ANALYSIS | Blogs, Facebook, Twitter fall within Comelec purview

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(Tony Ahn is chief digital architect for Tony Ahn & Co., a full-service public relations, digital marketing, and reputation management agency based in Manila. He has written on the subject of Internet marketing and digital public relations for Social Media Examiner, Convince & Convert, and is formerly a featured blogger for Social Media Today.)

Comelec has classified all individuals who create online content for blogs, Facebook, and Twitter as “media practitioners” subject to its jurisdiction, even if they are not employed by media organizations, according to Resolution 9615 which set the rules and guidelines for all campaign propaganda including blog posts and Internet advertisements.

The rules consider anything “not falling within the scope of personal opinion, that appear[s] on any Internet website, including, but not limited to, social networks, blogging sites, and micro-blogging sites (such as Twitter), in return for consideration, or otherwise capable of pecuniary estimation” to be political advertising.

This could have wide-ranging impact in the blogging community for bloggers who sell advertising and/or editorial space in their blogs.

Some bloggers are paid for writing blog posts, such as those connected with Nuffnang, which runs the largest blog advertising service in Asia Pacific. Abe Olandres, Country Director for Nuffnang Philippines, weighed in on Comelec’s new rules: “For the most part, the policy looks pretty clear cut and fair,” he said via a Facebook message. “As for the paid blog posts, it would be hard to show evidence if indeed a blogger has been paid or compensated for writing or promoting a candidate.”

Further, if personal opinion is exempted from regulation, but payment for promotion constitutes “political advertising,” this begs the question “What if a blogger is being paid to express a personal opinion?”

The rules state that “Personal opinions, views, and preferences for candidates, contained in blogs shall not be considered acts of election campaigning or partisan political activity unless expressed by government officials,”  which leaves the door open for bloggers to be paid to express personal opinions in favor of the politicians who pay them.

With some of the more popular Filipino blogs receiving over 100,000 page views a month, a blog can go a long way toward shaping public opinion, and the 2010 election demonstrated that the Internet is now a major campaign venue.

Comelec’s rules may also affect celebrities that endorse political candidates via Twitter, and the agencies that handle booking those celebrities, like micro-endorsement platform Adinfluent.

“I applaud Comelec’s requirements for greater transparency from the online community,” said KC Montero, noted local TV personality and owner of Adinfluent, “but the new disclosure requirements themselves are longer than a 140 character tweet. I think additional guidelines for Twitter may be warranted.”

The new rules also specify that candidates have the right to reply to charges published against them, but state that “The reply shall be given publicity by the newspaper, television, and/or radio station which first printed or aired the charges,” with no mention of digital media such as blogs or social networking sites.

Inconsistencies

Resolution 9615 defines such digital media concepts as personal blogs, “collective blogs” (blogs contributed to by multiple people), and “micro-blogs” (platforms such as Twitter), but never invokes those terms again outside the definitions section of the document.

The rules specifically mention television, radio, and print throughout the document, but are silent on digital media in such critical sections as Lawful Election Propaganda and Prohibited Forms of Election Propaganda.

Section 16 (Regulation of Election Propaganda through Mass Media) clearly mandates Comelec to “supervise the use and employment of press, radio and television facilities insofar as the placement of political advertisements is concerned to ensure that candidates are given equal opportunities under equal circumstances to make known their qualifications and their stand on public issues,” but omits digital media from the mandate, meaning the use and employment of digital media isn’t supervised by any government agency during the election.

Further, omission of digital media from Section 23 (Removal, Confiscation, or Destruction of Prohibited Propaganda Materials) means Comelec is empowered to stop prohibited forms of election propaganda that appear on TV, radio, or in print, but not online, nor is there a mechanism for anyone to file a petition with Comelec to remove or stop the online distribution of any propaganda materials on the grounds that they are libellous, illegal, or prohibited.

In fact, Comelec’s rules don’t seem to take into account several scenarios. Advertising on foreign-based sites such as Facebook, which are unable (under their current configurations) to comply with the rules, will be extremely difficult to regulate, and impossible to track.

In addition, websites who display ads served by ad networks may face difficulty, as ad networks serve Internet advertisements to hundreds of websites that display their ads for a fee. This will require political advertisers to limit the frequency with which an ad appears.

“The idea of frequency capping is nothing new,” said Samir Ahmed, Sales Director and local Country Lead for multinational ad network Komli in an interview via Facebook, “and in fact it’s a best practice not often followed. I think the decision to frequency cap political ads is a smart move, and is definitely something ad networks can accommodate.”

It will be important for ad networks to advise advertisers of the new rules, as an ad network serving a political advertisement more than three days per week to a partner website may inadvertently land the site owner in hot water with Comelec.

Penalties

Violation of Resolution 9615 is serious business: according to Section 35, it is punishable under the Omnibus Election Code, with any person found guilty facing “imprisonment of not less than one year but not more than six years,” without probation.

In the United States, paid political advertisements are subject to campaign spending limits and other restrictions on candidates. In addition, paid political advertisements are required to carry disclaimers much like those required in the Philippines by Comelec, informing readers that ads were funded by a party or candidate.

However bloggers who are paid by a candidate, party, or political action committee to promote a candidate in non-advertisement form (such as a blog article) are not required to disclose this fact themselves, although the paying candidate or party is required to disclose who they pay via campaign finance documents available to the public. These documents are closely inspected by a candidate’s opposition, and US. bloggers who accept compensation for promoting a candidate can expect that fact to come to light, either through the press or through the opposition.

Blogger Juned Sonido, who writes Baratillo Pamphlet at baratillo.net, agreed with the spirit of Comelec’s new rules for bloggers. “It seems to me writing commentary about a candidate per se is not a problem. It is when the blogger gets paid for the post that then they have to say it is a paid post or an advertorial. Personally that is fine with me, primarily because I believe in transparency.”

“Resolution 9615 is not perfect,” said Jayvee Fernandez, who has been blogging since 2003, and “problogging” or making money from his blog www.abuggedlife.com since 2005, “but strict rules in this case are better than none at all. Ultimately there needs to be a better dialogue in crafting such guidelines.”

What do you think?

 

 

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