No Vax, No Ride: Tracking audience communities, media narratives, and public sentiments surrounding controversial public policy

On January 12, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) announced a “no vax, no ride” policy in Metro Manila, mandating that only fully vaccinated individuals could ride public transportation while the region remains in Alert Level 3 or higher.

October 27, 2022


No Vax, No Ride: Tracking audience communities, media narratives, and public sentiments surrounding controversial public policy

On January 12, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) announced a “no vax, no ride” policy in Metro Manila, mandating that only fully vaccinated individuals could ride public transportation while the region remains in Alert Level 3 or higher.

This policy was one of the trending issues of that week. With discussions of this issue rampant on social media, Syn & Strat sought to understand if this issue was mainstream among social media users, how they reacted to the issue, which narratives were dominant, and who influenced those narratives.

What we found was that on Twitter, engagement was limited to politically active users who found the policy to be anti-poor and discriminatory. On Facebook, posts about the policy engaged a broader audience—showing yet again that typically politically unengaged social media users can engage with political issues if these discussions are packaged to be relatable.

Who engaged with the issue?

To learn who the engaged audience is, we looked at which social media accounts mentioned the issue and studied how segments of this audience behaved. This is where network analysis comes in. It shows us how each engaged account might be linked to each other and gives us a big picture view of the interactions among accounts who tweeted about “no vax, no ride”—an understanding of the “network” of an issue.

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.
The network analysis map of Twitter users who had tweeted, replied to, or retweeted posts mentioning “no vax, no ride”

The above network graph represents a network of 1,715 Twitter users who participated in discussions surrounding the “no vax, no ride” issue from January 12 to 17 on Twitter.

Here’s what the elements of this graph mean:

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.

Politically engaged users were the only active voices on Twitter

The most influential user in the whole network for this topic is Sen. Leila de Lima (@SenLeiladeLima). This doesn’t mean that she was the user with the most retweets, followers, or replies. It means that her Tweet about the policy served as a bridge between diverse sets of users whose only proximity to each other on this issue was common interactions with this particular tweet. This indicates to us that De Lima's tweet had high influence and was able to reach a broad audience outside of similar issues' typical audience The other influencers who served as bridges were the Twitter accounts of media outlets, journalists, activists, and writers.

This gets more apparent when you zoom into the map. @SenLeiladeLima is represented by the big blue circle in the middle of the map. The other small blue nodes are the users who retweeted or replied to her Tweet. 

Despite Tweeting about “No vax, no ride” on January 15, three days after the policy was announced, @SenLeiladeLima proved to be the most influential on the issue, because her Tweet was shared by users from different Twitter communities.

Despite Tweeting about “No vax, no ride” on January 15, three days after the policy was announced, @SenLeiladeLima proved to be the most influential on the issue, because her Tweet was shared by users from different Twitter communities.

The other large nodes encircled in cyan represent other influential users who retweeted or replied to de Lima’s Tweet. These other nodes have different colors and shapes—they belong to different communities. This means that her Tweet was shared by other influencers from different Twitter communities, and her Tweet on the issue was the one that spread to the most number of communities.

Some of the communities de Lima was able to bridge were:

  • Users who have indicators of being LGBTQIA+ in their profile. They typically state their gender identity, sexual orientation, or both on their profile descriptions, or use visuals such as the Pride flag or pink triangle. 
  • Users who are left-leaning advocates. They typically retweet content from left-leaning groups, and show support for presidential candidate Ka Leody de Guzman (who is an influencer in this user group) and/or senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares. 
  • Users who are in other parts of Southeast Asia, such as Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia. 

There were also other communities present in the graph that de Lima wasn’t able to bridge, including:

  • Pro-Marcos accounts. These accounts explicitly state in their Tweets and user descriptions that they are pro-Marcos. Their Tweets merely amplified news coverage of statements from DOTr Sec. Arthur Tugade and former senator and current presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos, who both supported the “no vax, no ride” policy. 
  • International left-leaning users. These are users that appear to Tweet a lot of international news relevant to labor and progressive policies. 

Although there are many more insights one can glean from this network, it’s clear that the primary insight here is that the Twitter users who Tweeted or Retweeted about “no vax, no ride” are already politically engaged.

There was a notable absence of Twitter users who do not engage with political content in the first place. From a sample of the Twitter users who participated in the discourse, we did not find anyone who did not already engage with Tweets on politics, governance, or current events. Meaning: On Twitter, discourse on this issue was limited to users who were already likely to discuss it. It hadn’t broken through the echo chamber of politically engaged users.

What were the dominant media narratives?

Studying 355 traditional and alternative media stories that were published between January 12 and 20 and generated 205,250+ engagements on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, Syn & Strat found that:

Unconstitutionality and concrete impact headlines fetched peak social media engagements

Engagements on January 17 were mostly generated by two stories by GMA Network:

Although the DOTr announced the policy on January 12, it wasn’t until January 17 that social media engagements peaked for stories about the issue. Usually what happens is that the more stories are published on an issue, the higher the engagements. But on January 17, the number of engagements was higher than usual for the number of stories published. This indicates that the stories published on this day—the story about the unconstitutionality of the policy and the story of the jeepney driver’s inability to work because he only had one dose of the vaccine at the time—resonated strongly with people.

Additionally, the decline in social media engagements on the story from January 18 to 20 might indicate that interest in news stories about “no vax, no ride” waned shortly after.

Statements from PNP, Bello, and Lacson appeared in headlines most frequently

While it makes sense that the DOTr was the most mentioned agency in the headlines (mentioned 73 times), other agencies such as the Philippine National Police (PNP) (12 times) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) (7 times) were also mentioned. The PNP was mentioned because of its announcement that commuters would not be arrested if they violate the policy, while the DOLE was in headlines because of the announcement that workers would not be included in the new policy.

DOLE Sec. Silvestre Bello III was the public figure that most appeared in the headlines (12 times), due to his clarification that workers would be exempted from the “no vax, no ride” policy, as well as his apology on the confusion on how the policy would be implemented. 

The second most mentioned public figure in the headlines was presidential aspirant Sen. Ping Lacson (11 times) and his running mate Sen. Tito Sotto (10 times), who both opposed the policy.

Media covered significant statements that supported Filipinos’ need to work and, by extension, the Philippines’ need for more humane COVID-19 prevention policies. This widespread coverage reflected the public’s concerns at the time: Even Filipinos who were not yet fully vaccinated desperately needed to work, and the “no vax, no ride” policy was a barrier to this. 

How did social media users react?

As one could tell from their own Facebook feed at the time, audience reaction was overwhelmingly negative. While we all know this intuitively, we can actually quantify that negative feedback—of the 33K Facebook Reactions we gathered, 74.3% were either “Haha” or “Angry” Reactions. Aside from these reactions, Syn & Strat also studied the themes in the discussions about this issue.

Facebook comments against the “no vax, no ride” policy focused on livelihood and inequality

Syn & Strat analyzed the comments sections of the three media stories that received the most comments to take a cursory look at how people on Facebook responded to the issue.

While majority of the commenters for the first two stories were against the policy, the third story attracted more commenters who were for the policy. 

For the first two stories that received the most comments, most comments were against the “no vax, no ride.” However, the third story, which features presidential candidate Ka Leody de Guzman, received many pro-”no vax, no ride” comments. The articles’ headlines and the angles influenced the ideas that were in the comments, which led to the stark contrast in the dominant audience sentiment between the first two articles and the third one.

For the first story (“No vax, no ride policy in NCR unconstitutional — PAO’s Acosta”), most people agreed with Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) Chief Persida Acosta’s assessment that the “no vax, no ride” policy is unconstitutional. Because the story referred to the policy’s lawfulness, it makes sense that the comments section reflect that, with “batas,” “karapatan,” and “rights” being among the most common words used in comments against the policy.

This also shows us that, in this particular case, Filipinos have a strong sense of what is their right, contrary to the popular misconception that Filipinos generally have no appreciation for rights. Additionally, we also see that Filipinos put an emphasis on lawfulness, using legal arguments (rather than purely emotive arguments) to argue against this policy.

The second story (“Jeepney driver na naka-isang bakuna pa lang, nasampolan sa no vax, no ride policy”) took a more personal angle and used more emotive language. Majority of its comments were against “no vax, no ride,” and words like “kawawa” (and variations like “di na kayo naawa”) and “grabe” were often present.

The primary narrative among commenters who were critical of “no vax, no ride” was that the jeepney driver and workers like him need to work, otherwise they and their families will go hungry. This was usually phrased through the statement: “Naghahanap buhay yung tao.”

Commenters also pointed out how unfair enforcement of policies disproportionately hurt the poor.

  • “Anti poor Naman talaga yang policy na Yan . Palibhasa Ang mga mayayaman may sariling sasakyan Hindi na sasakay sa pampublikong sasakyan….”
  • “Hindi lahat NG Tao pwde mgpa vaccine..ska pinapatupad nyo Lang namn yang batas nyo saming mahihirap....bakit may inaresto na ba kayong mayaman”

For both articles, those who were against “no vax, no ride” seemed to have similar attitudes and perceptions:

  • When it comes to seeking accountability or pointing the blame, commenters referred to “gobyerno” without specifying agencies or people.
  • Many of those who expressed that they were against the measure also had anti-vaccination or COVID-denier views. Although they weren’t the majority, commenters like these were present across all three stories. Some examples:
“tama un attorney ..wag nyo payagan ang ganyan kase ung mga vaccinated tinatamaan din ng mga pekeng covid na yan..tas ssabihin nila ganyan..”

“ilan kakilala q dn na Rip dhil dyn s bakulam n yan.. sasabhin ng iba sakit dw kinamatay ksi sbi ng dr. Ni hnd man lng nila naisp ang posibilidad n ikinimamaty ay dhil s vaccine..”

“Mga ganian balita updated kayu pero sa mga side effects at namamatay dhil s Vaccine hindi nyo binabalita 🙄🙄”
  • There were also some calls for human rights groups and activists to act on the issue, but these were sarcastic. For example:
“Bat ang tahimik ng Human rights ngayon…”

“Human Rights where are you now??? Ngayon kayo mag ingay!!!!!!!”

“Nasaan na ang mga human rights na magagaling”

The story that received the third-highest number of ocmments (“Ka Leody: ‘No vax, no ride’ policy violates people’s rights, calls for intensive vaccination drive”) generated comments that were different from the first two stories in two ways: (1) there were more commenters in support of “no vax, no ride,” and most of the comments (42%) were ambiguous in their attitudes towards the policy. These ambiguous comments did not explicitly state a stance. Instead, these ambiguous comments were personal attacks on de Guzman.

The personal attacks often referred to de Guzman’s leftist leanings, his physical appearance, or his unpopularity relative to other candidates. These comments had no clear indication whether the person commenting was for or against the policy. Some examples:

  • “Sino ba ‘to?”
  • “Kumunista”
  • “Muka kang manginginom. Hahahaha”

Commenters who supported the “no vax, no ride” policy—for all three stories—also used words like “karapatan” and “rights,” but their framing was that the rights, health, and safety of the majority must be protected. In the story featuring de Guzman, many of those who were pro-“no vax, no ride” included personal attacks on de Guzman while expressing their support of the policy.

Other narratives among users supporting “no vax, no ride” were that people should just obey the government and that vaccines are free and readily available, so people have no excuse for not getting vaccinated.

Twitter discussions centered on the policy’s being “anti-poor” and “discriminating”

Looking at unique Tweets about this issue, we found that discussions centered around the vaccine being “anti-poor,” “limiting mobility,” or being a form of “discrimination.” Users defending the policy, however, said that the policy is not anti-poor because vaccination is free. However, these were in the minority.

Contrasting with the Facebook comments sections, Twitter discussions did not have as many direct references to the policy getting in the way of workers’ ability to make a living, suggesting that discussions on Twitter were a little more “advanced” in human rights discourse, no longer relying on gut issues or relatable human interest anecdotes as an entrypoint. However, like we found in our network analysis, Twitter discourse only reached people who were already politically engaged.

Key Takeaways

What seems to trend on Filipino Twitter is actually just a snapshot of a small politically engaged community.

We may be tempted to think that the level of political discourse on Filipino Twitter signals the end of political apathy—but this may still be wishful thinking at this point. In our network analysis, we saw that the Twitter users who discussed this issue were already politically engaged prior to this controversy.

Plus, we saw that there was a stark difference in the discussions Twitter users and Facebook users had about this same issue. Users on both platforms were generally against the policy, but Facebook users mostly used concrete impact, the need for livelihood, as a rallying point, while Twitter users were relatively more comfortable talking about abstract rationales, like the right to movement and the social implications of policies like this, in arguing against “no vax, no ride.”

In the Philippines and in many parts around the world, politically engaged people are overrepresented on Twitter, which should be accounted for in any social media analysis.

If we want to influence opinion, politically engaged people should use human interest stories to connect with a broader politically unengaged audience.

Although there was general awareness that the policy was unfair, it was the story about the jeepney driver that seemed to arouse strong emotions. People empathized with workers who were affected by this policy, and pointed out how policies like these disproportionally affect people based on class.

This suggests that personal stories are a way for politically engaged people to connect with a broader politically unengaged audience to deepen their political engagement. We’ve also seen this insight emerge in other policy and human rights issues we’ve previously researched. Make political issues relatable, concrete, and everyday—then you can resonate beyond a politically engaged echo chamber.

The messenger matters and may distract from the message.

Polarizing figures bring out negative sentiment more strongly, even if these sentiments are not relevant to the issue.

Syn & Strat’s previous research shows that Facebook comments on a post tend to be negative even when post reactions are positive, suggesting that comments sections tend to be where Facebook users express negative sentiment. This is seen very clearly in the story featuring Ka Leody, where most of the comments were merely personal attacks and did not address “no vax, no ride.” Additionally, unlike what we saw on Twitter and the other two Facebook posts, commenters in support of the policy were more common in the story featuring de Guzman. This suggests that the story featuring his commentary on the issue disproportionately attracted those who are against him and what he stands for in general. 

Comments sections like these, although rich in data, are not representative of the overall sentiments of social media users. This is why, in practice, we at Syn & Strat tend to look at several posts across different pages, publications, and platforms to get a more accurate understanding of where people stand on an issue. Still, these types of comments allow us to see how a specific person or organization affects the discourse—and in this case, a polarizing figure like Ka Leody attracted noise from detractors rather than support for his advocacy.

Find out how narratives and audiences develop and evolve around issues that are important to you.

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