Is youth really wasted on the young? Digital citizenship as politics among Filipino millennials
By Cleve V. Arguelles
PhD Candidate, Department of Political and Social Change
Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs
Australian National University
Are Filipino millennials politically apathetic? Drawing from a digital ethnography of the controversial online “Alter” community in Philippine Twitter, this article provides an alternative approach to understanding the seeming political apathy among contemporary Filipino youth. Using a generational lens, this paper argues that the politics of the youth of today is expectedly different and misrecognized because of differing social, economic, and political moments that have shaped their political dispositions. To measure millennials against standards of political participation derived from the experiences of previous generations is unproductive. Rather, what we are seeing among young Filipinos is an enthusiasm in novel, creative and disruptive forms of civic engagement that have yet to be appreciated as equally significant and political. This include the practice of digital citizenship, or the production and consumption of digital contents as a means to create and engage in the social world. A product of the social experiences of the millennial generation, I demonstrate in this article how digital citizenship is an emerging form of politics among Filipino millennials.
If we are to believe the wave of popular articles written in the recent years, political participation is just one among the many things that the millennial generation has supposedly abandoned. This is a recurring theme in public conversations in which the reliance of the new generation to digital technologies, from mobile dating apps like Tinder and Tantan to social media platforms like Instagram and Tiktok, have supposedly changed the world for worse. Highlighting the assumed “alarming” amount of time that today’s young people spend on the Internet, millennials are maligned as a self-absorbed generation seized only by trivial matters like dating and fashion. But is this true? Are millennials politically apathetic?
Drawing from a digital ethnography of the controversial online “Alter” community in Philippine Twitter, this article provides an alternative approach to understanding the seeming political apathy among Filipino millennials. Building on the sociological theory on generations, this paper argues that the politics of the youth of today is expectedly different from the previous generations’ because of differing social, economic, and political moments that have shaped their political dispositions (Mannheim 1952). To measure millennials against standards of political participation derived from the experiences of previous generations is unproductive. Rather, what we are seeing among young Filipinos is an enthusiasm in novel, creative, and disruptive forms of civic engagement that have yet to be recognized by previous generations. This include the practice of digital citizenship, or the production and consumption of digital contents as a means to create and engage in the social world. A product of the social experiences of the millennial generation, I demonstrate in this article how digital citizenship is an emerging form of politics among Filipino millennials.
This paper is divided into three sections. In the first section, the article revisits the accusations that the millennial generation, whether in the Philippines or elsewhere, are suffering from political apathy. The second section adopts a generational approach to understanding how generations of young Filipinos participated in politics in the past until the present. And lastly, the third section of the paper analyzes the rise of the practice of digital citizenship among Filipino millennials and how it is redefining politics and political participation.
Young people and political participation
In young societies like the Philippines, the country’s political futures depend on the participation of young people. Societies expect the youth to regularly lead political renewals by drawing on their fresh ideas, energy, and dynamism. However, how Filipino millennials choose to participate or abstain in politics at present betrays the usual and comfortable categories drawn from the history of political participation of previous generations of young Filipinos. Around the world, the relationship of the youth with contemporary politics is plagued by similar controversies. Studies on political participation of the young in advanced democracies have been concerned with decreasing levels of civic engagement, declining electoral turnout, and eroding trust in representative institutions, parties and politicians (Nye 1997; Pharr and Putnam 2000; Torcal and Montero 2006). In these societies, observers point out that youth citizens have become estranged from politics (Wallace 2003). Whether the Philippine experience fits this observation is presently the subject of academic and public conversations.
Around the globe, young people are accused of political indifference (Zukin et al 2006). Millennials are said to have been abandoning elections in droves and abstaining from mainstream politics (Pattie et al 2004; Dalton 2008). Some scholars even argue that the crisis of democracy in many societies can be traced to the political complacency of this generation (Farthing 2010). Without a clear commitment to traditional exercises of democratic citizenship like voting, joining political parties or attending rallies, they endanger the legitimacy and sustainability of contemporary political institutions (Putnam 2000; Mycock and Tonge 2012). In the Philippines, conversations about millennials reflect the same themes. Many of the country’s contemporary political misfortunes, from the election of populist president Rodrigo Duterte to the resurgence of support to the Philippine martial law years, have been blamed on the supposed apathy of young Filipinos. Critics argue that they have detached themselves from politics and instead immersed themselves in a self-centered consumerist world where they try to outdo each other in selling themselves as commodities. This they do not in terms of political contributions but according to achievements in sex, social status, and cultural capital (Tolentino 2016).
The picture, however, is more complex and nuanced in reality than portrayed by these studies. A different stream of scholarship on the political participation of the youth suggests that while they may be dissatisfied with mainstream politics, they are nevertheless involved “in emerging forms of civic engagement that takes place outside the institutionalized sphere of politics” (Stolle and Hooghe 2011, p 119). Young people, even those in the Philippines, are turning to new forms of politics including volunteerism (Cornelio 2016; Fiorina 2002; Fisher 2012). A new style of citizenship that focuses on responsibilities and advocacies in the digital sphere is also notably emerging (Loader 2007; Bennett et al 2011). Even in terms of conventional forms of participation, studies are also pointing out the significance of millennial-led movements from Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street (Milkman 2017). Scholars also note that youth involvement in politics seems to broaden what counts as political participation. This includes public expressions of non-heteronormative identities (Kiesa et al 2007) and introduction of ethical and environmental criteria in choosing which goods and services to patronize (Micheletti 2003; Micheletti and Stolle 2009). There is reason to believe that moral panic may have once again clouded the dominant understanding of how the youth of today are redefining political participation (Quintelier 2007). New ways of what it means to participate in politics is being generated by the millennial generation. The task, therefore, is for researchers to uncover the changing nature of their politics. An understanding of these seemingly opaque orientations of the youth towards politics may provide more grounding to public and scholarly conversations on youth political participation as well as enrich our understanding of the millennial generation.
Generational lens and millennial politics
Mannheim’s (1952) work is fundamental in using a generational lens in understanding youth and politics. His work argues that individuals are significantly influenced by the social conditions of their youth. Young people are more likely to be shaped by the way historical moments have shaped their political consciousness and beliefs while in their formative years. However, their varied social locations, whether in terms of class, gender or ethnicity, may diversify the supposed generational consciousness and responses. In this section, I extend this framework to the case of the Philippines and broadly map the historical moments and the consequent political moments of the previous generations of youth in post-World War II Philippines.
Those who were born in the 1920s grew up as victims and fighters in the Second World War (Kerkvliet 1977). The Japanese occupation of the Philippines gave no other choice to this generation but to join the war. Many became martyrs, some as comfort women, and those who survived ended up with trauma (Constantino and Constantino 1978). The brutalities of the Japanese and memories of war formed the identity and memory of this generation (Jose 2001). The succeeding 1930s generation were also victims of the war. But coming to the war a little later, this generation of Filipino youth bore the burdens of post-war reconstruction. They were forced to mature early by a war-torn Philippines needing rebuilding. They actively built institutions, from government agencies to political parties, for the then young republic (Abinales and Amoroso 2017). Both these generations inherited a formally independent Philippines by 1946. Shaped by their tragic experiences of war, these young Filipinos worked tirelessly to get a taste of a working free and independent Philippines.
The Filipino youth of the 1940s will eventually become the pioneers of the radical years of the country in the 1960s (Weekley 2001). Born after WWII, they grew up in an independent and relatively peaceful and prosperous Philippines. They were very critical of the achievements of the previous generations, including the reconstruction effort that fell short of the nation’s aspirations (Guerrero 1979). This generation poured on the streets to oppose the Vietnam War, protest the hardships faced by workers and farmers, and advocate for a radical politics in campuses and elsewhere. The Communist Party of the Philippines, formed by eager university students who discovered immobilized war veterans in the countryside, was rebuilt by this same generation (Weekley 2001). The 1960s was a time of disquiet. Young Filipinos then, disappointed of prevailing social ills despite absence of colonial occupation, experimented with progressive causes and seized political opportunities to advance social reforms.
The years of disquiet prepared the country to a more turbulent period. Those who were born in the 1950s were the youth who eventually produced the First Quarter Storm of the 1970s (Pimentel 2006). They eschewed the progressive politics of the previous generation in favor of a revolution. It was a generation at home with the radical ideas of the world: from China’s cultural revolution to the anti-war causes in Europe and USA to independence movements in the Global South (Abinales 1984). However, an equally politically involved politician, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, challenged this era of kinetic involvement of youth in national politics further. Martial law was imposed in the country to temper the tempest storm that the rebellious 1950s generation of Filipino youth created. The best and the brightest of this generation became modern martyrs that led the anti-dictatorship movement. This generation that suffered under the Marcos period, a time of widespread human rights violation and misgovernance, produced young revolutionaries and a Filipino revolutionary politics.
Those who were born in the 1960s and 1970s, called “Marcos babies” and knew Marcos as the eternal president, is the generation that made the legacies of Marcos the subject of their dreams and nightmares (Cimatu and Tolentino 2010). Some left the country in search of less tragic futures but many others stayed. Those who stayed volunteered to protect the ballots in the 1986 snap election, grieved and protested the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, and faced Marcos head-on in the EDSA People Power revolt. After Marcos, many young Filipinos embraced initiatives to democratize politics as their own project. Whether grassroots non-government organizations or pockets of participatory avenues in government, they created and maximized democratic spaces afforded by the new regime. Armed with new freedoms and the potentials of a country in transition to democracy, the young Filipinos of this generation replaced radicalism with pragmatic and reformist politics (Thompson 1998).
Young Filipinos of the 1980s have anchored their hopes on the democratizing and globalizing country. Some bore the burdens of rebuilding the country while many others followed the previous generations to work overseas and even migrate to foreign countries in search of greener pastures. They have adopted an uneventful politics of good citizenship: vote regularly, pay taxes diligently, contribute to charity occasionally, and work hard daily. Like today’s youth, their generation’s lack of a collective orientation and spectacular political movements like the WWII guerrillas, First Quarter Storm and EDSA 1, have been accused of adopting political apathy as a way of life.
Filipino millennials, or those who were born in the 1990s to present, grew up under one of the world’s worst economic crises, tough environmental challenges, and increasing social isolation (Milkman 2017). They live in a time of worsening economic vulnerability. Their mobility aspirations have been frustrated by the expansion of precarious types of employment, retreat of labor rights and benefits, as well as vast income inequalities (Hewison & Kalleberg 2013). The supposedly job-hopping culture of millennials, which is negatively portrayed as one of their bad working attitudes, is in fact a reflection of prevailing job insecurity in the market (Ofreneo 2013).
They also grew up under an increasingly transnationalized Filipino family. Long distance intimacy and parenting at a distance characterized how many young Filipinos were raised by their overseas parents in recent years (Parre?as 2005; 2001). While the fast evolving information and communication technologies helped bridged the geographic divide among many Filipino youth and their families, many young people still long for adult companions (Madianou 2012). With a large number of the previous generation away from the country, this might have also affected the inter-generational sharing of collective memories and other modes of political socialization that is traditionally played by parents and families.
Worse, the exclusionary nature of politics in the country has nourished a sense of political detachment among Filipino youth. Generations of elite families continue to dominate Philippine politics since the establishment of the Philippine republic (Tadem and Tadem 2016). This dominance of elite dynasties also extend to political institutions that supposedly caters to the youth such as the Sangguniang Kabataan (Youth Council) and the National Youth Commission (Malaluan et al 2014). Participation in mainstream politics is seen as a rather futile exercise. It is associated with corrupt, selfish and questionable individuals. A sense of political detachment may have also thrived due to the absence of attractive alternative political alternatives. Their lack of trust to politicians and government institutions also extend to activist groups and civil society groups (Abinales 1996; Kusaka 2017). Since the country’s transition to democracy, the civil society has been badly splintered and resorts to frequent infightings (Hedman 2006). It did not also help that these groups, while generally advocate for progressive causes, regularly engage and partner with mainstream politicians (Juliano 2015; Sanchez et al 2018). With their voices silenced and their capacity to shape their own futures disregarded, their own kind of politics was born.
Digital citizenship in online “Alter” community in Philippine Twitter
Filipino millennial politics, compared to the previous generations of young Filipinos, is distinctly personal and amorphous (Arguelles 2020). On the one hand, a personal orientation in politics is characterized by an appeal to everyday authenticity rather than to spectacular expressions of politics. It demands an expressions of one’s political conviction in everyday life contexts rather than in spectacular but episodic moments. On the other hand, their politics is also amorphous: it rejects highly hierarchical and tightly organized forms of participation. Instead, they prefer leaderless movements, crowdsourcing and other flexible forms of organizations. This preference for a combination of a personally-oriented politics that is amorphous in nature is reflected in the enthusiasm of young Filipinos with digital citizenship.
As digital natives, they are more inclined to carry out their politics in and using the wide range of affordances provided by the internet. Not only are they spending a considerable portion of their everyday life in the web (Ahn 2011), they are also depending on it for other functions such as academic needs, social connections, and even political participation. By leveraging the affordances of the varied internet platforms- from social media to mobile applications- they have found it as a suitable site to promote its responsible use as well as their advocacies (Loader 2007; Bennett et al 2011). Digital citizenship, then, refers to the practice of mostly young people, who are native experts of digital technologies, to create and engage in the social world by generating and consuming digital contents. This includes, while maligned in mainstream conversations, the online “Alter” Twitter community in the Philippines.
“Alter”, as it is popularly known to its members in the Philippines, is a clandestine network of anonymized Twitter accounts featuring one’s “alternative identity”- an identity that is made secret or hidden from non-Alter social relationships including family and friends. The primary purpose of this community is for its members to explore their alternative identities by providing a space for dating and sexual activities including looking for partners for casual sex, finding an audience for online sexual exhibitionism, and creating a network to exchange amateur pornographic materials. Many members also refer to their Alter Twitter accounts as “libog” (horny) accounts since it fulfills their varied sexual desires. While predominantly seen as a deviant community, its membership and reach has grown over the years. The most popular Alter accounts have hundreds of thousands of followers and are even recruited by advertising agencies to promote brands or advocacy campaigns.
As expected, this Alter community is represented pejoratively in public conversations, especially by those coming from older generations. It is seen as the ultimate proof of an irresponsibly “young, wild, and free” generation in which hooking up with complete strangers is cool and the consumption of pornography is normalized. Worse, these supposedly questionable activities are taken up by the millennials to the detriment of the expected role that they become politically engaged citizens. Instead of becoming active in politics, they have only become active in sex. Yet hidden to these critics are how these same spaces and practices that they malign demonstrate how millennials engage in politics and redefine what counts as political participation. Intermeshed in how they typically participate in the niche Alter community are hints of the politics in their practice of digital citizenship.
One of the more common activities of Alter community members is the use of textual tweets to engage each other. Like other Twitter users, they announce to the community their whereabouts, the activities they are doing, and their thoughts for the moment. What is unique to the community, however, is the shout-outs to look for partners in online or offline sexual activities. Serialized narration of real or fictionalized stories of sexual engagements are also popular. While it may appear that these sexual contents reflect a generation’s political apathy, a closer look into the contents of their tweets reveals otherwise.
Sexual contents are also interspersed with serious reminders, but written in a youthful manner, to practice safe sex and regularly get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Many also engage in discussions to clarify common misconceptions on reproductive health. Alter users promote resources produced by other advocacy organizations especially on sexual health. And this means that aside from physical wellbeing, conversations on respectful relationships, stigma among people living with HIV, and discrimination experienced by gender minorities also thrive.
One of the most notable example of this practice is how famous Alter users would regularly take advantage of their online clout to remind their followers and readers to always practice safe and consensual sex. In Figure 1, one can see how a popular Alter community member @laguna_tripper casually informs his almost 150,000 followers (as of May 2019) that unprotected oral sex may also result to transmission of some diseases. Another example would be accounts like @imafivefootsix in Figure 2 which are created to share stories about being a person living with HIV. While subtle, these practices demonstrate how Alter users can talk about and perform their sexual lives online while also talking about and performing their advocacies including sexual and reproductive health. It is no less political especially in a country where conservative groups regularly publicly mobilized against reproductive health-related policies (ABS-CBN News 2012).
Figure 1. Source: https://twitter.com/laguna_tripper/status/1093364295939682304
Figure 2. Source: https://twitter.com/iamfivefootsix
Tweeting photos is another activity that the Alter community would also typically do. Like in the case of textual tweets, these photos may either just show a user’s daily life or their more sexual activities. The more sexual photos would usually feature blurred, hidden, or covered faces of the Alter users themselves, their sexual partners or both. Photo tweets include images of physically sexy individuals that are grabbed from other internet platforms or covertly taken in the random places they visit, actual images taken during a sexual encounter, or just a sexy photo of themselves showing a part of their bodies. Although this may appear either as trivial and self-absorbed or a practice that reinforces the objectification of the bodies, it has actually been a source of empowerment especially for many female members of the Alter community.
Rejecting idealized notions of femininity in which bodies are expected to be covered, female Alter users embraces the liberating potentials of allowing a self-aware and sexual female body in control to be displayed on their accounts. For instance, it is a particular practice among them to post naked photos with sex and body-positive advocacies in the caption. Fellow female Alter users would respond by leaving encouraging comments to these photos. In Figure 3, one can see how an influential self-identified queer Alter user @salomesalvi declares acceptance of her body while showing her naked body. These kinds of photos that she tweets have even inspired many of her followers, like the one shown in Figure 4, to take on a similar positive attitude towards their own bodies. Just enmeshed in their everyday practices of sharing naked or sexy photos of themselves are attempts to popularize emerging feminist politics of self-care and sex and body positivity. In these simple practices of digital citizenship, female Alter users have found a space to challenge patriarchal norms of how and for what the female body can be appreciated.
Figure 3. Source: https://twitter.com/SalomeSalvi/status/1077728675854835712
Figure 4 Source https://twitter.com/shyhuhubadera/status/1126500930977845252
But the most popular among the activities in the Alter community is the production, consumption, and sharing of videos. These videos are mostly explicitly sexual either as amateur recordings of one’s sexual activities or professionally produced pornography. While the individuals involved in the former type of videos are usually anonymized, pornography actors are usually named and celebrated. Leaked private videos of the sexual activities of others, popularly termed as “scandals” in the community, are also common. Although less popular, some videos also feature Alter community members dancing, singing, exercising, or sharing stories about themselves. They refer to this is as contents that are “safe for kids”.
Despite the seeming permissiveness of the community for deviant behaviors, widely shared ethical criteria of safe and consensual sex as well as against the exploitation and abuse of children are informally enforced. This is usually done through shaming Alter users who goes against these shared norms. Others also campaign to other Alter members to stop promoting the content of these users so they will lose followers, views, and other forms of engagement. The latter is especially threatening to those who wish to build influence in the community since the popularity of one’s content is one’s currency in an Internet platform like Twitter. A notable example is how an Alter user with a huge following in the name of @AlterDadGensan, as seen in Figure 5, had to clarify that he does not engage in unprotected sex after rumors spread in the community that he is not wearing condoms in the sex videos he is posting. To his defense, he explained that the condom is easy to miss in his videos since he is using an extremely thin variety of it. This is an important clarification since campaigns to stop promoting an Alter user because of contents that featured unprotected sex have been popular in the community. In Figure 6,, one can also see how those who feature children or minors are equally vilified and met with resistance in the Alter community. Violating accounts are reported to Twitter management to be blocked and removed from the platform. While these practices of posting sexually explicit videos may be interpreted as consequence of a young and wild generation, the widely-shared ethical principles and other related norms that they have established in their community suggests active and responsible community-building.
Figure 5. Source: https://twitter.com/AlterDadGensan/status/946632446652456960
Figure 6. Source: https://twitter.com/tabsuki/status/682251328958038016
There are other practices of digital citizenship in the Alter community but these are just some of the most common. The problem is that it is easy to dismiss these practices as acts of an irresponsible and politically apathetic generation. It is because of the mistaken belief that active political participation can only happen in institutionalized spaces beyond the everyday. This assumption that is derived from traditions of political participation of the previous generations renders the political act of digital citizenship invisible. By practicing politics differently (personalized advocacies) and by carrying outside of the traditional spheres of politics (personal spaces), the shifting politics of this generation towards personalization may have been misguidedly interpreted as declining political involvement.
That a digital space like Twitter can function as an arena where individuals can express, advocate, and deliberate on political commitments (in short, citizenship practices) is one of the distinct contributions of millennials in redefining political participation.
Practices of digital citizenship may also sometimes take forms that are visible to adherents of conventional definitions of political participation. Alter users, for instance, explicitly express their positions about traditional political issues like government performance or legislative initiatives from time to time. But these contents tend to be less promoted and engaged by other members of the community. Instead, the practice of digital citizenship that are more ordinary, mundane, and everyday are seen as more authentic.
The millennial kids, as I have argued in this paper, are alright. Against the background of accusations that youth is wasted on the politically apathetic millennials, they reinterpret politics and political participation in ways that it adapts to the experiences and aspirations of their generation.
In an era of economic vulnerability, changing family structures and political exclusion, Filipino millennials in search of their distinct politics are gravitated towards a more personalized and amorphous manner of political involvement. Young Filipinos find their political voices in direct and personal expressions of politics in everyday life contexts rather than overt political expressions including the practice of digital citizenship.
This practice is observed to be authentic because the political commitments are reflected in daily personal choices as they navigate the digital world. Digital forms of engagement such as popularizing advocacies in social media or creating online political groups reflect this trend. The criticism that digital citizenship, however, is a lesser form of participation than street mobilizations or community organizing do not appeal to millennials whose everyday life is immersed in the digital world. For young Filipinos, digital action is action in the real world. The attempt to influence conversations or to make others aware of burning issues of the day in social media is no less significant than door-to-door community organizing. So, no, millennials are not politically apathetic. Politics and active political involvement matter to the contemporary young Filipinos but in ways that vastly differs from how it mattered to previous generations of young people
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