Philippines Campaign 2010: Does Social Media Matter?
Michael Alan Hamlin
Posted on January 7, 2010
Over the holiday, a volunteer group supporting the presidential candidacy of Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III (Liberal Party) announced that their candidate has more Facebook fans and online supporters than other candidates. Although the numbers are constantly growing, at one point Mr. Aquino had about 211,000 supporters. His closest rival in traditional surveys and online, Senator Manuel Villar (Nacionalista Party) had close to 165,000. None of the other candidates came close.
Mr. Aquino enjoys a wide lead over other candidates. In the latest survey conducted by Social Weather Station December 5-10, slightly more than 46% of respondents said they prefer Mr. Aquino as their president. Only 27% of respondents selected Mr. Villar, and 16% said they would vote for former president Joseph Estrada (Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino), who trails miserably on Facebook with substantially less than 4,000 supporters. It’s noteworthy that in the latest poll, Messrs. Villar and Estrada moved up from an earlier survey while Mr. Aquino appeared to plateau.
It’s interesting that Mr. Villar is doing much better in the race for Facebook supporters than he is in traditional surveys, and that Mr. Estrada is doing much worse. There are many reasons for the discrepancy. The obvious reason is that Facebook “support” has no scientific basis and can be easily manipulated by zealous volunteers. Although both Messrs. Villar and Estrada claim the poor as their constituency–Mr. Villar’s roots are much closer to the poor than Mr. Estrada’s, incidentally–it may be that fewer of Mr. Estrada’s truly poor supporters have access to Facebook or the Internet at all.
Given the unreliable nature of the Facebook numbers, it’s fair to ask whether the social network–and other popular social media services such as Twitter and YouTube–really matter in the coming election. It’s no secret that I think they do. But it’s completely understandable that many assume this New Year’s crop of presidential candidates is flocking to social media merely to try to emulate the successful, social media-intense campaign of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Is there a better reason for candidates to try to leverage social media? Let’s start with some numbers. According to the website Inside Facebook, which measures Facebook penetration for developers and marketers, in September last year–the latest month for which data is available–1.3 million Filipinos joined the social network, bringing the total number of users to about six million.
Since Internet penetration has continued to increase in the Philippines according to local telecom companies, it’s reasonable to assume that the number of Facebook users in the Philippines has also continued to grow. If usage has grown at one million per month, then by the end of January there will be somewhere in the vicinity of 10 million Facebook users in the Philippines. In June, Hitwise estimated the average age of Facebook users at between 25 and 44 in the U.S. The Philippines shares a close affinity with the U.S., and the average age of users-especially given the cost of Internet access-is likely about the same.
That would mean that more than half of all Facebook users in the Philippines are of voting age. Because Mr. Aquino has about 22% more Facebook supporters than Mr. Villar, he would theoretically win a Facebook election by more than 1.1 million votes assuming half of all users are registered voters and will vote. That margin is the same margin President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won by in 2004, incidentally.
Of course, this is pure speculation, but it is reasonable speculation. According to a 2008 study by Universal McCann, more Filipino Internet users than anywhere else in the world as a percentage of users belong to social networks (83%) and upload photos (86%). Only users in Brazil (68% versus 61%) upload more videos, but 99% of Filipino Internet users watch videos online. In the first week of January as I wrote this column, Facebook was the number one visited website in the Philippines according to Alexa, which tracks the popularity of websites.
This data suggests that it is smart for Philippine presidential aspirants to leverage social networks to communicate and interact with their online supporters-who are also likely to influence the votes of their family members and friends. It doesn’t really tell us how effectively they are leveraging social network visibility. The outcome of the election-assuming it is honest and transparent-may be the best indication.