Numbers Don’t Lie


The DDS — some call them the Duterte Death Squad, others say it stands for Duterte Diehard Supporters. Whatever “DDS” stands for, this group has proven to be a strategic political tool that serves the Duterte dynasty.

Analytics derived from social media listening platforms shows that there were approximately 200,000 to 250,000 DDS members active on various social media websites last year. Of this number, 30% are organic (real people with real convictions), while the remainder consist of paid trolls who are under the employ of messaging agencies. Upon further research, I discovered that messaging agencies charge about P5 million to deploy 15 trolls, who in turn, have their own “smurf” villages, for a 30-day period. The core messages originate from the client themselves but are re-worded, re-contextualized and converted into MIMEs by the messaging agency or the public relations firms they are attached to. Maintaining an army of trolls requires both organization and money.

The DDS are strategic to the Duterte political agenda. Not only do they give the impression of a solid political base, their noise makes them appear more formidable than they really are. By design, they are encouraged to be rabid, confrontational and attack like a mob when challenged. The idea is to clobber dissenting voices into silence then strut like a peacock afterwards. The act of “strutting” validates the strength of the group from within. The overarching presence of the DDS in our political landscape is designed to portray the Duterte firmament as immovable.

This piece is not to meant to question the strength of the DDS nor validate/invalidate their effectiveness. Rather, my purpose is to delve into the psychology of the (unpaid) members DDS and what motivates them.

When Mayor Duterte announced his presidential bid in 2016, he was hardly known in the national stage. How was he able to recruit his first core members of DDS?

Political strategists infer that three factors played in Mayor Duterte’s favor.

The first factor is what strategists call “the edge of innovation” — also known as offering the right proposition at a time it is needed most. It will be recalled that back in 2016, the nation hankered for a “strong” leader.” One with unbendable political will, one who was not stymied by bureaucratic and/or democratic processes, one who could get things done without fear of repercussions and one who represented the common Filipino, not the elite. Intentionally or unintentionally, Mayor Duterte portrayed himself as that man.

The second factor was the absence of character dissonance. The Mayor presented himself as-is, where-is, complete with defects. He was unapologetically unrefined, un-academic (more street smart), irreverent and uncouth. He carried no pretenses. The narrative they heard from the Mayor’s speeches was a match to his optics. Authenticity sells and this is the wellspring of his appeal. The fact that he is a politician (known to be posers and liars), yet authentic, added to his attraction.

The third factor was simplicity of message. He solution to the country’s problems could not have been more elementary — solve the drug problem and our lives will be better, today and in the future. Although we all know that building a prosperous nation and an efficient government takes more than just solving the drug problem, it is man’s nature to want to distill complex issues into simple cases of cause and effect. This is especially true when the majority of the electorate don’t understand the workings of economics, public governance, and human development. The less educated resonate with quick fix solutions — and this is what the Mayor pandered to.

Fast forward to today and the DDS is still going strong despite the President falling short in fulfilling his promises. He even backtracked altogether in solving the drug problem and defending our territories from China’s grab. Why do the (unpaid) DDS persist?

Simply put, the DDS persists because of the feeling of empowerment the members get in being a part of the group. It has little to do with the President’s achievements.

Edward Louis Bernays is the Austrian pioneer in the field of propaganda. Bernays theorized that individuals naturally feel a sense of importance when they are attached to a group, especially one that is politically driven. Being a member of a group gives its members a feeling of potency, something they would not possess on their own. This feeling of potency and empowerment can be addictive.

When one is a member of a group, individual personalities and values disappear and its members take on the personality of the group. And since groups are naturally driven by impulses and emotions, they become highly suggestable. This is why a group like the DDS can be easily swayed by their handlers. They can be led to feel strong emotions (e.g., rage, contempt) and called into action even if it means breaking the law and breaking one’s moral code.

Mind you, the group does not have to physically together to feel a sense of belonging. Being a member of a group is a state of mind.

Members of a group can hide under the cloak of anonymity. With anonymity comes less fear of the law or social castigation. Group members act less civilized because anonymity exempts them from consequences. This is why group have the propensity to act like a mob.

A group, and the principles it stands for, are highly contagious too, asserts Bernays. The power of collective thought can easily sway others to adopt the same thought. One validates the other and a cascade of new recruits follows. This is why groups, like the DDS, have grown from just a handful of “apostles” to more than 200,000.

Love them or hate them, the DDS are part of our political landscape today. It will do us well to understand their psychology.


Andrew J. Masigan is an economist

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Twitter @aj_masigan