"She received threats of rape and murder — now she is studying online political culture from halfway across the world."


Remember Renee Juliene Karunungan, the girl who said during the 2016 campaign that Duterte would be a lazy choice – and who paid dearly for saying so?

She was reacting to claims that then-candidate Duterte would be able to solve all of the country’s problems – no one person would be able to do that. Her post triggered a wave of threats. She received pictures of guns, of people holding guns, and messages that told her that “they” knew where she lived, that if they saw her she would be raped, and that they would come for her family and kill them as well.

“They were really direct threats, and at that time I was living alone,” Karunungan recalled.

She got so alarmed that she decided to file cases – against 22 individuals to be exact – before the National Bureau of Investigation. A team of lawyers, who supported her pro bono, cited the Cybercrime Law, specifically grave threats and intent to harm. Separate civil cases were filed for violations of the Omnibus Election Code.

After five years, the case has barely moved. Subpoenas have been issued to the accused -- but then again, given the legendary pace of our justice system, Karunungan never expected a swift resolution of her cases. 

Karunungan is now 31 and a PhD candidate at the Loughborough University in the UK. She lives in the city of Norwich. She says that after this 2016 incident, she decided to quit her job and to continue her masters abroad. “Why would I continue working in the Philippines when this is all I get after many years of development work and trying to help my country? Not thank you, but death threats?”

A Chevening scholarship made it easier for her to decide to leave. 

Soon, however, Karunungan realized could never really stay away from home. Even now that she is on the other side of the globe, Karunungan keeps coming back to what happened to her. For her PhD research, she is studying online culture among so-called Philippine “influencers” on social media. “I really want to get to the root of this: How can people act this way? It baffles me why people do this at all.”

In hindsight, immersing herself in the research was a way for her to process what she had to go through in 2016. She expects she needs to cope with it for many more years. 

She could, she said, understand paid trolls who do their deed online for the money. But those who do it out of their own sheer will? “Di ko gets (I don’t get it).” 

Karunungan is studying the social media accounts of five rabid supporters, and five vociferous critics, of President Duterte. (The research does not include the audience’s comments on the posts – just the posts themselves.) She is trying to determine the rhetorical devices they use to engage their audience, specifically on human rights, COVID-19, and PH-China relations. 

Do they use facts and statistics? Humor? Mockery? Sarcasm? The devices range from incivility (disrespectful but not inciting violence), to intolerance (blaming a group of people for a problem), to hate speech.

She has unearthed an early surprise. While Karunungan has read just a small portion of all the 2019 and 2020 posts included in her study, there are indications that the discourse from the ten influencers are overwhelmingly civil – 80 percent, in her early estimate.

What do these early numbers say, and if the trend continues, what will the ultimate message be?

“We can say that despite all these things, civility prevails. The influencers from both the pro- and anti-Duterte camps are not the ones pushing for hate. We may look like we are politically polarized, but online, at least, we remain civil.”

The reason could be culture, or religion, or the pandemic itself, Karununga said. “COVID helped. When COVID started happening, people became more civil to each other – and I am talking about both groups. Both were calling for unity, both wanted an end to the pandemic. It does not matter what side of the political fence you are on because anyone can catch COVID. It brought out a kind of caring among us – after all, this is a common enemy we are fighting.”

Encouraging, but then again, she has only looked at 2019-2020 data. It would be interesting to know if a) this trend persists across her data set and b) if civility would take a backseat to the campaign for the 2022 polls.

Karunungan cannot yet tell if a homecoming would be on the horizon for her. After all, she has just gotten engaged and does not know if her partner would get a suitable job here.

Then again, wherever she may be, she feels very much in touch with home. She enjoys her research and feels her work could somehow contribute to our understanding of why Filipino social media users behave as they do. “Perhaps it can help organizations and policymakers so that decisions will be based on data, not taken out of thin air.” Moving forward, she wants to do post-graduate work on historical revisionism through modern, digital means.

What can she say to the people who threatened her five years ago?

“I hope they have learned that all actions have consequences, whether you do them offline or from behind a screen,” Karunungan says. “I hope they now know it’s never right to threaten or scare other people. We should know better than get carried away by emotion when interacting online.”

[email protected]

Topics: Renee Juliene Karunungan , National Bureau of Investigation , Cybercrime Law , Omnibus Election Code

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