One of the odd things that unites ultra-nationalists and supporters of unreconstructed communism (e.g. the NPA) is that neither side believes in open, transparent, free and fair markets. As such, both the far-right and the far-left are protectionists when it comes to goods, capital and services. While the political language of the far-right and far-left might sound different, the desired outcome is much the same. Making matters worse for The Philippines is that whilst many countries have an extreme left and extreme right, until the arrival of President Duterte, the Philippines barely had a functional centre. Instead, it had individuals competing in talent shows vaguely disguised as elections. Due to the fact that the country has yet to shift to a federal-parliamentary model of government, the political circus continues, albeit under the watchful eye of a president who uniquely happens to genuinely care of the condition of ordinary people.
As such, it remains an uphill struggle to move a political class that has a parasitic relationship with business oligarchs, in a direction that prioritises free trade over tariffs, foreign direct investment (FDI) over draconian FDI restrictions and a modern low regulation market economy that can help to create jobs and encourage innovation.
A report from Open Signal found that whilst ASEAN member Singapore has the world’s fastest 4G data speeds and extremely high 4G coverage, The Philippines is near the bottom of the international table in both speed and 4G availability. When one then realises that many wealthy countries aren’t even investing a great deal in 4G anymore because of the imminent arrival of 5G technology, it becomes clear just how far The Philippines has fallen behind.
One of the reasons for this is that in line with many other major utilities, telecom is severely regulated in The Philippines. The lack of international competition for Philippine mobile data market share has led to a culture of technological stagnation and poor economic value becoming the norm rather than the exception. Within this framework the increasingly politicised US company Facebook saw an opportunity to offer free data to Filipinos when they use Facebook and related apps.
While no one ever rejects anything that is free, it is important to realise that Facebook Free is not something that is used in countries with first world mobile data infrastructure because it simply wouldn’t make a great deal of economic sense. In countries with first world mobile data infrastructure, mobile data is fast, plentiful in terms of coverage and comparatively inexpensive for the ordinary consumer. As such, Facebook Free in such an environment would have a less noticeable impact on consumer habits and would bring less added value to Facebook’s coffers. Clearly, the reason Facebook Free was invented was because the company wanted individuals in countries like The Philippines to become Facebook addicts rather than grow to use alternative services whether they be American social media platforms like Twitter or Chinese platforms like Weibo. As such, Facebook is now a prime platform for advertising in The Philippines.
Facebook’s plan worked and now Filipinos are hooked on Facebook. That would be fine if Facebook was not a politicised company but as Donald Trump himself has quite specifically alluded to, most of the US social media giants are aligned with certain political causes. In The Philippines big US tech companies are almost entirely aligned with political causes that are uniformly anti-Duterte. Thus, the argument that Facebook helped Duterte win the last presidential election is a logical fallacy because when he campaigned in the summer of 2016, Facebook tended to only censor pornography, pro-terrorism content or supremely violent content. As such, for the ultra-vast majority of Filipinos and others, Facebook was a neutral platform where all sides got to have their say.
Since Donald Trump’s election and the subsequent decline of the post-Cold War domestic political consensus in the United States, Facebook has become notorious for censoring perfectly non-violent political content throughout its global platform. In this sense, the censorship of pro-Duterte content creators like Sass Rogando Sasot or Mark Lopez is not unique to The Philippines, but the supremely negative consequences of this censorship are particularly bad in The Philippines.
What is unique to The Philippines is a defeatist attitude among the public which has determined that Facebook Free is as good as it gets. The alternative attitude would be one that pushes for more FDI and de-regulation of telecom in the country so that The Philippines can become more like Singapore where mobile data is fast, plentiful and affordable. Under Singapore style conditions, Facebook would not be able to maintain the near monopoly it has over social media in The Philippines because there would be no staggering economic incentive for Filipinos to use Facebook over its competitors.
Thus, one sees that in the culture of handouts, those who give put themselves in a powerful position to later take away. By contrast, in a truly fair and open market environment, consumers and companies are not beholden to one another in the way that they become in a market based on patronage rather than economic freedom. In many additional areas, one can see how the culture of patronage has destroyed the ability of The Philippines to embrace international best practices in multiple sectors of society.
Facebook therefore has Filipinos by the balls (apologies to Mr. Paredes) because now Facebook’s politicised management can censor all the content they wish and due to Filipinos being forced to use inferior mobile data networks, it is less easy and less cost effective to shift to different social media platforms in order to distribute original content.