Who's Afraid of Mocha Uson?
There is the world we know, where we get our news from TV networks that have been established before Martial Law, and our opinions from the newspapers that were founded in its wake. A world where we naturally trust a multi-awarded investigative journalist who specializes in terrorism, and the news website she launched as a platform for social change. The prevailing narratives we read from these sources have us believe that out on the streets, there is a war on drugs that is too deadly for us to stand idly by, that our country is aligning with a new axis of evil, that our duly elected leader is a madman bent on dragging us to hell.
Then there is the Upside Down. In this world, Facebook bloggers amass more followers and boast higher engagement numbers than their professional, traditional, and mainstream counterparts, who are accused of skewing and skewering the truth. A woman named Mocha, adamantly not-a-journalist, becomes a one-stop source of information, opinion, and discourse for at least four million people—who, through her, have found their voice. In this world, things are finally happening for the “ordinary” Filipino people, long oppressed by the oligarchs, the Americans, and the Liberal Party. Duterte is not a demon but a demigod, and those who are convinced otherwise are just yellow-blinded by their irrational hate.
A monster was unleashed in the schism that was the 2016 elections, and that monster is you and me. We remain on the opposite sides of each other, as pros and antis, as patriots and traitors, as silencers and dissenters, as meme busters and satirists, turds, tards, trolls, and bots and all manner of destabilizers. As another hundred days pass, our beliefs one way or the other become only further entrenched. There is no going back, there is no returning right side up.
Mocha Uson is kitted out in her usual combat gear—camo jacket, skinny jeans, camo Nike Zoom LeBron Soldiers. We are shooting at the Icon Clinic, an aesthetic center that has been working with the Mocha Girls from the time they were still dancing provocatively. While we wait, the Mocha Girls’ manager, Lord Byron Cristobal, shows me a photo from the clinic’s decidedly un-risqué 2017 calendar: the girls are all dressed in classy Filipiniana, with Mocha in a striking First Lady-worthy red terno. The transformation is complete.
Byron is also heavily involved with the Mocha Uson Blog. He and Mocha form a trim two-person team, going around to film and interview various department heads and government personalities. The blog was recently the target of a Change.org petition to be struck down for spreading false information. As of this writing, the blog prevails, with the petition short of 33,503 signatures*; meanwhile, the petitioner’s page was swiftly suspended for “violating Facebook community standards,” thanks to Mocha’s Facebook army and the Report Page button. Mocha didn’t give an attack command; she doesn’t need to. She just leaves it right there—a link from Trendingnewsportal.net.ph, a hint of an outrageous conspiracy, or a photograph of her gagged mouth, with a rallying cry that they will never be silenced.
Sometimes, the posts are more insidious, like the name-and-shaming campaign of two local Reuters correspondents who supposedly broke the Hitlergate story, with a caption that reads: “Irresponsible journalists must be punished,” a meme that originated from what looks like a pro-Bongbong Marcos troll account. Then there was a post featuring the Facebook profile of an Ateneo student who edited the “Mochang Tanga” lampoon issue of Matanglawin, highlighting that he was once an intern at Rappler; this would inevitably lead to cyberbullying (the post has since been removed). It’s all fair game to Mocha, who has been slut-shamed, stupid-shamed, and on the receiving end of every misogynistic insult one can hurl at a woman who used to write a sex column for Maxim Philippines, but now blogs about the Duterte administration.
The shift in content was sudden, but the taming of Mocha’s image was gradual. “Nag-lay low na kami sa sexiness. Maxim featured me on their cover in 2009. Tapos two years lang siya or one. Nung nawala na yung Maxim magazine, hindi na kami gaanong ka-sexy na rin,” she says. (Her Maxim cover was explicit even for today’s standards—perhaps even more progressive, billing itself as the Gay and Lesbian issue).
“I don’t care about what people think or say about me. Kung may gusto akong gawin, gagawin ko.”
Mocha was, and still is, the lead singer-dancer of the all-girl group she formed almost 10 years ago, and despite her rise to prominence as a political blogger, her full-time job is still performing with the group—which they do every single night. “We sing and dance, do a little bit of comedy, hosting, games. It’s like a variety show.”
The Mocha Uson Blog, which migrated to Facebook from Maxim, Wordpress, and ABS-CBN, already had 2.5 million likers before it got political. One of the first posts that indicated Mocha’s pivot, made just a week after Duterte announced his candidacy, was about the group’s willingness to give up their racy numbers if Duterte won: “Kasi sa Davao, conservative sila when it comes to pageants—bawal yata ’yung swimwear dun, and bawal din ’yung mga super sexy performances dun. So we said na kung sakaling ipagbabawal ’yung sexy shows, we’re willing to sacrifice that. Kaya d'un nagsimula...from the Heneral Luna movie, ‘Bayan o negosyo?’ So pipiliin namin bayan muna.”
Sexy shows have not been banned in Davao or anywhere else, but Mocha changed the look of the group anyway. When they performed at pro-Duterte rallies, the girls would wear camo pants and Duterte jerseys. “Parang it symbolizes revolution. Na it’s time for a revolution.”
Mocha Uson, born Margaux, was a 20-year-old medical technology student when her father, a regional trial judge in Pangasinan, was gunned down by two men riding-in-tandem on a motorcycle. “He was handling a very sensitive case, a mayoral electoral protest,” she says. “So he was being bullied in court, because my father, he always did the right thing. Because of that, he was assassinated.” Early in 2016, a Rappler article contextualized Mocha’s background by republishing an excerpt from a Newsbreak investigative report from 2007 that cited Oscar Uson as one of the victims in a spate of judiciary killings (not to be confused with...judicial killings). “It was politically motivated. And that was the biggest reason I supported President Duterte. Kasi katulad ng ibang mga tao, katulad ng halos lahat ng Pilipino, sawa na sa corrupt na sistema ng gobyerno.”
Way before she campaigned for Duterte, Mocha was lending her name and body to specific causes. Starting in 2010, Mocha harnessed her sex-positive philosophy—and willingness to bare skin—for the public good by becoming a breast cancer awareness advocate. From showing breast exams on YouTube to holding nude-painting fundraisers for her mother, who had breast cancer, Mocha naturally threw her support behind the RH Bill, which was on its long and rough road to being passed. She handed out condoms and purple ballers that said “I Love Sex Education” and even publicly challenged then-Congressman Manny Pacquiao, a known RH opponent, to a discussion on the benefits of the proposed law. She raised quite a few eyebrows with some of her methods, but Mocha is one chick who just DGAF. “I don’t care about what people think or say about me. Kung may gusto akong gawin, gagawin ko.”
Her page became an alternative source of information for the many, many people who supported Duterte.
Just how did Mocha take her 2.5 million followers and almost double it within a year? She saw what was missing from mainstream media: positive reinforcement for her candidate’s supporters. “Everyone was on Facebook. ‘Yung mga tao, they wanted to see kung ilan ‘yung tao sa rally ni Duterte. Kami, nakakapunta kami sa mga rally niya and we’re doing that voluntarily. So the people, they can see the updates from my Facebook. So d’un dumami. Kasi pinapakita namin ’yung mga hindi napapakita sa media.” Her page became an alternative source of information for the many, many people who supported Duterte. Those on free data, who are unable to access links outside Facebook on their phones, would particularly find her updates useful (conversely, those on free data might only read headlines or her accompanying captions).
After Du31, Mocha ran an online survey among her “ka-DDS” (Duterte Die-Hard Supporters, a subversion of Davao Death Squad). “Ano yung top ten wish list niyo para kay Pangulong Duterte na magagawa niya in 100 days?” she asked. Their number one request was to have a direct hotline to the president’s office where they can lodge complaints about corruption or poor services in the government. With list in hand, Mocha traveled to Davao and waited in line with everyone else—“no VIP treatment, kahit na Gokongwei ka pa, you have to line up”—for five hours to see the President and discuss each item, on camera.
The next day, at a speech delivered in Cebu, Duterte announced his plans to launch a 24-hour direct hotline to his office, which would be called 8888. “He already had that in mind,” Mocha says. “Ang maganda, pinakinggan niya ‘yung request ng tao, and the next day, sinabi na niya in public.”
Other wishes that were checked off the list were a solution to the tanim-bala problem, a national ID system, and additional resources for OFWs, which was addressed by the One-Stop Service Center. The only thing on the list that hasn’t been implemented yet, but might be granted as a Christmas gift, is the death penalty.
Mocha has made her blog’s threefold mission to be the voice of the voiceless Filipinos, to focus on the positive changes made by the Duterte administration, and to expose the evil in this world.
Since then, Mocha has become a complaints department and PR agency rolled into one. Disgruntled citizens, folks with unresolved cases, and OFWs needing assistance would message her with their problems. She would try to help by forwarding the email to the relevant official; if that doesn’t work, they “make noise on Facebook” until they get their attention. While she has voluntarily offered to disseminate information for various agencies, she goes the extra mile by physically checking out and documenting the new services, for instance, at the airport or at the POEA. Encouraged by the responses to her citizen-journalist videos, Mocha has made her blog’s threefold mission to be the voice of the voiceless Filipinos, to focus on the positive changes made by the Duterte administration, and to expose the evil in this world.
Given Mocha's noble intentions, what’s all the hand-wringing about? After Duterte, no one comes close to being as divisive a figure on social media as Mocha Uson, self-proclaimed ordinary citizen. Numerous essays have been written about her and her rise to influence, and she served as the lynchpin in one of the articles in Rappler’s series on the weaponization of the internet. On the side of her detractors, there is the opinion that at worst, she maliciously makes viral fake news and incites hate, and at best, is a blind follower who shuts down anyone who disagrees with her. “...Arguably her most toxic effect—contributing to the dumbing down of Philippine society by spreading a culture of misinformation/uneducation and ‘tsismis’, among others,” recently railed The Superficial Gazette, a satirical site. “Mocha Uson and her fanatic underlings in the Administration’s Propaganda War promote an ‘if you’re not with me, you’re my enemy’ narrative, one that attempts to portray politics as having only two sides: ‘Duterte’ or ‘Dilaw’ (Google ‘false dichotomy’).”
(In her defense, Mocha denies sharing fake news. “They’re trying to discredit me. Check my sources. If you think it’s not true, then debunk, debunk the news that I posted.”)
On the other extreme are fawning commentaries that herald Mocha as the second coming, like this one from De La Salle professor Antonio P. Contreras in the Manila Times on Oct. 27:
Mocha Uson is powerful not because of her intelligence. She is powerful because she renders intelligence useless. She is powerful not because she produces facts. She is powerful because she renders facts irrelevant. She has become powerful by reinventing her sexuality...Mocha Uson destabilized, challenged, unmasked. She forced the contradictions of the conflicted, hypocritical social elites to unravel.
Both camps perhaps give too much credit to Mocha the personality, neglecting the four million-strong followers who entrusted her with this power. On her page, they are neither talked down to nor ridiculed for their political naivete?, improper grammar or poor debating skills. Sure, some of them exhibit trollish behavior, but this can be said of people on both sides of the fence.
However, Mocha recently installed a “no-debate” policy on her page, effectively turning her blog into one big—and potentially dangerous—echo chamber. “They already have this judgment about me. So sabi ko there’s no point kasi, bakit pa ako magsasalita, e iniisip niyo, bobo, tanga, walang alam,” she says. “Kayo mga nagtatalino-talinuhan, meron naman kayong mga page nang sarili, d’un kayo magtalo. Kasi ang ginagawa ng mga sinasabing disente sila, mas maraming alam, ay inaaway yung mga ordinaryong tao na hindi magaling mag-English, inaapi sila hanggang sa Facebook.”
She recognizes that the Mocha Uson phenomenon is not solely about her. The attempt to shut her down offered her a little sense of relief at first, because if she didn’t have a blog, she wouldn’t also have as much stress. But she says she was surprised by the angry reactions. “They’re not trying to silence me. It’s not me. ’Pag pinetition nila na tanggalin ‘yung Mocha Uson Blog, it’s the four million people there,” she points out. “‘Bakit nila kami pinapatahimik?’ Sabi ng mga Duterte supporters. Parang, kayo lang ang tama? Wala bang karapatan magsalita ang ordinaryong tao?”
Mocha found a father figure in the President, as have millions of other supporters, and their oftentimes-rabid pack mentality is attributed to their intense loyalty to Tatay Digong. “’Pag mayroong mga taong bumabastos sa tatay namin—tinatawag siyang psychopath, dine-disrespect siya—nasasaktan ’yung mga anak niya,” she explains. “Ngayon, ’yung mga anak niya, ipagtatanggol ‘yung tatay nila. Kaya ‘yun lang normal reaction, na pag-binully mo ‘yung tatay namin, magagalit kami.”
Mocha found a father figure in the President, as have millions of other supporters, and their oftentimes-rabid pack mentality is attributed to their intense loyalty to Tatay Digong.
Those on the dissenting “disente” side would blame this allegiance to a strongman and their implicit acceptance of his tactics, no matter how disturbing, to low educational levels, weak institutions, or the failures of the past administrations—but the fact remains, there are a hell of a lot of people who believe in the President’s oblique brilliance and inherent goodness.
His supporters don’t fully agree with the extrajudicial killings, either, as seen in the Social Weather Stations survey, which revealed that 71 percent of respondents who approve of the War on Drugs would rather the drug suspects be captured alive.
Someone once told Mocha about an uncle who was a longtime shabu addict. Nothing could stop the uncle, until Duterte threatened him. “He has to speak their language, the language of the criminals. You have to look them in the eye. It takes a Duterte to scare these criminals.”
She took a leap of faith with her eyes wide open when she decided to campaign for this man, and accepted him, flaws and all, as captain of the ship.
Duterte doubters might dismiss these statements as the desperate rationalizations of blind followers. But I don’t see Mocha as a blind follower. She took a leap of faith with her eyes wide open when she decided to campaign for this man, and accepted him, flaws and all, as captain of the ship. Nobody knows what Duterte is really thinking, not even his Cabinet, and his increasingly vitriolic tirades may leave us tearing our hair out—but the DDS look beyond his words and focus on the actions, the results. They see, for instance, the positive of Filipino fishermen being allowed to fish in our shoal again, not that an international arbitration court ruling has been set aside.
Everything the media has portrayed Duterte to be is the reverse, Mocha laments, and she cites an example. In the Mocha Girls’ active career as touring performers, they’ve come across their share of dodgy politicians who show their true colors by treating them like prostitutes. “Sanay kami sa mga kunyari mababait, statesman—pero mga manyak, bastos. Si Duterte, na akala ng tao bastos siya, manyak siya, it’s really the opposite talaga. He doesn’t disrespect women.”
“It’s really easy to hate Duterte. He’s probinsyano, he doesn’t look presentable, he has a foul mouth. But if you just don’t judge him by what you see on the media, or ‘yung mga snippets, soundbites, and give him a chance—you will really discover na he is...iba, iba talaga.”
“[The President] has to speak their language, the language of the criminals. You have to look them in the eye. It takes a Duterte to scare these criminals.”
As the president’s proxy, it’s also easy to hate on Mocha, if all you know of her is that she used to take her clothes off a lot and is now the high priestess of Dutertism. There are a lot more people, however, who don’t hate Mocha, and in fact many come up to her in malls, restaurants, and out on the streets to tell her to keep up the fight. “Ituloy ang laban. Mocha, kayo ang boses namin. Kayo ang boses namin. ‘Wag kayong titigil.” And so it is for them that Mocha won’t stop, despite the death threats and all the discouragement, because this is now her purpose in life; she is driven by a higher calling.
Mocha’s latest coup was taking over column inches in the op-ed pages of The Philippine Star, a publication she has usually lumped together with the rest of the media she calls “presstitutes.” Her own followers had misgivings about the offer, saying the newspaper needed her more than she needed the newspaper, while her critics mourned the death of journalism. It remains to be seen whether Mocha will use this opportunity to constructively engage with differing perspectives; as of now the column is intended solely for the ka-DDS who aren’t on Facebook, a rather narrow focus considering she has practically joined the establishment. Now that she’s subject to editorial standards and can’t default to reductive memes and labels like “dilawan,” perhaps a new Mocha will emerge from these pages, different from the one of her unregulated, post-factual blog—a Mocha who might actually open minds that were once closed, and dare we hope, a Mocha who can unify people in these trying times?
We are navigating a world of false dichotomies. The Upside Down bleeds into the Downside Up. Either you're for the president, or you're destabilizing the government. Mocha Uson is either a virulent propagandist or the voice of the masses. Perhaps the reality is even stranger: We just haven’t figured her out yet.
This article originally appeared in our December 2016 issue. Edits and updates have been made for the online version.