Asia-Pacific

The Web’s Role in People Power

Estrada’s Fall—Without the Net

It was an apt metaphor for Philippine President Joseph Estrada’s fall from grace. The limping, lumbering small-town politician of traditional mold, one from another age and time, got caught in a web—the virtual World Wide Web.

Information technology is new, dynamic, interactive, instant. And Estrada showed no interest in, or aptitude for, it. An old-fashioned politico, he used his position to please his friends and to strong-arm his enemies into submission. He went by the spoken word, the palabra de honor, which demands honor among both saints and thieves.

When it came to public opinion, Estrada must have thought he had it all under control, with urban-poor communities all over Metro Manila available for hakot (paid conscription) on short notice to counter any anti-Estrada demonstrations that might arise. But by then, as was the case all throughout his impeachment and ultimate downfall, he had already been put on the defensive, and by a system he neither understood nor controlled. Whether or not he ever realized it, new information and communication technology was already mobilizing and focusing public opinion against him.

The People Power revolution of January 2001 had a strong information technology (IT) component, which was developed and controlled by young professionals and activists. Call it the revenge of the nerds, but Joseph Estrada was blindsided by information technology. He didn’t see it coming and didn’t even know what had hit him. Several dozen techies—the technically gifted women and men who keep the Internet popping with new ideas and information—got together on Friday last week to discuss how real life Web activists mounted an intensive campaign in cyberspace, firing virtual rockets at the presidency and helping to form the critical mass of people and public opinion that eventually brought down Estrada from the highest post in the land.

“Erap entangled in the Web: Net (and text) activism in the ouster of Estrada” was the topic of a five-hour conference held at the Ateneo University campus in Quezon City last Friday on the role of IT in People Power II. It was convened by Al Alegre of the Foundation for Media Alternatives, a nongovernmental organization involved in“democratizing information and communications technologies, aimed at empowering Philippine civil society through the critical use of new (i.e., computer-based) media.”

Jim Ayson, president of PhilMusic, a multi-awarded local Web site (www.philmusic.com), noted the heavy use of IT to form “virtual communities interacting in virtual space” such as e-mail networks and mailing lists at the height of the Jueteng-gate crisis. An e-group, Ayson said, can have as few as three to five members and as many as 25,000 members. “The more subscribers, the greater the power of the community to spread information or provide a service,” Ayson said.

This was especially true of the Web site ELAGDA (www.eLAGDA.com), which was originally created for the ambitious goal of collecting 1 million signatures in 21 days for the resignation of Joseph Estrada. The site was able to gather only 95,000 signatures in 21 days, after which it reached a peak of 115,000. The e-group conducted letter-writing campaigns via the Internet, fax, and text-messaging to the senator-judges in the Estrada impeachment trial, Estrada’s cabinet members, and international agencies such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the International Court of Justice, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

After a while, ELAGDA went beyond the Internet and into the streets, where it organized, via e-mail, a motorcade, marches, and other mass actions against Estrada.

Other uses of computers and e-mail during the campaign for the resignation, impeachment, or ouster of Estrada were the dissemination of impeachment trial transcripts and summaries, wire-service reports, announcements of meetings, marches and other mass actions, schedules of events, and the transmission of documents and photographs.

As the streets heated up in protest against the presidency of Joseph Estrada, so did cyberspace, where Filipinos all over the world found a virtual podium from which to vent their anger, expound on the problems of the country, and offer solutions. The Web allowed them a chance to become political analysts and commentators, discussants in a dynamic, interactive, educational, and relatively safe medium.

At noon on Jan. 20, at the Edsa Shrine where People Power II had begun four days earlier, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took her oath before Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. as the 14th president of the Republic of the Philippines, as her predecessor was deemed by
the Supreme Court to have vacated the office, his subsequent protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

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