serve as an effective watchdog.
I have the advantage (or disadvantage) of being able to rub elbows with different ‘lords’; I might as well use this position to report, write, and blog about their activities or political plans. I can access public documents, I must write about them. I can roam inside the plenary, inside the members only lounge; I must write from that vantage point. Not to blog is to disappoint the blogging community of which I am a member. Not to blog is to waste the unique opportunity given to few individuals like me.
But being a politician blogger can be frustrating. There are only few legislators who maximize social media tools. Some of them include Representatives Biazon, Casino, and Golez. Many politicians hire other people to open their emails and facebook accounts.
There are more than 17,000 national and local politicians (barangay leaders not included). Why do we only have few politician bloggers?
First, there are politicians who do not know how to open a computer. They reached a certain age when learning new things and adopting new habits can be very tiring for them. They don’t care, and they are not afraid, if they know nothing about RSS, laptops, and facebook. Now that we have younger candidates in the coming elections, will this mean that more politicians will use social media tools? I hope so. But I don’t think so, especially in local politics.
For many local politicians, their presence or non-presence in the cyberspace does not affect their winning chances in the elections. Their constituents are not online anyway. Internet penetration, even if it is improving, is still concentrated in the urban and educated areas of the country. Improve internet connectivity, develop internet education, involve more people in the cyber conversation, and maybe, we can add more politicians who are using social media tools. But right now, most politicians are not motivated to join us in our online activities.
This is a lesson for individuals and groups which want to influence policymaking by promoting internet activism. We may be noisy and aggressive in cyberspace but most likely our politicians are not aware of this noise or clamor. The best way to harass a politician is to talk to them, write them hate letters (not just solicitation letters), text them. Directly engage them in their offices.
Dagdag: Politicians are guided by this thinking – “less talk, less mistake”. Less facebook status updates and less twitter posts, less mistake.
That we have few politician bloggers can also be explained by what I perceive as a mutual feeling of hatred between bloggers and politicians. Bloggers can be very critical, and sometimes they show their low regard for politicians in all their online postings. Meanwhile, politicians can be very sensitive. They are used to journalists attacking them; but they are not prepared to accept criticism from anonymous bloggers. Bloggers are viewed by some of my colleagues as angry citizens with no credentials who have access to internet.
Many politicians surf the web to google their names. And most likely they will find blog articles which are not favorable to them. Since politicians believe they are well-loved in their provinces, they feel insulted if they read negative articles in cyberspace. When I defended a blogger who is facing a libel suit, some of my colleagues hinted that it is only right that irresponsible bloggers should be made accountable in the courts.
Perhaps this should jolt us to action to try to enlighten our politicians about role of social media in promoting a better relationship between leaders and their constituents. We should correct their wrong impressions about the blogging community.
Some politicians also don’t have enough time to socialize with us in the cyberspace. Some are too busy with their work in their districts. Some are on the campaign trail already. During session days, we have committee meetings in the morning and afternoon. There are days when I’m unable to open my email or access the internet, especially when I’m travelling. We should try to understand politicians who may not be active in the internet but are competent and devoted public servants.
Having said that, I still believe, and I will still insist, that politicians should blog. Politicians should use social media tools. It is free. Imagine we can upload our video ads on youtube for free. Second, the internet infrastructure will continue to expand in the country. It will reach more people. More tools will be developed that can be useful in advancing our campaigns. Internet campaigning is now essential. It will be mainstream in the future. Blogging can make politicians accountable to the reading public.
Let’s stop talking about politician bloggers. Let’s now talk about you. Even if I’m an advocate of blogging, I have no problem if politicians will continue to ignore the cyberspace. The sky will not fall if they will not open a twitter account. But it is a big problem if our citizen journalists will ignore the government as a social media subject. Politics is not a major theme in the local blogosphere.
I can blog, I can tweet, I can use facebook, youtube. But there are hundreds of social media tools. Hundreds of projects that can be developed to promote good governance. The work of politician bloggers is limited. Citizen journalists should step up. Citizen journalists can demand transcripts of plenary proceedings and upload them in the web. You can record committee hearings. You can track the voting record of members.
“Ishki.com is a complaint brokerage which collects and organizes complaints from local citizens about the public and private sector. Vota Inteligente uses technology to provide Chilean citizens with more information about their elected officials. Mzalendo tracks the performance of Kenya’s Parliament by documenting votes, publishing records, and providing analysis and context.”
Let us develop an appropriate internet project that can promote accountability in the country.