Welcome to the Influencer Elections Era
Testament to social media’s big role as a source of information, politicians are turning to influencers to boost their campaigns.
Written by JP Campos
On March 14, at around 7 p.m., Filipino lifestyle influencers gathered via Zoom to discuss strategies on how to promote Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo in her presidential run. Robredo, currently in second place in surveys, is struggling to close the gap with Ferdinand Marcos Jr. who is more than 30 points ahead. With just a few weeks before the casting of ballots on May 9, Robredo’s camp has to consolidate efforts to make a win.
Bam Aquino, Robredo’s campaign manager, was present during this particular call according to Mike Miguel, a Senior Art Manager for Public Relations (PR) firm Castro Communications. Miguel also sidelines as a lifestyle influencer. On March 13, he posted a clarion call about the meeting to his 32,000 followers on Instagram–he was inviting other influencers, big or small, who might be interested to join the campaign. According to another source privy to the meeting, people from the public relations industry also attended. The attendees were given guidelines on how to help in the campaign, including objectives, and specific dates on when to help boost posts promoting Robredo.
Much like the 2016 presidential elections and 2019 senatorial elections, social media is an important tool for politicians. It is shaping up to be much more important now as new platforms like TikTok are used to reach key voting demographics, and as older platforms grapple with continued challenges related to politics. Twitter has been used to manipulate discourse on the platform in favor of a particular candidate (the tech company has since suspended multiple accounts related to this networked activity). Facebook pages were renamed to spread propaganda. While Tiktok, although new, is already seeing an alarming amount of disinformation ranging from revisionist history to spliced or manipulated videos aimed to ridicule a candidate. These platforms have been instituting measures (though arguably inadequate) against misinformation and disinformation in their platforms. Some of these new measures were direct responses to the infodemic during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After all, more and more people are using social media as a news source. In the Philippines for example, social media helps users decide who to vote for in the upcoming elections. The percentage of Filipinos who say they turn to social media for such decisions has increased eight-fold–from 2% in 2016 to 19% in 2022.
Influencers, a staple of the country’s digital culture, are helping drive the conversations taking place online. In the aforementioned call, for example, Saab Magalona and Macoy Averilla were present, according to COMMONER’s source. Influencers Ady Cotoco, Martin Julio, Kimpoy Feliciano, Lance de Ocampo, Mela Habijan, and David Guison have also expressed their support for Robredo.
According to Miguel, his drive to participate in Robredo’s campaign is primarily driven by his experiences now, as part of the country’s working force.
“I knew a lot of things needed to change, and I knew in order to make these changes, I had to speak up about it myself,” says Miguel.
Other influencers are more enmeshed in politics and publicly appear as part of the Robredo campaign. This includes Gaia Polyhymnia, Pipay, Inah Evans, Kaladkaren Davila, Mica Salamanca, and Janina Vela.
Lifestyle influencer and actor Kerwin King is also active in the campaign. A lifestyle influencer for seven years, King is known to people online, especially on Twitter where young left-leaning and liberal Filipinos congregate. He has attended rallies, appeared in activities for civic society organizations, and, now, he’s active in the Robredo campaign. When I reached out to him, he was getting ready to host the rally in the CAMANAVA area. A few days later, he said he’d been invited to join the Bohol sortie, among other activities.
“I was so scared to post political stuff [in 2019] because I was scared to lose partnerships. I was afraid to lose engagement and followers,” King told COMMONER. “But my mindset changed when the pandemic started.”
Influencer Culture and Politics–An Old Tandem
“If you trace the history of what we know now as contemporary influencer culture, you would see that early ‘micro-celebrities’ are those who creatively and/or subversively use the affordances of online platforms for their craft, interests, or advocacy, and only in later years did it become commercialized,” says Fatima Gaw, an Assistant Professor from the Department of Communication Research at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.
Particularly in the Asia-Pacific Region, early participants of blogger culture include journalist-bloggers and political commentators. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, for example, started a blog in 2005 run by its then-multimedia desk head Alecks Pabico. Other political blogs were published by journalists, lawyers, and commentators such as Sassy Lawyer (houseonahill.net) by Connie Veneracion, Quezon.ph by Manuel L. Quezon III, Mongster’s Nest (mongpalatino.motime.com) by Mong Palatino, and Newsstand (newsstand.blogs.com) by John Nery. Today, Quezon, Palatino, and Nery are still practicing journalists for various mainstream media platforms.
The influencer, later on, evolved to other definitions. From the late 2000s to the early 2010s, an influencer is an internet user with a large following that posts about their life and lifestyle and monetizes their following through advertorials. These include the earlier iterations of fashion and lifestyle bloggers on Tumblr and Lookbook like David Guison, Lisa Kahayon, and Laureen Uy. The influencer culture here was personal and intimate–making viewers feel that they can relate to the microcelebrities on their screens.
This kind of intimacy would bleed and evolve into the “influencer as internet celebrity” era. In the mid-2010s, influencers were defined as internet celebrities who attain popularity through “fame or infamy, positive or negative attention, talent, and skill or otherwise.” It is around this time when prank, skit, and social commentary vlogs started popping up alongside skill-centered vlogs. The likes of Raiza Contawi, Erwan Heusaff, Mikey Bustos, and Lloyd Cadena took off in the Philippines during this period. Influencers were also expected to champion specific politics in their materials, whether the cause is anti-bullying, self-love, sexual positivity, or promotion of one’s culture (including food, humor, and tourism). The pushback against influencers who disregard social justice issues could sometimes be intense–they were often publicly shamed.
The latest era of influencers, meanwhile, started around 2019. An influencer is not only endorsing brands and products–they are amplifiers of information. Their profiles are platforms where messages to be disseminated are incorporated. The influencers we are seeing now, such as King, Pipay, and Gaia are part of this era. During the COVID-19 pandemic, influencers were mobilized by various governments to help in information dissemination.
“[W]e are beginning to see again the diversification of influencers on the news and current affairs point because we are getting quite bored with people selling us stuff all the time,” says Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist, and ethnographer of internet culture. “In the Southeast Asian region, I cannot stress enough how politically-inclined influencers have always been.”
In the context of the elections, the role of the influencer cannot be understated. This is, according to Abidin, the Influencer Elections after all. This is not only because traditional influencers are heavily invested in the coming elections–politicians themselves are reorienting their digital personalities to be influencers.
“Prior to this, a lot of politicians were trying to engage with influencers to help promote their content,” Abidin says. “Now we see politicians turning themselves into influencers for their campaigns.”
Politicians in the Philippines have Facebook and Instagram pages and engage with people on Twitter. Robredo has collaborated for a vlog with influencer Mimiyuh, where viewers saw a lighter, more candid side of the presidential candidate.
Traditional influencers like King, on the other hand, are tapping on the early 2000s nature of being a microcelebrity. Before the pandemic, he focused mostly on brand deals and posts about fashion, trips, and events–typical of his contemporaries. Now, King has a say on almost every political and social issue that comes out.
“I’m a Filipino first before I became an artist, an actor, content creator, KOL [Key Opinion Leader]… I’m also a taxpayer, so it’s painful to see where my money goes. That is my turning point.”
Naturally, there are downsides for influencers who are vocal in their politics. Miguel said that he has lost sponsors because of his political involvement.
“There was this one time a store wanted me to bring back the stuff they sent me because we didn’t have the same views on the current government,” Miguel said.
“I also remember my former talent manager asked us (her talents) to keep our ‘political thoughts’ on Twitter to a minimum. She meant well; I knew she said that because she knows the hate we might get from voicing out our opinions and that the internet can manipulate our thoughts online. But I’m also very aware she’s doing it for business.”
Kerwin echoes the sentiment. He said he lost sponsors, brand partnerships, followers, and even friends because of his political involvement.
“I actually declined a lot of projects because they want me to shut up about politics and I can’t,” King shares to COMMONER. “Even with the huge amount of money, I’d still choose to fight for what is right and for my country. Prinsipyo muna. [Principles first.]”
King’s risk seemed to have paid off, however. He emerged with a new network, partnered with brands that are more comfortable with his politics, and even signed a contract with a big talent management company that supports him in what he does. He said he was sad to have lost some people in his life due to politics, but he eventually reconciled with it as he was able to open up a space for friends and colleagues that align with his values.
Influencers Pipay and Gaia, who are both volunteers in the Robredo campaign, also have thriving careers. The two just recently starred in a commercial for Netflix’s Bridgerton.
It’s easy to think that influencers’ involvement in politics is their attempt to stay relevant.
“The choice to engage in politics could easily be because of profit — politics is a salient topic online and there is demand for such content,” Gaw said.
But it could also be because influencers chose to use their fame and platform to participate in political deliberation in the election. Either way, the delicate balance between the two — profit and politics — was a calculation influencers had to make. Whichever overtakes the other says a lot about their character, current priorities, and the amount of risk they are willing to accept.
Others can only involve themselves by reposting campaign materials on their social media accounts. Some attend rallies and sorties as part of the crowd. Others like King, Gaia, and Pipay are willing to spend their own money, time, and energy to have a deeper involvement in a political campaign. One is not exactly better than the other, but both show that a different age of social media influencing has arrived–influencers meddling with politics, giving their takes on social issues, and using their voices to amplify causes they want to identify with. Sometimes, they do these at the expense of their careers.
But for the Philippines, where politics has always been tied to the DNA of microcelebrities, this resurgence of influencers-cum-political commentators is a natural progression. Especially crucial in the age of disinformation, influencers functioning as conduits of nation-building is a development welcomed (and encouraged) by Filipino users online.
As King said, influencers are no longer just social media content creators and vehicles of commercialism.
“We are Filipinos. We have our platforms and we must use them to amplify voices… [A]t the end of the day, this is not just for me — this is for all of us.”