The clapback that launched a thousand Tweets: Analyzing online Filipinos’ reactions to February 27’s CNN Philippines Presidential Debate

We answer: How was the absent candidate made present? How did a candidate come from behind to headline the debate? But more importantly, what do these mean about where the online Filipino public stands?

October 27, 2022


The clapback that launched a thousand Tweets: Analyzing online Filipinos’ reactions to February 27’s CNN Philippines Presidential Debate

“Akala ko wala si Marcos, andito pala (I thought Marcos wasn’t present, but it turns out that he’s here),” says presidential candidate and Partido Lakas ng Masa standard bearer Ka Leody De Guzman at CNN Philippines’ February 27 Presidential Debate. De Guzman’s retort likens fellow presidential bet Dr. Jose Montemayor Jr.’s anti-labor statements to the Marcos family’s belittling of workers.

De Guzman’s statement rings truer and truer as the evening of the debate deepens. Fellow candidate former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is absent on stage, but throughout the debate and in ensuing online discussions, Marcos Jr.’s name gets more airtime than some of the candidates who stood at their podiums for three and a half hours.

The statement also represents another thing: the most prominent soundbite from the debate. The labor leader, who was initially dismissed as a nuisance and had to fight to be invited to presidential debates, ended up earning the most mentions on Twitter, a top engagement-generating headline, the kudos and ire of many debate viewers.

Analyzing data from Twitter, Facebook, and media, Syn & Strat sought to understand audience reactions during the night of the debate, from the beginning of the debate to immediately after, just before the clock struck midnight. We answer: How was the absent candidate made present? How did a candidate come from behind to headline the debate? But more importantly, what do these mean about where the online Filipino public stands?

What did the general public engage with in the debate?

We used Facebook and media to understand what the general Filipino public engaged with and talked about.

For starters, personality-centric controversies drove interest.

To get a quick view of what piqued debate viewers’ interests, we took a look at Google Trends, a free tool that shows trends in users’ Google search behavior. We looked at the Philippine trends for every candidate:

Google Trends for the Philippines on February 27, 4:00 PM to 11:59 PM

Aside from De Guzman and Montemayor, also present at the event are former Department of Foreign Affairs Undersecretary and former Duterte Spokesperson Ernesto Abella, Vice President Leni Robredo, Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, Senator Manny Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso, former Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales, and businessman Faisal Mangondato.

Generally, spikes in the search trends for their names correspond with moments they were speaking. But in this graph, we see that there was one point where Google searches for Domagoso was an outlier. This was due to his exchange with Montemayor, where the latter asked the mayor if part of his unused campaign funds was Bill Gates’ alleged 15 million-dollar donation. (Like many, we in Syn & Strat also did end up Googling “isko moreno bill gates 15 million dollars.”)

Google searches for Montemayor also spiked at several points of the debate, all coinciding with his impassioned interjections: (1) a question posted to De Guzman about if his proposed increase in minimum wage was to the detriment of employers, (2) his announcement that he is against mandatory vaccination, (3) his claim that some workers are corrupt, and (4) his lamenting that this debate did not allow opportunities for candidates to challenge each other.

Interest in issues would peak during its debate segment and then promptly drop after the moment had passed.

Among other things, the debate tackled minimum wage, post-pandemic economic recovery, marriage equality, and excess campaign funds. We saw that Bill Gates-gate still intrigued the most online Filipinos and, relatively, minimum wage did not inspire as many Google searches.

However, for all these issues, even the important ones that impact Filipinos’ day-to-day lives, Google search interest in these topics quickly dropped after the debate segment on that topic finished. Interest is short-lived and in-debate discussion so far did not create lasting impact on a particular issue.

The online Filipino public spread stories whose headlines featured Robredo, Domagoso, Marcos, and Pacquiao the most.

Syn & Strat looked at five media stories that had the most Facebook shares on February 27 to get a sense of what online Filipinos wanted to spread after the event.

Why do we look at Shares?

When it comes to studying resonant media stories, we like to use the number of shares as a gauge of interest and engagement, because it indicates a deeper investment relative to merely leaving a Reaction, and signals a person’s endorsement of a message or desire to spread a message to their personal network.

The five stories were:

Most presidential bets agree debates important, Leody asks why Marcos skipped
  • Media: GMA News
  • Shares: 331
  • Shares were from: Mostly from Facebook users sharing it from the GMA News Facebook Page
Should excess donations be returned? Isko lone bet to say no
  • Media: GMA News
  • Shares: 185
  • Shares were from: Mostly from Facebook users sharing it from the GMA News Facebook Page
Isko denies receiving $15-M from Bill Gates
  • Media: ABS CBN News
  • Shares: 140
  • Shares were from: Mostly from Facebook users sharing it from the ABS-CBN News Network Facebook Page
Leni: Fake news-fueled threat of corrupt politics spurred presidential run
  • Media: GMA News
  • Shares: 133
  • Shares were from: Mostly from Facebook users sharing it from the GMA News Facebook Page, but also from Facebook users sharing it to supporter groups, askeing for help in combating the negative comments
HINAMON? Manny Pacquiao hiniling na dumalo si BBM sa susunod na debate “Para naman hindi mapahiya ang mga supporters niya!”
  • Media: Global Balita
  • Shares: 88
  • Shares were from: From a network of supporter Facebook Pages and Groups for political figures mostly aligned with the administration; blog itself does not have a Facebook Page counterpart

Because these stories seemed to resonate with Filipino Facebook users, we took a closer look at the narratives these stories spurred. While we have article-specific insights gleaned from the 1000+ to 5000+ data points to look at for each of the first four stories, these are some of our key insights from our sentiment and discourse analysis:

1. Marcos Jr. and his supporters were omnipresent in the discourse.

Only Marcos Jr.’s supporters were present in the comments of the four articles we looked at, even if the story was not necessarily about him. For the first article where Marcos Jr.’s absence was criticized, his Facebook supporters defended Marcos Jr. and boasted of understanding his platform because he speaks directly to them (at sorties, and not at debates). They believe that even if Marcos Jr. does not attend debates, he will win the elections due to his massive popularity. Drawn to ideas like unity and peace, these supporters also take pride in how Marcos Jr. did not bad-mouth presidential candidates who skipped the SMNI’s February 15 presidential debate (unlike the candidates who were at the CNN PH debate, who bad-mouthed Marcos Jr.). In fact, this SMNI debate was referenced at least 437 times in 5,000 comments.

2. Supporters leveraged Domagoso’s forthcoming attitude and legal provisions in defending him in his issue of keeping unused campaign funds.

Word cloud of the Top 50 words most frequently used in the comments section of GMA News’ Facebook post about “​​Should excess donations be returned? Isko lone bet to say no”

Taking two out of five spots in this list, this topic was particularly interesting to online Filipinos. During the debate, Domagoso brought a copy of the tax form that proved that he paid income tax for the unused campaign funds.

While Domagoso is criticized for keeping these unused funds, his supporters called him “honest” because he admitted that he kept funds, preferring this to the usual trapo tactic of keeping any controversial action hidden from public view. This parallels rhetoric we’ve seen from supporters of other politicians, who say that we should expect corruption from politicians but it’s preferable for politicians to be explicitly or “honestly” corrupt rather than clandestinely corrupt.

Those who defended Domagoso also resorted to legal rationale, saying that there is no law against keeping unused campaign donations, and that Domagoso abided by the law by filing the corresponding income tax. While what’s right and wrong is contested in this issue, what’s clear is the online Filipinos engaged in this discourse look for legal basis to justify their opinions.

3. Even rational people can be convinced by sophisticated fake news.

Interestingly, there was a minor, but visible, segment of the online Filipino audience that insisted that American billionaire and Microsoft founder Bill Gates did factually donate 15 million dollars to Domagoso’s campaign, citing a video circulating in social media in which the mayor thanked Gates for the donation. This video was referenced around 50+ times in 2300 comments. The clip they’re citing is actually a video from 2020 where Domagoso thanked Gates for his donation to the City of Manila, in the amount of 16 million pesos (USD 319,000). This clip has been made to resurface in this campaign season, taken out of context to look like a recent donation directly to Domagoso’s 2022 presidential campaign.

These comments were not from die-hard Domagoso detractors. These comments come from a place of reason. These commenters argue that they had done their research, evaluated the evidence (which is a real, believable video that does show Domagoso thanking Gates), and decided that this is the most reasonable thing to believe.

Political campaign operators should be wary. An undecided voter’s desire to be objective and balanced can be used against them, with spliced clips and other manipulated videos becoming more and more common and compelling, even for the most rational of us.

4. Despite running independent for this electoral campaign, Robredo can’t escape association with the political baggage of the Aquinos and the Liberal Party.

This is an obvious point—we’ve seen it all throughout Robredo’s term as vice president. But it also means that her actions as vice president, her own track record, is not enough to counter the strong narrative that the Marcos camp has spent years building: that Liberal Party-affiliated politicians ruined the alleged utopia that the dictator Marcos Sr. developed.

In the single headline in which she features, Robredo is quoted as criticizing corruption and coordinated attempts at disinformation, provoking a hostile response from supporters of her opposing candidate. Comments from Marcos supporters have Robredo bearing the brunt of the faults and failures of post-EDSA administrations—an issue with a long history that one six-year term’s track record may not outweigh, to a loyalist.

On Twitter, explosive debate moments drove discussions about candidates.

With reportedly over 80 million Facebook users in the Philippines, the sentiments we gathered above are reflective of the opinions of a general public. To analyze sentiment and discourse on Twitter, however, we have to remember that the platform’s user base tends to be more politically aware, engaged, and liberal.

Syn & Strat collected 19,893 Tweets about the debate from February 27, 5:00 PM, the beginning of the debate proper, to 11:45 PM, just before the day ended, to get audience reactions.

Among the candidates, De Guzman (19,889 mentions) and Montemayor (12,992 mentions) received the most Twitter mentions from February 27, 5:00 PM to 11:45 PM. This is mostly buoyed by the exchanges they had, in particular the one in which De Guzman likened Montemayor to Marcos, which offered the debate one of its few moments of drama. In fact, Twitter activity seemed to peak at around that point of the debate, with Filipino users tweeting and retweeting Tweets like:

De Guzman’s leading the Twitter mention count may also be due to how a large segment of Filipino Twitter, populated by a user base of mostly politically engaged Filipinos, is at most aligned with De Guzman or at least critical of Montemayor.

Map of word associations for #CNNPHPresidentialDebate, generated with our dataset of Tweets from February 27

Montemayor, who received no votes from respondents of Pulse Asia’s January survey, seemed to be a new face to many debate viewers on Twitter. Carrying himself with a certain demagoguery, he peppered the debate with bizarre claims and anti-labor statements, which courted commentary and rebuttals on Twitter. Tweets about him most frequently used terms like: “Leody,” “Marcos,” and “burn” (as in, “ice for that burn”), showing that, for Filipino Twitter, De Guzman emerged as the winner in their scuffle. 

Absentee Marcos Jr. managed to take third place in terms of mentions (11,051 mentions), due: (1) to De Guzman’s own debate-defining clapback that features the dictator’s last name, (2) to Twitter users’ rightful criticism of Marcos Jr.’s absence and of the Marcos family in general, and (3) in very small part to his own supporters joining the Twitter discussions. People who Tweeted his name often tweeted it alongside at least one of the following: “nasan,” “absent,” “wala,” “#MarcosLagingAbsent.”

For candidates with a middling tally of mentions, Tweets about them were not necessarily about particular moments, but about character.

Trailing the three big gainers are, in descending order: Robredo, Lacson, Domagoso, and Pacquiao, who each get between 2,100 to 1,300 mentions using our tallying methodology.

Terms associated with Robredo were not tied to particular explosive moments during the debate, but were more about her character and platforms: “idealistic,” “knowhow,” “mainstream,” “valedictorian,” and “transparency.” Some prominent Tweets about her also referred humorously to the speed at which Robredo had to speak to meet the 90-second constraint:

Frequent word associations for Lacson were: “corruption,” “balanced,” and “sanay”; for Domagoso: “prince,” “pretender,” “hunyango (chameleon)”; for Pacquiao: “religion” and “palaabsent.”

Abella, Mangondato, and Gonzales—all of whom did not get much airtime during the debate—each received less than 650 mentions. Their respective datasets generated pretty small word pair maps. For Abella, frequent concurrently used words are: “eksperiensado,” “sincere,” and “trust”; for Mangondato: “sino,” “pilit,” and “sabog,” and for Gonzales: “behave” and “silent.”

Filipino Twitter is already a subset of online Filipinos, but as a social media firm, Syn & Strat can dive deeper, to look at communities within Twitter.

Which communities engaged with the debate?

Through our tools and methodologies Syn & Strat is able to constellate these disparate conversations to map out the network of communities engaging with a topic. We do this through network analysis.

What is network analysis?

In social media research, network analysis is the study of relationships and their structure. Through network analysis, we learn about specific communities that exist in a bigger network of users, learn who the influencers are in those communities, and find the common characteristics or behaviors among users in the same community.

This is the network map of Twitter users who engaged with the debate during the event itself until three hours after it ended. The circles and squares in this graph—which we’ll call nodes—represent each of these users.

When nodes are the same color and shape (ex. pink circles, dark red squares), this means that they belong to the same community. Communities are users with similar characteristics. These may be behaviors on social media, political leanings, interest groups, and other criteria. ‍The gray lines represent interactions. A line between two nodes represents a retweet, reply, or mention connecting the two users.

A close-up of the network map. Majority of the influencers in the network were Pro-Robredo.

The size of the node represents the user’s influence. The larger the node, the more influential the user is in the network. In the case of our network map for the debate, we only classified the top 150 influencers in the network. The rest of the users are uncategorized and are represented by gray circles.

What is influence

While most social media analytics firms measure influence based on the number of followers or engagements, Syn & Strat goes deeper. In this case, we define influence by the user’s ability to reach a broad audience, their Tweets reaching the most number of unique Twitter communities. This means that the influential users’ messages spread to the most diverse types of users, and likely reached beyond their engaged audience. In network analysis, the larger the size of the node on the network map, the bigger the influence of that user.

Communities of influencers that we found active in discussions surrounding the debate are:

With 67% of influencers, the Pro-Robredo community appeared to be the largest and had the highest number of influencers. The Opposition Supporters was the second largest group, at 12%. This was followed by the Pro-De Guzman community, which had 7% of influencers.

We found that members from these three communities often interacted with each other during the event. Even influencers with unknown political leanings had the most interactions with influencers from the Pro-Robredo cluster and the Opposition Supporters cluster.

It was the Pro-Marcos community that did not interact much with the other communities in the map, except for their primary influencer, who responded to a pro-Robredo account and tagged Robredo.

Robredo’s Twitter account is represented by the pink triangle. As seen on this close up of the network map, the primary influencer of the Pro-Marcos community tagged her account in a post.

Regardless of their political affiliation, influencers in these communities most commonly engaged with Tweets about De Guzman.

Despite the Pro-Robredo community being the most influential, their Twitter activity focused more on positive sentiments about De Guzman than on content about their chosen candidate. Their second most-mentioned keyword was “Montemayor” and their third most-mentioned keyword was “Marcos.” Robredo’s name did not make it among the top ten keywords they used during the debate.

For Pro-De Guzman and other Opposition Supporters, De Guzman, Montemayor, and Marcos were also the top three most mentioned keywords. For the Pro-De Guzman group, the word “manggagawa” was also among the top ten.

For the Pro-Marcos community, the most mentioned personality was also De Guzman. However, “SMNI” was the most mentioned keyword.

Regardless of political affiliation, most Twitter users engaged with and Tweeted about De Guzman’s performance during the debate. Most of the mentions of Montemayor and Marcos were also made in reference to him, spurred by that headlining moment: “Akala ko wala si Marcos, andito pala.”

What does all of this mean?

Clapback is king.

In this three-hour debate, De Guzman surfaced as the candidate to remember and the candidate to talk about because of a moment. A candidate’s ability to distill their convictions in one punchy soundbite will not only attract a lot of attention and chatter, but may also broaden their base of visible support, by getting other candidates’ supporters to agree with them.

But then again, so is personality.

The impact of the debate on online Filipinos’ engagement with political and social issues was, unfortunately, negligible in the three hours after the debate ended, let alone the next day. Our online electoral discourses seem to still largely be at the level of personality politics, with personality-centric controversies as the highlights and takeaways of this debate. Issues took center stage only during some moments.

For those of us who want to push for issue-based elections, we have to wonder: How can we prolong interest in topics, issues, and platforms, so that our elections mature beyond reliance on personalities?

Find out how narratives and audiences emerge around important events. 

Syn & Strat has worked with brands, advocacy groups, and national and regional election campaigns to keep them informed about the conversations and communities that are relevant to them. We can help you learn how your audience thinks about emerging crises and events that affect you. Let’s chat:

Schedule a free consultation

Get in touch