[OPINION] Are we being trolled?

I wish to scrutinize the hot topic on ABS-CBN through psychology and behavioral science. And I am landing on an angle that pivots towards one question: are we being trolled?

The usual tick boxes have been checked, and so for me, are not particularly convincing or engaging to write about. Press freedom and job loss dominate our narrative, but this story is old news. The country has systemically silenced journalists and the media. (READ: TIMELINE: Duterte against ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal)

Reporters Without Borders, an international watchdog, ranked the country at 136 of 180 in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, a few notches above Colombia and the Central African Republic but only slightly better, if we can call it that, than South Sudan and Myanmar. Misery really does love miserable company.

The Melo Commission, an investigating group set-up by then-President Arroyo and headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo, concluded that the “killings of activists and media personnel is pursuant to an orchestrated plan by a group or sector with an interest in eliminating the victims, invariably activists and media personnel.”

That report was in 2007. We do not need a monitoring and evaluation plan to know how the country has been doing since then.

And on the job front, the progress is less convincing. The hampered talents and resourcefulness of Filipinos could thrive were it not for inequitable pay, medico-moral health care, and tenuous job security. After January of this year, nearly 5 million lost their jobs, in keeping with the estimate of the Department of Labor and Employment.

This forecasting talent is not comforting. Before the pandemic, the country was only marginally able to shore up safety nets for people without work, even if temporary. The shock of 5 million — and in a May Senate hearing, possibly up to 10 million, according to Labor Secretary Bello — will be a test not for the government but for how far Filipinos will tolerate that mediocrity.

Our institutional problems with freedom of information and with job security predate the current characters, and caricatures, in Congress.

And so, I wonder if it might be a kind of trolling.

We credit trolling with maximum attention as a recent phenomenon in the internet age. But it is the same noxious and grim emperor in new clothes. It is bad behavior motivated by making others feel bad. They understand that others have feelings and how emotions work, but they do not care when they themselves inflict that pain. Research suggest trolls are narcissistic, sadistic, and psychopathic. Trolling, online or offline, provokes so that we can overreact. 

And it is very effective.

We are first baited. Our attention is diverted, promising us something salacious and demanding our affection.

On February 24th, Congress tackles the question on the network’s franchise. Our elected officials decide to do some work. And not just any work, but with flourish and urgency, magnifying a sense of political and civic solidarity, even though the network had requested these discussions on their renewal as early as 2014. Carlo Katigbak, the network president and chief executive, is then made to apologize for hurting a man’s feelings.

Now that’s drama.

The bait worked to full effect. #ABSCBNfranchise was a top trending topic on Twitter that day. The network executive and, apparently, his wife were also top search queries on Google.

The next day, on the 25th, a Filipino man would land after visiting Japan. He would later test positive for the virus, after about a month of the Department of Health (DOH) reporting no new cases.

In the weeks following the apology, which included an explanation of a delayed sizable reimbursement — imagine, owed money dragging its heels in this country — our emotions were ammunition in a congressional version of he said, she said.

That the May hearings started in a committee on good governance and public accountability is palpably ironic. It was fodder for the incisive tongues of late-night talk shows a la Jon Stewart or Hasan Minhaj — you know, if we had something like that.

Our codependency with hacienda families and their conglomerates, our unease with dual citizens and foreign-ness, our reliance on project-based or contractual arrangements, our demand to know who pays which taxes, our confused desire for unbiased and moral programming while cheering on the teleserye heroines who reek of female stereotype — these questions were not pointed at ABS-CBN. They were psychological projections of our national ambivalence. (READ: Cayetano on ABS-CBN: 'Reclaiming patrimony from oligarchs')

In a saturated media space competing for admiration and ridicule, the diversion worked. It did not matter that the Bureau of Internal Revenue affirmed the tax payment of the network. It did not matter that the Securities and Exchange Commission determined the Philippine Depository Receipts were legal. It did not matter that the Department of Labor and Employment found the network compliant.

These did not matter, because in trolling the truth does not matter. Our reactions are magnified and persistent but made to feel doubtful and vulnerable.

And like most trolling, the big reveal is not big at all. On July 10th, the network was denied their renewal application.

The decision was hardly surprising, because like many teleseryes with the stereotypical heroine, we knew how the series would end even before the first episode. The decision of Congress was a dud. The 5-month mutual escalation was for nothing.

The next day, on the 11th, the DOH would report nearly 1,400 new cases. The Social Weather Station would announce that 75% of Filipinos believe the network should be granted anew their franchise. And yet another ridiculous scandal on pseudo-celebrities would trend on social media.

It’s maddening, and that’s trolling.

Dr. Ronald Del Castillo is a consultant on social and behavior change communication. He was professor of psychology, public health, and social policy at the University of the Philippines. The views here are his own.