The Philippines is currently at the global cutting edge of fake news and political trolling online. Unfortunately, the country has yet to find firm footing in stemming disinformation’s unruly growth.
When it comes to the genesis of large-scale political disinformation campaigns, most people think of the June 2016 Brexit referendum in the U.K. and the November 2016 U.S. national elections. Fewer are aware that before these events, the May 2016 Philippine national elections had witnessed the rise of digital disinformation campaigns that hyper-extended the advertising and public relations strategies used to promote brands and celebrities into the realm of politics. As Facebook executive Katie Harbath put it, the Philippines is the “patient zero” of the global information disorder epidemic.
Politicians’ digital campaigns in the Philippines have included advertising and public relations strategies like using core campaign messages to guide the production of hashtags, quotes, and memes; integrated media plans that map out how the ‘click army’ of disinformation producers for hire would be mobilised across platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube; and ‘brand bibles’ dictating the social media personas of fake or ‘avatar’ accounts used for disinformation.
Since 2016, those at the helm of the digital disinformation industry have become even more adept at cat-and-mouse games that exploit the gaps in technological and regulatory features of social media platforms. They have also been more creative in recruiting specialised digital workers to push their content, from good-looking and typically young “thirst trap” Instagrammers to Tiktok influencers.
In contrast to the rapid developments in the Philippines’ digital disinformation industry, public conversations on counter-disinformation continue to be dominated by approaches focused on fact-checking and media literacy. These initiatives are important in sharpening how individual Filipinos assess the veracity of online content and identify appropriate sources of facts but they are not enough to urgently address today’s exponentially increasing ‘information disorder’.
In the lead-up to the 2022 Philippines national elections, the authors conducted research interviews with the precarious middle class in Manila. These were individuals who had a taste of the middle-class lifestyle but did not live in gated communities. They were still exposed to the daily challenges of life in the city, from creaky public transport infrastructure to petty criminality on the streets. Their responses gave us important insights into the problem of defining digital disinformation as being primarily about information distortion.
We suggest that counter-disinformation efforts can turn disinformation campaigns on their head by turning their own strategies against them.
The interviews underscore the importance of emphasising that digital disinformation also has an “imaginative dimension”. Key to the power of fake news and political trolling is their ability to connect with and ultimately weaponise people’s ‘imaginaries’ about politics. The term ‘imaginaries’, as used by the first author, refers to people’s shared narratives, feelings, and relationship norms about the political world in which they live. Although people are not passive dupes, these imaginaries are central to their negotiations with online content and with the related social media comments, reactions, and shares of other individuals.
One important insight from our interviews is that Manila’s precarious middle class found the daily grind of life to be exhausting. They often did not have the energy to verify and counter-check what they saw online. This was especially so during the Covid-19 pandemic, which made their lives more challenging. One shop supervisor in his forties said, “I don’t want more toxicity in my life, so I tend to skip news that’s political.”
We also learned that many interviewees use their access to a range of social media platforms to create a “safe space” to hold on to their existing beliefs and to avoid engaging those with differing political perspectives. A case in point is a project manager in his twenties, who claims to be outspoken but also says, “Most of my relatives and friends who are on Facebook don’t really share my opinions about certain things. What I do is just share on Twitter.”
Finally, we learned that digital disinformation producers have twisted the notion of fact-checking. For example, they have exploited mainstream journalism’s admitted shortcomings to cast the latter as irredeemably biased and elitist. Conversely, they have simplistically portrayed digital influencers and online vloggers as authentic and ‘for the people’. One administrative assistant in her twenties echoed this, saying, “If I want to know what’s really going on, I prefer knowing from the source itself. Isn’t it that the vloggers who support politicians have their own channels? I’d rather listen directly to them than the potentially exaggerated version of MSM (mainstream media)”.
Digital disinformation producers are expertly attuned to how people scroll through their social media feeds. They know that many are too exhausted to be constantly vigilant about online content and do not want to engage with others who hold divergent ideas. Hence, these producers deliver their campaign messages through punchy, entertaining, and memorable content that is easily shareable and made viral. These producers also know that many have misgivings about traditionally authoritative sources of information and so, they collaborate with digital influencers and vloggers.
Understanding how wily those in the Philippines’ digital disinformation industry are, those who design counter-disinformation initiatives cannot just place the onus on ordinary people to individually fight fake news and political trolling.
We suggest that counter-disinformation efforts can turn disinformation campaigns on their head by turning their own strategies against them. These counter-disinformation campaigns should promote truths in ways that are less didactic and that engage more with people’s shared imaginaries. One can, for instance, tap positive forces within the creative industries to produce historically informed films, television dramas, and other media that can tell powerful alternatives to disinformation. One example is “This Here.Land”, a performance that goes beyond political polarities by involving artists both critical and supportive of the Duterte presidency. Those involved in counter-disinformation need to spotlight and amplify such projects.
Counter-disinformation should also look to stymie the disinformation production process. This entails cross-sectoral collaboration across the advertising and public relations industry, big tech companies, political actors, civil society organisations, mainstream media, and academia. Their initiatives should aim to make it more challenging to grow a disinformation industry that is thriving in the wild wild web.
Jason Vincent A. Cabañes is Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Fernando A. Santiago, Jr. is Associate Professor in History and Director of the Southeast Asia Research Center and Hub at De La Salle University in the Philippines.