You have the luck of a comedian. Bad luck in things that matter. Good luck in things that do. — Andrew Sean Greer
My online shaming experience happened close to a decade ago and might seem ordinary by current standards. First of all, the number of Facebook users in 2010 in the Philippines alone was at 10.5 million whereas today, it stands at around 70 million. Second, Facebook and other social media networks such as Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have grown significantly in popularity among commuters here who spend on average 66 minutes of idle time a day in traffic. Third, the degree of political belligerence on social media is far worse now than it was ten years ago, as evidenced by the juggernaut election of a self-proclaimed misogynist and criminal into high office.
But there is nothing ordinary about online shaming. Historically, its more traditional version — public humiliation or mob justice — was prompted by extraordinary acts such as heinous crimes (i.e. death penalty in a public square), purported treason (i.e. denuding French women accused of supporting the Nazis and then parading them in public), and more recently in the local milieu, the mere inclusion in a publicly announced list of alleged drug users. Online shaming is an anomaly in a society where 8 in 10 Filipinos are Roman Catholics, and where common decency is still widely accepted and taught at a young age.
I have seen how online shaming has evolved into the new norm in the last ten years. It had gained traction as the formidable array of social media channels became more dominant and user-friendly, and as their growing number of users (over a billion users for Facebook as of the last count) grew their own audience. It became convenient for anyone with a smartphone to have an opinion, present those opinions as facts, and create a page to deposit and advertise those “facts.” And for those so inclined, it also became easy to publicly vilify another person who contradicts his or her opinion…anonymously.
Recollection is a broad delta, and 9+ years is a long time. Trying to remember what I have tried hard to forget — that experience of being the sinking pellet in an African cichlid feeding frenzy — is still unthinkable. But we live in an increasingly complex world facing insurmountable problems. I think we all need to be a little brave, in a cause of our choosing. And online shaming, for me, is one of those useless, utterly demoralizing consequences of modernity that I will speak out against, once and for all, through my story.
Growing up, I have always had luck on my side. Tragedy was unfamiliar territory to me. I have two doting parents who raised me and two other siblings well and we lived in a comfortable middle-class dwelling. We were not rich, but we never starved and none of us had any recurring physical or mental ailments. All of us kids were steeped in the arts at an early age: I discovered Beethoven and Chopin at 5 and could still play them to this day. We all have degrees from the University of the Philippines, where I majored in Tourism and graduated with honors. I particularly excelled in writing and in music.
While some of these assets were acquired at birth, they only evolved into proper life skills over time. One cannot play a Chopin etude by just listening to an audio recording. Music theory has to be learned, applied and rehearsed day after day for two hours minimum. One cannot write prose without a growing vocabulary. Books are the writer’s most vital companions and would have to be enjoyed during after-school hours. Singing, while genetically inherited by some prodigies, did not come naturally. I discovered that gift only after years of piano playing and performing with the church choir.
In short, I was not a brat. While kids my age were playing outdoors, I was, although grudgingly, pounding away on the black and white keys. Whatever it was that I had, I used, and these used talents matured into useful assets. I was trained in the school of backbreaking hard work — no shortcuts. The payoff was my employability and the mental stamina needed to withstand unexpected detours in my career’s flight plan.
From 2002–2004, I rode the crest of professional highs, moved up the corporate ladder just as I had envisioned and then joined the government which was not part of the plan at all.
Plans changed in the midst of lingering anxiety about the financial future of my first employer. I was asking around for vacancies when one day, a job ad landed in my inbox via an erstwhile Yahoo Groups account. The title said, “Looking for a speechwriter” which meant, after reading the email carefully, an opportunity to write speeches for a Cabinet secretary in government. That was way beyond my purview. First of all, I did not know who the Cabinet Secretary was because I did not read the newspaper. Second, I knew that someone had to be writing those inspiring statements I had learned from my history courses, but never knew anyone who did that for a living. Third, I had no clue as to how it was done. I write, yes, but had never before written a speech for myself or for anyone. How fascinating, I thought, and fascination at that point of desperation was the only nudge I needed to submit an application.
When I got the job as an executive assistant/speechwriter, the first thing I asked myself was “What the hell did I get myself into?” My tourism management skills were of no use to me here, but they did need an organized staff writer who could research, prepare briefing folders and churn out statements quickly. I could only promise to learn faster. The many obstacles I had to surpass in that job helped shorten my learning curve.
In 2006, I was invited to an audition for lead vocalist of a Manila-based blues band where a photographer friend played the harp. I had heard the band perform once at a Fete de la Musique and was impressed by the musicianship. I loved the repertoire too. When I got the gig, a new world, which I had only previously written about in my rock journalism pieces for the print publication of the now-defunct Tower Records, became my reality. The musicians I had only watched from a distance in my college years now would occasionally share the stage with me. It was the coolest thing, but the best part of being a lead singer is having a band that you adore, that you can count on like family. I still perform with this family after all these years, while holding on to my day job as a writer. The rewards of my “writer by day, singer by night” setup has been immeasurable. Aside from the euphoria I derived from every live performance, the regular gigs, annual music festivals and some guest performances have added to my ever-growing arsenal of skills, friends and social networks.
I belonged. I was part of the cool crowd.
You want everyone to know your name and no one to know your face.— anonymous Hollywood producer
A year later, my Cabinet Secretary boss had become legendary for the quality of the executive assistants and speechwriters in her stead. Novices who successfully complete her government service boot camp come out of it ready for war. Her recommendation was sought when a newly-elected Senator began his hunt for a speechwriter. My name came up and I nailed the gig, the offstage kind.
Speechwriting for an appointed member of the Cabinet was no walk in the park. When you are the alter ego of the President, you serve at the pleasure of the President. You concurrently serve the people working at the agency you head. You serve the constituents who fall under your mandate. My Cabinet Secretary boss was overseeing the poverty portfolio, and in the Philippines, it’s Brobdingnagian. She wore many hats: member of the National Anti-Poverty Commission, member of the National Security Council, member of the National Disaster Risk and Reduction Management Council, and more. I wrote for each of those hats. The Kafkaesque brutality of a Signal №5 typhoon which would require writing and thinking on all of those hats at the same time was an inexorable part of the job.
Political speechwriting, on the other hand, is a different beast because of the source of political power. My Senator boss was elected by the Filipino people and they are his boss. He is not beholden to the whims and commands of the President, though he defers to the President, particularly one who is politically astute and knows how to wield power in both the lower and upper chambers of Congress. He belongs to another branch of government — the legislative — and acts as a lawmaker and fiscalizer who checks on the shortcomings and excesses of executive power. As the Senator’s political communications officer, I co-wrote with his lawyers the explanatory notes of his proposed bills, public statements on burning issues, speeches for rare events and messages of support or dissent depending on his position during a debate on the Senate floor. I also monitored his presence and the traction of his statements on both traditional and social media.
Both types of speechwriting aid and abet political power.
The combination of facts, figures, attributions, and rhetoric that I turned into coherent prose had the ability to influence and affect societal change. I was fully cognizant of the weight of that responsibility and tried to honor that privilege by giving it my all.
Politics, as it had figured in my life at this time, was not automatic. It kind of just fell on my lap. I did not come from a political family. I had a lawyer uncle who once made a bold attempt to run for office and was unsuccessful, but that was it. Both my parents’ families had amassed whatever they considered power or fortune through the same virtue I had inherited from them: hard work. I had no other inheritance other than a good education. But for someone without a political pedigree, I did okay, because I managed to stay in that job for three years.
In the third year, that Senator boss was elected President of the Republic of the Philippines.
My President boss started his fresh 6-year term on June 30, 2010.
I was 29 years old.
Before the frenetic preparations for his inauguration, he had invited me, and the rest of our Senate team, to join him on his new adventure. From the august halls of the Senate, we would be moving to Malacanang Palace, the Office of the President, where we could continue at a much larger scale our fight against corruption.
How could I say no to that?
I was soon appointed Chief of Staff of Presidential Communications — the messaging and strategic planning office of the President. It was a plum post.
The job meant that I would be writing less and managing more. After all, someone had to make sure that all the speechwriters, social media trackers, infographic designers, and website managers got paid. I had previous executive branch experience and knew the President well so I took on that task. I also helped a new, young-ish team (measly government pay can only afford fresh graduates) acclimate to the President’s way of thinking and work style, and overcome the inconveniences of bureaucratic red tape. We were in a snake pit, and everyone had to be aware of what we are up against. A very political office such as ours was always vulnerable to attack from all fronts. I knew that I had to inoculate our crop of wide-eyed grasshoppers, even though I myself was going through my own onboarding.
As expected, our enemies on the inside were far more cunning than the President’s detractors on the outside. They were hell-bent on ensuring our failure.
Sadly, I will drop the ball, let my team down, and let our foes go for the kill.
Writing by design is an insular profession, but politics is not. In 2010, the widespread use of social media to amplify political campaigns was gaining ground. Everyone in our team put themselves out there, promoting and defending our message on each of our individual accounts. Our campaign was present in all relevant channels (mainly Facebook and Twitter) and I prepared some of our team’s armchair rebuttals. The vitriol from our opponents was sickening, and we counterattacked with just the right amount of fury so we could stay above the fray. Balance and temperament were strongly-held virtues at the time as far as our team was concerned, but the magnitude of the online hostilities that had emerged was hard to ignore and was, in fact, a portent of worse things to come.
I gained some online following during that toxic campaign and that carried over when we won the election. Suddenly, this obscure staffer was getting replies to her tweets and private messages that suggested curiosity about her work. The trigger was my active tweeting while I was manning the teleprompter during the inauguration and the first State of the Nation Address.
I thought to myself, “People care about what I say and do? Cool.”
There’s that dopamine kick.
In my line of work, speechwriters can be executive assistants but not all executive assistants can be speechwriters.
Because I was both, and already had an established working relationship with the President, I was invited to join the delegation that would be accompanying him on his first trip to the United States as head of state.
The memory of obscenely bloated junkets of the previous administration was still fresh, so we wanted to show the public that a more skeletal version of a typical Presidential delegation is possible. There were only 50 people authorized to join this trip — remarkably thin since this number already includes the security detail, video crew, staff doctor and protocol officials. Sidelined were backstopping technical staff from our team who could have helped me transcribe the sit-down interviews we had with The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times during our first day in New York City. I mean, it was great that I was the notetaker during the meeting with Dr. Henry Kissinger but to feed all the notes back to home base while jet-lagged and lurching from one meeting to the next was excruciating.
I did manage a photo op at the hallowed halls of the United Nations. And while the boss was meeting with President Obama, for which I had no credentials, I took advantage of my 2-hour long break by walking from our hotel on 44th W street to the Top of the Rock (aka the viewing deck of the Rockefeller Center). That was sweet.
I loved my job.
In October 2010, another foreign trip was scheduled, this time at the invitation of the President of Vietnam. It was a state visit, which means the Philippine President and his delegation would be accorded the “highest expression of friendly bilateral relations” by the host country. I’m talking red carpet treatment, official public ceremonies, exclusive access to the President Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the whole nine yards. It sounded exciting, and I was delighted to be invited again to join the delegation (In the succeeding years, the junior speechwriters who frankly are much better writers would take my place).
My experience on this trip changed my life for better and for worse.
It started when a seemingly precocious follower of current events, generally supportive of my boss, had asked for an account of my travails as a traveling Presidential speechwriter. I gladly obliged, deemed that the request was rather modest and did not have to interfere with what I came out there to do. A tweet can be published en route from one engagement to another.
I got into it. First, I critiqued the wine that was served at the state banquet and captured the world’s attention with three words: The wine sucks. Second, I denigrated the male population of the host country by saying “Sorry but there are no good looking men here” in the vernacular. Third, I expressed concern over people’s safety by saying “Crossing the speedy motorcycle laden streets of Hanoi is one of the easiest ways to die.”
I was soon alerted to a brewing maelstrom from the media triggered by these gratuitous statements.
All of us have “oh sh*t” moments, but this was a real “oh sh*t” moment. Nuclear. And it was mine.
My heart was a thudding drum.
I posted my apology on Facebook right away (I had already prematurely deactivated Twitter), in the hopes that the issue would also go away.
But the damage was done.
Since this is the first and last time I would be openly discussing this ordeal, allow me to explain my rationale then behind those tweets:
“The wine sucks.” This was my lame attempt at humor in a situation that called for my best behavior. The least I could have done as a guest in somebody else’s home was to keep my mouth shut. I was called so many things through this tweet alone — rude, arrogant, ungrateful, you name it — and I deserved all of that because I was.
“Sorry but there are no good looking men here” This was me trying to make fun of the realities of singlehood and was meant for a very particular audience — my close friends. They knew it was a joke but it obviously did not land well with others.
“Crossing the speedy motorcycle laden streets of Hanoi is one of the easiest ways to die.” I was stating a fact here, facetiously, and it was coming from a place of genuine concern. Those who have been to the city would agree. But because it was preceded by my insensitivity, it naturally fell short of its original intent.
You must think I am an imbecile for putting all of that nonsense out there during a plenipotentiary milestone. You are right. What an idiot. What the hell was I thinking? I was not thinking. I wasn’t thinking about what other people might say because I didn’t think they would pay attention to whatever I said. A Presidential staffer is still a staffer. A government slave. I thought I was insignificant.
So from invincible ghostwriter waiting in the wings and applauding my boss, I was now right smack in the middle of a political chaos.
It is what it is. Deal with it. — Freddie Gruber
When all hell broke loose, I was still in Hanoi.
I remember being seated at the back of a conference hall during a media event when a cameraman rose from his seat and flashed his lights in my general direction. I realized that I was the news now. I fled the scene instantly.
I looked for cover and found solace at the business center where the protocol advisers were working. I could not look any of them in the eye. I was so ashamed. Until that point, I had never felt so stupid and futile. I only had one job — to look after the boss and his writing requirements — and could no longer pull that off. The worst part was, the media was asking the President questions about me, deviating from the main purpose of the trip. He defended me, and while I appreciated that, the inconvenience was not lost on me. I had caused a tremendous distraction.
The massacre was just beginning. When journalists back home talked about me with no let-up, it gained enough traction that the exchanges were translated into Vietnamese. I was still on their home turf. So my shame instantly transformed into a fear of retaliation, of someone walking up to me and in anger, throw acid to my face. Those fears were for naught, thankfully, because the Vietnamese were the gracious ones, not I. They took this diplomatic imbroglio in stride, but that did not put the brakes on the vitriol from my own people.
Oh, the irony.
The full force of acrimony was waiting for my arrival. Once the plane landed on Philippine soil, I had to be whisked away and taken home immediately. I broke down in the car and was inconsolable. I remember confiding in a more senior colleague who was in the car with me. I said, “I am only 29” and felt that my life was over. He didn’t say much, and I was soothed by the sympathy his mere presence implied. That short ride home was the last bit of calm before the storm.
I cried for the last time that night, promising myself that I will get back on my feet. I will deal with the fallout, grab the bull by its horns. I will face this with all the humility and strength I could muster.
Because let’s face facts too.
I had already apologized for what I had done. I wish I could take back what I had said but I can’t.
I did not lie, cheat or steal from the government. Where are those liars, cheaters and thieves in the purview of the fourth estate?
I am a law-abiding citizen. My rap sheet is clean.
I did not deliberately inflict harm on anybody. I don’t even own a knife.
My only crime was stupidity, but many people are guilty of that.
Did my “crime” deserve all the attention that it was suddenly getting?
For some people, it did.
I woke up the next day with 70+ missed calls and even more text messages, mostly from the media asking for my side of the story. To what end? Protract a non-issue by splicing and dicing my statements, picking and choosing only the ones that are sensational? Propagate the ad hominem attacks against me and the memes that bastardized my non-work related gig and band photos where I was clearly just fooling around? Milk the issue for what it’s worth at my expense?
Is that really worth anyone’s time?
A month in, I was fully demoralized. In my defense, my family and friends were ranting about how seriously overblown the issue was becoming. Some of them later told me how I had been the subject of water-cooler conversations at work and that they had been forced to tell their colleagues off. Others reached out through touching messages of support. They were all invaluable sources of strength. I had only wished it was for something more socially significant, a controversial issue perhaps that I was fighting for and had earned the ire of critics. Instead, infamy was my middle name because of my tweets.
Meanwhile, there were overtures within and without Malacanang suggesting my immediate dismissal. A couple of Senators were demanding my resignation. Two other Senators said I should not be dismissed. Who knew my case merited a legislative opinion? But I was not oblivious to it, and neither was the President. He was thinking about firing me, until one of my teammates reminded him of how long I had been working for him, that until the incident I had not been a burden to him, and that I was adding value to the Presidential Communications team. I was so moved by that gesture that when the President summoned me and the rest of our original Senate team for a much-deserved private reprimand, I accepted the wisdom of his lecture and his forgiveness wholeheartedly.
But the outside world will not forgive. They wanted me fired, and when that did not happen, the media operators ramped up their resources to put me in a really bad light. I wonder now — how much did that cost? Someone had told me that he had overheard a market vendor let out her exasperation when a bunch of media clowns would not stop attacking me on the radio: “Why is it that we are so committed to bringing our own kind down?” That’s because they are paid hacks madame, but thank you for your concern.
The incident has seared my core, and apparently, my dad’s too. Unbeknownst to me, he wrote a letter to a leading news publication in my defense. I was moved to tears. This is why hitting rock bottom is so essential to the human experience — you discover the people who love you and the extent of that love. Until that letter was published, I had no idea how the imbroglio had affected those who were fiercely loyal to me. Well-wishers read my dad’s letter and conveyed their hope for an immediate conclusion to this whole sordid affair.
The trolls had the opposite reaction and were relentless. They trolled my dad on Facebook, saying inane things like “Why are you even defending your daughter?” There is a term for this — the Dunning-Kruger effect — when some people are too stupid to know how stupid they are. So I advised my family and friends to stop dignifying these trolls with a response. They will get tired of it eventually. But alas, a year later, some “journalists” had not moved on from the episode when they saw me working with the President at a state visit in China. The trip had coincided with a press workshop in Beijing and to save on taxpayer’s money, I had offered to staff for the boss and was permitted to do so. They wanted to relive my nightmare because in their view, I should not be on that trip, or any foreign trip with the President for that matter.
That was my final work excursion.
Some people do take pleasure in seeing a man who is down on his luck and then piss all over him. Like it was just something they did for fun, a craving they could not satisfy.
A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded. — Murray Kempton
I was naive, and was pilloried for my irreverence. I engaged in a platform with people whose real intentions are a mystery. I believed that their engagement was coming from a good place — curiosity, fascination, genuine interest — not the trapdoor hiding beneath the floor waiting to swallow me whole that it turned out to be.
I had surrendered the freedom to be myself when I accepted the job. Life in the public domain removes the luxury of privacy and personal identity. Your views are no longer your own, but the President’s or any other public figure or celebrity that you are backstopping for. I could not sing in public too, lest be blamed for slacking off on the job.
Do not give your enemies the ammo they lust for. They could easily turn a mountain out of that molehill. They can and will bribe some members of the press. If you enter politics with a checkered history, make sure that your lawyer and publicist know everything that could be used against you.
Lucky me, I did not really have an interesting past. But even that was used against me and replaced it with lies, lies and more lies.
You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.— Winston Churchill
Only four months in of a 6-year term and already I was a lame duck.
So I decided to cut my tour of duty short and pursued my Master’s degree at Harvard University. It was a chance for me to begin my slow journey towards redemption. “Haters gonna hate” but I no longer care. What I chose to care about was my personal improvement, growth and happiness. I needed to discover how that felt again, how it felt to belong.
Fate could also be kind. — Stephen King
Since 2010, several cases of online shaming have emerged and I have nothing but sympathy for each and every victim, no matter how serious the mistakes they committed may have been. Who are we, after all, in our imperfect collective humanity, to judge others for their flaws and imperfections? Part of that flaw is our habit to criticize, but not to destroy. Destruction is not an automatic human response. The Golden Rule, at least for some people, is. But the temptation to destroy other people’s lives and the information that would justify that impulse bombards us through various forms of stimuli on social media. Today’s online landscape prizes velocity over veracity, hatred over heroism, fiction over fact. We will yield to our urges, and believe instantaneously what we see or hear the more we spend time navigating that impossible terrain.
To be honest, it is very tempting to just do away with social media completely, but how do you do that when an alternative does not yet exist? You want to dispute climate change deniers, who dominate certain online platforms. How do you do that without being in the same arena where they peddle their falsehoods? You want to upend the current political ads system and rally support for lesser-known candidates through traditional fundraising, but your opponents are crowdfunding and getting wider and faster mileage on Facebook, which you have decided to boycott. Can you render a successful counter-attack through your website? Probably not.
Social media is not entirely bad.
As a beneficiary of its usefulness, I know the value that it brings when mobilizing people for a good cause or helping entrepreneurs expand their business. But over the years, the costs seem to be outweighing the benefits, as we have seen in the Cambridge Analytica fiasco. How are the people behind these platforms addressing the nub of the dilemma that may not even be existing yet? How do they manage the unmanageable?
Today’s online landscape prizes velocity over veracity, hatred over heroism, fiction over fact.
Facebook is the dominant channel so let me focus on that. It makes money when people use the platform. The more users argue, the more ad money gets spent. I have nothing against exchanges of opposing views, but Facebook allows one person to have multiple accounts.
That is what enables troll communities to thrive.
That is what turns heated online debates into a bloodsport.
But if the ratio of a Facebook user to any Facebook account is 1:1, how will that person engage through her fan page? Groups? Business page?
Why limit engagement when that’s what leads to profits, nevermind that troll engagements thrive too and help misogynists, climate deniers and downright jerks win elections?
Assuming that Facebook sincerely wants to limit its ability to dangerously influence elections, how can it realistically set up certain controls without compromising established benefits?
How can it manage its power given how deeply it intersects with our daily lives?
These are not questions that have easy answers, and I sincerely empathize with Facebook on some level. I have been an early user and would not have conceived the amount of harassment, vile and violence that has corroded the spirit of community building and free speech that Facebook promotes. I believe that people are entitled to and can voice their own opinions through whatever means at their disposal, but on Facebook, they are doing that with zero transparency and through multiple accounts on a single platform. I call that free fake speech, and that is how disinformation spreads. I advocate for real people speaking (Is that too much to ask?) so we can diminish portable, viral and global online shaming that Facebook has enabled.
I am clearly less prolific online now than I was before and that has tremendously benefited my mental health. I have wisdom clarified by experience, and life has been good to me.
I do wish Facebook and the other dominant channels all the best in sorting out this problem we all have gotten ourselves into.
And my wish for you, if you are still reading this, is to be gentle. Everyone around you is struggling. Let us make it easier for all of us to co-exist.
Ne jugez jamais personne pour quelque chose qu’ils ne peuvent pas changer — Jean Gallia
Translation: Never judge anyone for something they cannot change.