The coronavirus surge driven by the Omicron variant has put campaign sorties on hold and made fundraising efforts more difficult for some senatorial aspirants.
Locked up inside their homes, Senate bets have been forced to shift their election activities online as they prepare for the start of the official campaign period on 8 February.
“It’s been very difficult since all face-to-face political rallies stopped after Christmas and New Year,” said Harry Roque, who is seeking a Senate seat under the BBM-Sara slate. “Now, we are heavily relying on the Internet.”
The spike in Covid-19 cases in early January meant a suspension of Roque’s scheduled visit to the provinces like vote-rich Cebu.
At present, he has been conducting all of his meetings with his campaign staff virtually, a situation which was once unthinkable for Philippine politics.
The senatorial aspirant admitted that he has been spending at least eight hours a day in front of his computer and phone to attend to his virtual events, including Zoom meetings with sectoral groups.
“This online setup is very difficult because it blurs the distinction between rest and work,” he told the Daily Tribune in a phone call.
The shift to digital campaign may have turned social media into the new battleground for the 2022 elections.
For one, in lieu of in-person events like caravans that have been postponed, Roque has been strengthening his Facebook and YouTube content where he discusses views on issues and his proposed measures.
He has also been posting “hugot” lines in his Facebook account, in an apparent effort to woo younger voters.
But even if he has millions of engagements with Facebook users online, the former Palace spokesperson raised doubts on whether his message has come across to sectors.
“I’m a public speaker and I prefer to be seen and heard by my audience,” Roque said.
Administration bet Salvador Panelo of the PDP Laban also noted that voters would likely pick a candidate who visited them personally during campaign period — a task more challenging amid the continuous increase in Covid-19 cases.
“They would want somebody who had an interaction with them, shook their hands and asked them how are they doing,” he said in a separate interview.
Other senatorial aspirants have recognized that while social media provides an avenue for them to engage with potential voters amid the pandemic, they remain bound with constraints.
Opposition candidate Chel Diokno, who has also been working with his staff to further increase his social media presence, pointed out that face-to-face interaction has a bigger impact than those done online.
“The two are really different and in-person campaigning is still better,” said Diokno, who has thousands of followers in his Facebook, YouTube and TikTok accounts.
Digital campaigning is also limited for voters with Internet access, said administration bet Greco Belgica, who is running for the Senate under the Pederalismo ng Dugong Dakilang Samahan.
“Many people still don’t have access to social media and these people are the ones who need to hear us more,” he told the Tribune in a separate interview.
“Only a few of our farmers, fisherfolk, and the poor in far-flung areas have Internet access so that’s why it’s really a challenge for us to reach them given the surge in (Covid-19) cases,” Belgica added.
For aspirants who cannot afford to pay to boost social media presence, mounting an online content that can attract engagement is also a challenge.
Facebook, for instance, requires users to pay before they can promote their pages and content.
“We’re not like other candidates who have well-funded online machinery with troll armies and can afford to boost content,” said Neri Colmenares of the Makabayan bloc. “Social media is not the great equalizer as they say.”
Alex Lacson, another opposition bet for the Senate, also lamented that “social media is very cluttered” which makes it more difficult for political newcomers like him to get noticed.
“I’m still catching up with Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok,” he admitted.
Raising campaign funds has also become more difficult amid the virus surge, they admitted.
“Before Omicron struck the country, I used to have lunch and dinner with potential donors for fundraising. But now, I can only spend my time on my phone calling people for financial support,” Roque said.
Diokno echoed this, saying: “Fundraising efforts have always been a challenge for progressive candidates like me. And it’s even more challenging since I’m only at home and I cannot go to face-to-face meetings.”
In the Philippines, television remains the top source of news, according to a September 2021 Pulse Asia survey.
Ninety-one percent of their respondents said they got their news on the traditional media platform.
It makes television the go-to medium of politicians seeking to reach out to the general public. TV advertisements, however, remain expensive.
On the other hand, 49 percent of respondents said radio was the source of their news, while 48 percent said they got it from the Internet.