AFP and New Media: On Insurgency and Winning the Peace

(First of Two Parts)

MANILA, Philippines—If policemen can utilize new media, what can the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) get out of it, too, in terms of winning the peace?

In performing its duties of Serving and Protecting the Filipino people, it should be understood that any armed forces should have the support of the people. When a country goes to war, the support of the people is necessary for it to fight. Unfortunately for the AFP, it is involved in insurgency, a political kind of conflict which includes a war of hearts and minds. The current thrust of the AFP, aside from territorial defense, is in fighting insurgency by both armed and non-armed means. The effectiveness of such efforts in fighting insurgency is dependent on the people’s trust. To win the hearts and minds of the people, communication is necessary. So how does the AFP communicate with the public?

Problems in Traditional Media

Still, traditional media account to the primary means that the AFP is engaging the public. Traditional media involves broadcast and print media, and the AFP sends out official statements to the public through these whenever it faces an issue.

The problem is, usually in mainstream media the communication goes one way and public feedback cannot be evaluated. Daily news clippings provide the AFP a measure on their success in communicating with the public by categorizing news clippings into news items that either gives approval or being critical with the AFP and its personnel.

Also another problem with this is that conflict gets desensitized. Casualties of the soldiers and enemies alike become statistics rather than people who fall victim to violence. This is what the AFP terms as the “body count syndrome” where success in military operations are measured with enemies killed, firearms and enemy camps captured. Despite attempts to curb the body count syndrome, media reports still use statistics because they are more concrete and provide measurable data to relate to peace and security, as well as being easier to report. The effect of desensitizing conflict is that there is a tendency people will find it hard to connect and be aware of the issues regarding peace and security. Lack of awareness can lead to lack of citizen participation.

Despite its problems, traditional media is still important because it can reach the farthest of barrios and localities without Internet connection. But if an issue dies down in mainstream media or a statement does not get published in an attempt to communicate with the public, the AFP has nowhere to go but online.

Insurgency is Also Online

Compared to the Philippine National Police (PNP) that deals with law enforcement and public order, the AFP is tasked with territorial defense and internal security. In terms of internal security, the AFP is engaged in fighting a four-decade old communist insurgency which generally is not just an issue on armed conflict, but also of the economic and social aspects. The AFP recognizes that it cannot solve insurgency alone but rather work with the people and other government agencies.

Cover Page of the Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) Bayanihan. Courtesy of Civil Relations Service AFP Facebook page

The newest Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) Bayanihan was launched in 2011. It recognized that long lasting peace can only be achieved with the combined efforts of all stakeholders. The IPSP claims to have a “Paradigm Shift” that understands that defeating the enemy is not enough but rather, peace should be won by encouraging everyone to work together for peace and development because they are everyone’s concern.

But insurgency also works in a similar manner as a multi-sectoral struggle coupled with armed component. Insurgency does not only have armed component but also has a large mass base of people who are sympathetic and supportive of the insurgency. They operate in public with peoples’ organizations and even online with multimedia content.

The AFP is engaged in a propaganda war both offline and online wherein its reputation is at stake. News of injustice or an allegation of one from the AFP can be used against the AFP by groups aligned with insurgents. Insurgency thrives on injustice and creates more injustice. The AFP image is also a casualty in insurgency.

Insurgents don’t fight only in the mountains. Their allies also work in the streets and engage in propaganda using mainstream media and the Internet. Essentially, the AFP’s reputation is being tarnished online, but it cannot engage directly as it has to retain an image of formality. This is a reality faced by the AFP in terms of defending itself from allegations.

The AFP might need to change the way it communicates if it seeks to win the peace, but this does not mean that it should forgo traditional media, rather tap the potential of new media.

New Media in Communicating Peace

New media encompasses the fusion of traditional media and new communications technology. News spreads quickly and feedback is encouraged and can easily be received. It is said that the Internet is an equal playing field. If news does not get published, then the AFP can resort to the Internet to reach out to the public and tap citizen participation in winning the peace.

Though new media has its limitations, it primarily caters to the Filipino netizens. Netizens are powerful if given the right motivation and momentum. This is because new media has provided them an avenue to connect and engage with individuals, institutions, and groups to stimulate a discussion and initiate action regarding an issue.

The AFP can use the example of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP). With the peace accord between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front MILF progressing well, new media, especially engaging in social networking, has been used by the OPAPP to promote peace. New media is instrumental in the latest campaign of OPAPP in bringing the peace process closer to the people by encouraging citizen awareness and participation in the peace process. The AFP can also support the online efforts of promoting awareness on the importance peace and development.

AFP seeks to win the peace, and citizen participation is crucial to it. It is time that the AFP steps up its efforts in communicating peace to Filipino netizens.

The AFP can utilize new media to communicate peace and encourage the public, the netizens in particular, to help win the peace. Though new media has a greater limitation in reach compared to traditional media, it provides the best chance for the AFP to pave the way for partnerships with concerned netizens and sectors who are connected and very influential by their own right. New media, anyway, is created for the purpose of interconnectivity and interaction. The AFP has to realize this potential yet.

Winning the peace also means communicating peace. But to do this, the AFP needs to win the hearts and minds of the people by appealing to the emotions of netizens. This includes protecting its image against groups that seek to tarnish it as well as against the different issues they face as the Armed Forces. The AFP needs to work on its image if it would seek to work with netizens. So the challenge now for the AFP is how to enhance its image as an institution that is one with the people and is for the people. Going online is one way to do it.