Keeping Sane in the Age of the Troll

While it’s true that social media has become a sort of battlefield where all manner of campaigns are run, does there really have to be a war?
ILLUSTRATOR Frantz Arno Salvador

In the TV series Mad Men, Bert Cooper, CEO of Sterling Cooper, advised his creative director, Don, not to fire the young Pete Campbell, who just betrayed him. “One never knows how loyalty is born,” he says. Over eight seasons, Campbell repeatedly proves his loyalty to Draper, perhaps because the latter did not fire him, though he could have.

For the Filipino psyche, loyalty evolves at the glimpse of a specific quality or set of qualities, a character trait or act, that at once causes a person to loom larger than life. Kindness or generosity. Perhaps wit or approachability, or some other kind of coolness. One thing draws people to favor the whole package—lock, stock, and barrel. We might call this “pagkatao.” In Filipino, the word itself is telling; literally: “what makes a person a person.” Pagkatao sparks undying love or hate. Pagkatao triggers loyalty.

When my daughter was 13, she loved Taylor Swift. She admired the singer’s creative output and her talent as a songwriter. In fact, Swift struck a chord literally and figuratively, thrumming girlish heartstrings everywhere. Once, on a visit home to the Philippines, she found herself in discussion with her cousins who at the time could not tolerate even the faintest praise for Ms. Swift. My daughter gasped, “But why?” Her cousins shrugged. “She has too many boyfriends,” and “She sleeps around.” “Her songs are about the guys she dated.” “But what does that have to do with her music?” Taylor Swift’s music was very much beside the point. What mattered to her cousins was Taylor Swift’s pagkatao. In the same way that I still watch Woody Allen films even after his big Soonyi and Dylan Farrow scandals, my daughter continues to be a Taylor Swift enthusiast. We are not typically Pinoy, it seems.


Clearly, Filipinos are an ardent, intensely passionate people. We love as impetuously as we hate. The best supporters, we are unblinkingly, unwaveringly loyal. And on the Internet, we are also increasingly powerful with a capacity to enable that is inestimable. Our clicks have assured World Heritage sites, kept American Idols in the game, and sustained Friendster long after its expiry date. Loyalty is why we ran the Beatles out of town after they snubbed Imelda Marcos, why we attacked Claire Danes and Dan Brown.

Policy, Not Personality

However, it is consistently personality that moves us. That’s why celebrity endorsers are huge, and why we are constantly proclaiming our teamship via hashtag. At the pedestal of personality, we have voted into presidency a widowed housewife and an action film star. It’s also why we have too many celebrity senators and showbiz congresspeople, including even a champion boxer. Truth be told, there is rarely a practical explanation for our political choices. Our political parties likewise follow suit. “Ah basta, gusto ko siya,” is a go-to phrase unfortunately used with tiresome frequency. And of course, that’s a double-edged sword.

Few things can turn loyalty. Usually it’s when something extraordinary and unforeseen happens (or, hello, willful historical revision?), such that a particular pagkatao is altered and discovered anew by circumstances (like a multimillion-peso online campaign). It doesn’t help that Filipinos also have short memories.

This explains what has been happening since the president won the election. Of course, it was rampant in the campaign period, acknowledged as the most contentious election in 30 years. The reason for the division in the populace, particularly, upon the social media landscape is subject for another article, one that should be penned by writers more politically astute than myself. Suffice it to say that historically, personality politics has been the pandesal-and-butter of Philippine governments.

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See, for instance, how the national malady of personality politics is at play in the way people characterize the president as “Tatay Digong.” It’s such a personal appeal and it’s one that targets not the mind but the heart. After all, the heart perseveres more vehemently in the face of onslaught. It is also an appeal based on emotion, which makes people blind. Ardent supporters seize the opportunity to see PRRD as a disciplining, temperamental father with the heart of gold. They love this president. (Granted, love has always been present in various degrees with every president we’ve ever had, even though our counterparts elsewhere are content to simply like their leaders). Love is what causes people to bristle and chafe at any criticism of him, no matter how reasonable or warranted. One does not criticize one’s father, after all, not without receiving some censure, anyway. And boy, do critics get that censure in great measure, and then some.

Love is also what leads the president’s loyal fans to construct defenses of him by presenting the offenses of the previous president, whom they hated. That’s how personality politics works. It is by far an easy thing to set off the strengths of one man by juxtaposing them with the weaknesses of another. Reason suggests though that despite the fact that contrast in interesting, a past president’s missteps, by virtue of being precisely…in the past…are in fact, beside the point.

Of course, similar dynamics take place on all the sides (there are more than just two). The vice president, for example, certainly seems like a good person, however, personality politics has of course, elevated her into a kind of unreal saint (our favorite personality) when in fact, she is only human and naturally capable of mistakes. Nevertheless the other side calls her a puppet or a poodle. No one is looking closely at her programs for poverty, which are promising.


Tangling and Wrangling

More than 100 days into the Duterte administration, and to be sure, there have been strides in the departments of transportation, agriculture, and the environment. Likewise, substantial political will does seem evident. Laudable programs have been unveiled, but that’s customary in the nascent stages of any new administration. The recent Executive Order to adopt the National Economic and Development Authority’s mission to triple incomes and wipe out poverty by 2040 is inarguably one of them.

Nevertheless, thorny issues remain that have dismayed some from the outset: the burial of Ferdinand Marcos at Libingan ng mga Bayani, unsavory alliances with family oligarchies the President claims to hate, his impulsive outbursts toward everyone from the UN to Obama, his unnerving posturing vis-a-vis China and the U.S., the inordinate attention paid to sex tapes and celebrity talk, and last but not least: his drug war’s alarming number of apparently state-sanctioned summary killings—at this point more than 3,500, and it only continues to rise. This last issue appears to trouble only some of the “disente elitista” and the (misnomered) “yellows”—words that have become more charged and damning than many others these days.

Supporters tend to sidestep these issues or excuse them, claiming the president was misquoted or that extra-judicial killings have been hyped up by so-called destabilizing forces like local mainstream media outlets (which they say have drug ties) and the international press (which they say is conspiring with the Liberal Party to oust the president).


Try to argue with that. Suggest that the drug problem as indicated by a number of studies is not of the magnitude described. It is frequently futile. You get, “Face it, you lost,” “He is duly elected,” and “Tatay Digong cares deeply for the poor.” Consider the truly absurd contortions from many to rationalize the president’s angry curse-laden outbursts. Try bringing up anything inherently problematic: the president’s own words regarding the drug suspects, corrupt police, the PNP’s hired guns, the police masquerading as tandem vigilante killers, provincial police quotas and collateral damage... all you will hear are crickets.


We buy much too easily into the pat and facile dichotomies that come hand in hand with personality politics: pro and con, good and evil, black and white, red and yellow (there are other colors out there), Madonna and whore, American imperialism versus Chinese influence, so much so that the dynamics of argument per se have apparently solidified beyond all shifting.

Instead there is self-righteous anger, strident hate and blatant misinformation directed at any who question, criticize or oppose the President’s policies. Insults are pelted across Facebook to the point that you almost feel the spittle. And it’s all because the criticism is perceived as being directed at the president’s pagkatao. And because we all have the predisposition, some of the criticisms are likewise levied that way, as they were levied against all the previous presidents. No one complained quite so hard back then; nobody discredited the press either.

We Won!

The Duterterers have numbers—this is clear. As such, their task is simple. A version of mob rule that manifests in number of likes. Their guy is a simple man. He is good. He does good for the country. He wants only good. He is not from the elite. So he speaks off his plaid cuff and gets hot beneath his plaid collar. But he truly cares about improving the lives of the poor. What he says? It’s just…Dute-rhetoric. Just follow. It’s simple.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It’s quite complex. The solutions to a good number of the country’s problems require nuance and multilateral action. Rare is the sober discussion of actual policies or god forbid, discussion of the rationale behind these. No, everyone should unwaveringly support everything or shut up and get out of the way, because 16 million and 86 percent trust, damn it!


For them, everyone with reservations is dismissed as “yellow” or “anti-reform.” Not only have they consumed the Kool-Aid, they’ve also begun to mix it, using their cherries from all their cherry picking. They trade in tirades of post-factualism, binary thinking, flawed comparisons and faulty assumptions. And in the yawning gap caused by the absence of true exchange has sprouted highly charged personal attacks against whoever the flavor of the week is, from the ever-growing cast of individuals vilified only because they have the audacity to voice criticism: Leila de Lima, Raissa Robles, Walden Bello, Risa Hontiveros, Chito Gascon, Maria Ressa, recently Agot Isidro, countless journalists, entire media outlets and all foreign press (except when they are positive). God only knows who it will be next? Perhaps you. Perhaps me.

Much as I hate saying it, many days on the Internet, I feel that second only to the extra-judicial killings of drug suspects, the most unfortunate thing about President Duterte are his supporters.

So What's Your Solution? 

It’s not going to let up anytime soon.

Nevertheless, it’s time to sever the ties that bind us to personality politics. It’s time to restore civilized political discourse online, as anachronistic as the phrase might sound. While it’s true that social media has become a sort of battlefield where all manner of campaigns are run, does there really have to be a war?

We need to do more to unify rather than divide and find common ground, the way citizens should at the start of any new administration. What’s more, changing the nature of online discourse may start to help heal the sad discord and the rifts that prevail between work colleagues, between friends, between family members: parents and children, brothers and sisters, indeed between husbands and wives.


For don’t we all want to be better than what we’ve been? Six years is frightfully long enough, but for a people divided, it will only feel twice as long. It’s true, unity is not apparently something the president’s staunchest supporters care at all about. Most just want to harp on who won and why, but really, they needn’t persist as they’ve been doing it to death. We know well who won.

What’s more, people should feel free to discuss the decisions the president makes, applaud some certainly, criticize others, and yes, even lobby for amendments in policy. Dissent is recognized in the constitution as the right to “petition the government for redress of grievances,” so yes, there are citizens who have grievances. It does not mean they are not pro-Philippines. True, the President has done little in terms of unifying the people—a low-enough hanging fruit quite easily picked. But then again, why should this task fall upon government alone?

We should continue to highlight the good things that have taken place in the other areas of government. We should discuss topics that will have bearing upon us in the long run: federalism, for example, and what happens post-Duterte. And we can and should certainly keep discussing the issues that we share in common. Some who voted for Duterte feel strongly against Marcos being buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani. We know too that at this point, at these numbers, more are starting to feel uncomfortable with the drug war’s summary killings. There are some in government that have expressed ambivalence. They are not “yellow”—they are on his side, and with any luck, might have his ear.


At the risk of calling for a new age-y kumbaya moment, it’s time to stop talking about Duterte’s pagkatao. It’s time to work harder to look beyond his superficial, personal idiosyncrasies in order to consider his policies solely.

Now, this is not to say that there aren’t any nefarious forces online: of course, there are. In fact, there does seem to be a legitimate concerted effort to spread misinformation and even propaganda online. There are those who deliberately spread patent lies, and that’s been highlighted recently by the list of fake news sites that have come out. Calling those who criticize “anti-Philippine reform” is yet another tactic. These reactions are evidently emotional responses to misperceived threats on his presidency and attempts to protect Tatay Digong from a feared ousting or impeachment, even though hardly any evidence supports this as taking place.

Moving Forward

Some people argue, it’s only social media; it’s not reality. Yet social media is an indicator, just like anything else. Some say, just quit social media. It is best to veer away from the crazies who are incapable of listening, but don’t disappear outright. Keep reading—yes, even the crazies and their strident all-caps posts deserve a cursory scan, if only to stay aware of the dangers that lurk.

In an entry on his blog titled “Note to Self: How To Engage With Others on Social Media,” writer and medical anthropologist Gideon Lasco wrote: “Always consider the truthfulness of what you’re going to share. Be discerning, especially when people begin to trust in your discernment. Hold on to facts, to evidence, to logic, to reason. And even when you are convinced that you are absolutely right, resist the temptation of humiliating people and rubbing in the flaws of your contentions.”


Some people argue, it’s only social media; it’s not reality. Yet social media is an indicator, just like anything else.

To that I add:

Listen closely, or in this case, read closely.

This means not dwelling on the purpose of a person’s argument or in fact even the people themselves, but actually paying attention to the substance of the argument itself. Many times, the squabbles take place because people are freely making assumptions. Ask questions and explain where you are coming from. Don’t assume that is clear—believe me, it hardly ever is.

Acknowledge the counter-arguments to your positions.

Far too few online do this, not realizing that acknowledging or even anticipating the counter-arguments to a particular position strengthens you own much more than simply ignoring them.

Conduct all exchanges with courtesy and respect.

There is no need for bad language or name-calling. You may not agree with someone, but at least, demonstrate an attempt to see where the other is coming from. A lot of good will can come from a simple phrase like, “I understand you are saying X, Y, and Z, and I get it, but how do you reconcile it with A, B, and C?” Even when you are being insulted and attacked? As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”

Stop using labels like pro- and anti-government.

For that matter, especially refrain from using pro- and anti-Duterte especially. There’s no point in it, and it only establishes warring sides. The campaign period is over, and he is president. What’s more, disagreeing with his policies does not make you anti-Duterte. As Gideon Lasco says, “…it flattens your stances on many issues…” precisely because it’s about the issues and the policies, not the person. And we are all pro-Philippines.


Do not isolate yourself; always read the opposing views.

Read even the out-and-out crazies. More people should, just to see the extents of it all and the influence on so many people. And read the yellowest yellows you can find online—yes, they exist, too, and may lead you to the conclusion that you weren’t as “yellow” as you thought you were, when you consider the entire spectrum. There is no point in preaching to the choir. What you read may make your eyes bleed, but hey, no one ever died from reading.

Get over the catharsis that comes from trollish behavior.

It’s true that many people get off on it. They enjoy trading barbs and jabs, insults and scathing repartee. There is satisfaction in yelling, sadly. But in the long term, it only shows you’ve lost it and weakens your overall stance. Be patient. Be respectful. Agree to disagree, because ultimately, only time will tell who is right.

Engage only with those who welcome engagement.

Find the thoughtful, civilized posters and their groups—those who are online to be vigilant citizens and truly examine the actions of government. You have to make an effort to find them—and to be one of them. When you engage with an opponent, discuss only policies. Save your emotional ranting (also satisfying!) for your choir. Every president we’ve ever elected exhibited a few disagreeable qualities that often had little to do with their policies. Emphasize that policies have to be based on facts, as do investigations. Hold truth as the all-important ideal.


Our predisposition towards personality makes us lunatics in politics. And the freedom and sometimes, the anonymity of the Internet makes this lunacy doubly likely. Recall how during the campaign period, the president said he had killed people? Recall when he said he had ties to the Davao Death Squads? Recall when he intimated he knew who killed the journalist Jun Pala? Recall how he has said he wants to kill three million addicts. Yet on social media, his supporters cannot stomach even the suggestion that the President has condoned summary killings. That’s the kind of mass delusion that needs to be tempered. Truth sways opinions, and so genuine discourse must continue, for that reason alone. Truth can set us free.

Ultimately, the cult of personality sets people up for tragic and devastating disappointment. Even presidents are only human; this one has good qualities as well as failings, some grave ones. Facing the failings may be the most harrowing thing of all for the self-righteous, self-declared 16 million who celebrate his every decision. It is terrifying to contemplate what this might mean to those who love their president’s pagkatao so loyally, should they in fact find out that their hero, their Tatay Digong, is wrong.

Some might choose denial. Some will blame others. Some will be like Javert in Les Miserables, who, destroyed by Jean Valjean’s mercy, so lost and undone, he had to leap into oblivion.

And finally, some will be coldly pragmatic, fully willing and easily able to trade the purported good Duterte’s government achieves for 3,500 lives ended and certainly more to come. And indeed, that may be the greatest tragedy for the people and for the country.

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Noelle Q. de Jesus
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