This post was written by Patricia Denise M. Chiu, an associate analyst at business news and research organisation The Asset and former reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
On June 30, the Philippines ushers in a new president: Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, son and namesake of the late dictator who had placed the country under a brutal martial law regime in the 1970s. The Marcoses’ return to power, nearly four decades since they were overthrown in a popular revolt, was bolstered by a years-long disinformation campaign that steadily sought to whitewash the family’s crimes.
Analysts have called Marcos’ election triumph a victory for disinformation, with historical revisionism the main narrative perpetuated in online spaces. While the Marcos camp has long denied using troll farms to manipulate public opinion online, multiple reports have undermined these claims. For instance, a study by fact-checking group Tsek.ph showed that Marcos benefited the most from false content on social media, while his closest rival, outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo, was the “biggest victim”.
This online disinformation campaign has been running for at least a decade, according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. But political developments and the changing digital landscape in the Philippines over the past years have contributed to the revisionism campaign’s success.
An online environment for disinformation
In stark contrast with previous elections when candidates would slug it out over televised debates and spend most of their campaign funds on expensive television, radio and print ads, the battleground for the May 2022 elections has shifted well and truly online.
Long pegged as the social media capital of the world, the Philippines’ young, tech savvy, majority English speaking population made the shift to digital nearly seamlessly. This was helped in large part by Facebook’s 2013 move to subsidise internet access to its mobile app in an effort to grow its user base, as well as telco providers’ decision to offer cheap data plans often bundled with access to social media platforms.
The Free Facebook experiment was a wild success: as of the first quarter of 2022, there were a total of 83.85 million Facebook users in the country, nearly 75% of the estimated 112.5 million population.
And since clicking out of Free Facebook means having to pay expensive cellular data fees, for many Filipinos the social media site has become their default internet service provider, where they connect with friends and family and get their news updates.
But this access also exposed some glaring gaps, capitalising on weak digital education and literacy in the Philippines. Multiple bad actors have also exploited the platform’s reach, making disinformation and misinformation commonplace, and thus making it hard for ordinary Filipinos to determine if a post is fact or fabrication.
In 2018, two years after Rodrigo Duterte was elected president with the help of troll armies and fake news operators, Facebook executive Katie Harbath admitted that the Philippines was “patient zero” in the global plague and fight against digital disinformation.
Duterte went on to embark on a bloody drug war and contributed to the rehabilitation of the Marcos family by allowing a hero’s burial for the deposed dictator. And, with the help of a similar playbook that got Duterte elected, Marcos Jr went on to win a landslide victory.
Marcos Jr’s win demonstrates just how powerful disinformation can be. His closest rival, Robredo, also recognised this, and expressed regret over not countering online disinformation against her sooner. In a 2019 interview, she said it was naive of her and that by not taking action, it contributed to the spread of misinformation about her and her office.
Since then, Robredo has oft-repeated how important it is to fight false narratives with facts, something that has reverberated throughout her campaign in the form of info-packed ads and lists of her pandemic-related accomplishments.
It was a hard won lesson for Robredo, who is still often called stupid, aloof, a puppet or someone’s mistress by numerous misleading or even downright false posts.
But who really is in control of these posts that sow disinformation to begin with?
Machinery of disinformation
While the common assumption is that individual actors, influenced by charismatic strongmen such as Duterte, have voluntarily taken to defending their political heroes rabidly online, there is a “a whole hierarchy of people” assembling troll armies, according to media expert and University of Massachusetts professor Jonathan Ong.
In a pre-election forum hosted by EngageMedia in April, Ong said advertising and PR strategists sit at the top of the food chain of disinformation. These big wigs are political strategists who operate out of corporate boardrooms and are motivated not by any one political ideology or belief, but rather by money.
A prevailing problem, Ong added, is that low-level trolls continue to be the main target of anti-disinformation initiatives, and little is done to penalise industry leaders and political elites who control these troll armies.
“We have really done very little to hold accountable people at the top [even though] it’s an open secret who these people are”, he said.
Ong urged both the public and civil society advocates to keep their eye on the “big fish”, instead of fighting and working to unmask individual trolls who may only be participating in these operations to make a living.
There is sound logic behind Ong’s suggestions and observations, which draw from research he conducted with De La Salle University communications professor Jason Cabañes. The two spent a year interviewing and getting to know high-level strategists as well as digital support workers behind fake news and “digital black ops” in the country. The result is an 82-page report, titled Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines, which mapped out the professionalised hierarchy of digital operators that hide in plain sight – individuals Ong and Cabañes call “architects of networked disinformation”.
There is a need to reimagine accountability measures when it comes to fighting fake news, Ong said, especially since in the course of his research, he found that fact-checking and blacklisting troll accounts do not address the underlying causes of disinformation.
“The demonisation or glorification of singular online figures fails to understand or address the roots of networked disinformation…these roots run deep entrenched in systematised labor and incentive structures that have been normalised in, and even professionalised by, the creative and digital industries”, Ong said in his report with Cabañes.
Ong and his colleague note that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the complex problem of networked disinformation, but they suggest several interventions, including the possibility of investigating and regulating the firms engaged in political campaigns.
In their report, Ong and Cabañes called for the passage of a Political Campaign Transparency Act that will require candidates to disclose how much they spend on digital campaigning. The researchers say this will augment the current election laws such as the Omnibus Election Code and the Fair Election Act, which only require candidates to submit a report on their spending on traditional media.
“The public has the right to know the quantity and quality of politicians’ television and radio advertising materials, but also the viral videos, trending hashtags, and Facebook advertisements they purchase”, the report said.
Deliberative fora to counter disinformation
During the EngageMedia forum, sociologist and University of Canberra professor Nicole Curato also said that it is high time to put to rest the notion that ordinary social media users are “passive and manipulable”.
Curato, who worked with other researchers to mount a deliberative forum on disinformation, said that ordinary Filipinos understand that fighting fake news needs organisational rather than mere individual effort.
A deliberative forum involves the public in decision making. In Curato’s case, she and her fellow researchers gathered 26 randomly-selected participants from all over the Philippines to participate in a three day forum on dis- and mis- information online, where they listened to experts and debated among each other, before coming up with recommendations on how to fight fake news.
“When we interviewed participants before the forum, we observed that participants’ views on disinformation were individualistic”, Curato said.
Early comments included ideas on “thinking before you share” or “learning how to fact check”. However, after critically engaging with expert evidence and brainstorming together, Curato said there was a shift in the participants’ mindset.
“We observed a shift to a structural and critical account of disinformation, placing responsibility not on a few bad actors, but to a systematic flaw in the system that is built around money and power”, she said.
One of the main findings after conducting the forum was that disinformation is part of the larger issue of the role that money plays during elections.
“It’s not just about fighting fake news, it’s about fighting money politics. It’s about fighting political dynasties”, Curato said.
Curato said the participants of the deliberative forum reached a “near consensus” in their recommendations to fight disinformation, chief of which was suggesting the creation of an anti-fake news and anti-trolling law, with clear caveats that the law should not end up silencing dissidents or only penalising the poor. Another suggestion was to strengthen anti-dynasty laws in the country and calling on the government to strengthen educational campaigns.
Ensuring online safety amid digital attacks
The election season has seen a slew of digital attacks: some campaign volunteers have experienced harassment and even red-tagging online, while anecdotal reports showed that some experienced heightened surveillance and text and email threats from suspected state-sponsored forces.
Beyond the election season, ensuring digital safety is still a paramount concern. To help the Filipino public safety exercise their rights online, EngageMedia produced a list of tips to increase digital security. This guide is currently available in English, Filipino, Ilokano, Waray, and Hiligaynon. A video version in Filipino is also available.
Vino Lucero, EngageMedia Digital Rights and Communication Manager, suggests following reputable news organisations and civil society groups such as the Foundation for Media Alternatives and Out of The Box to stay up to date about current and emerging digital rights threats.
When engaging online, Lucero said it is important to know one’s digital rights. It is also prudent to exercise digital hygiene, such as using strong passwords and enabling two-factor authentication on devices and accounts.
“While this will not prevent bad actors from targeting you, it will decrease your vulnerability and minimise the potential harm,” Lucero said.
Aside from these, Curato said it is crucial to bring ordinary citizens into a context where they can deliberate and exchange arguments in a respectful and thoughtful setting.
She pointed to countries like Canada, which has scaled up the deliberative forum by putting in place an extensive three-year Citizen’s Assembly on Democratic Expression, with the goal of examining the impact of digital technologies on Canadian society. The Canadian government says it hopes the initiative will “help to propel an important conversation about the future of digital technologies and the public policies required to ensure these technologies support a vibrant democracy.”
“I really hope that if our next government are credible democratic actors, I hope that we can have this more structured deliberative conversation about the new social contract for the digital age,” Curato said.
The new administration has much to prove when it comes to upholding human and digital rights. Just days before Duterte’s term of office ended, the National Telecommunications Commission ordered internet service providers to block 26 websites, including independent media groups, allegedly over their ties to terrorist organisations. Days later, news website Rappler was once again ordered to shut down following regulators’ revocation of its licence to operate.
As the fight against the erosion of digital rights continues, the lessons learned from the May 2022 elections — and those to come in the next six years — may provide other countries with a new playbook for would-be populist-authoritarian leaders, or a hopeful blueprint for civil society on how to counter misinformation effectively.