The Philippines’ current information disorder goes beyond “digital disinformation” to “influence operations” which propagate manipulative political narratives. Initiatives to counter online manipulation need to be creative and engaging.
The Philippines is known for pushing the frontiers of online information disorder. How this phenomenon unfolds in the country can be instructive for its Southeast Asian neighbours and the world at large. Two reports published in the wake of the 2022 Philippines national elections have argued that the problem with the current information disorder goes beyond dealing with “digital disinformation” and should be expanded to include “influence operations”. This has significant implications for how the current situation could be more effectively redressed.
The first report, by Rossine Fallorina and his co-authors, uses the term “influence operations” to denote a shift in campaign strategies. They point out that the Philippines’ last three election cycles—from 2016 to 2019 to 2022—saw “disinformation in the form of blatantly false claims…[evolve] to influence operations where hyper-partisan narratives offer wildly divergent interpretations of political issues and events.”
The report sheds light on how these operations led to “self-sustaining information-media-fantasy ecosystems catering to each political camp”. Crucial to these ecosystems were content creators who upheld the different camps’ favoured overarching political narratives, such as the myth that the Philippines’ Martial Law era was a “golden age” and that the country’s mainstream “experts” are elitist and biased sources of information. These creators ranged from elected politicians turned lifestyle content producers, to academic and vlogger allies recast as knowledge influencers, to hyper-partisan broadcast news anchors and commentators.
Influence operations do not necessarily involve the direct use of false claims to push a political agenda or quash competing ones. However, they disseminate the same overarching political narratives as digital disinformation campaigns.
The second report, lead-authored by Fatima Gaw and her team, deploys the term influence operations to denote campaign activities of greater scope. Their research contends that, while digital disinformation has been crucial to the Philippines’ electoral politics, it is only a part of broader, well-funded and well-orchestrated covert influence operations that “perpetuate falsehoods and manipulative narratives in the service of particular political agenda.”
The report notes that influence operations do not necessarily involve the direct use of false claims to push a political agenda or quash competing ones. However, they disseminate the same overarching political narratives as digital disinformation campaigns. One way they do this is by using social media influencers who occupy the grey area between politics and entertainment.
Despite the slight difference in how the two reports define the term influence operations, both agree that the propagation of manipulative overarching political narratives is central to such operations. In my research with the historian Fernando Santiago, we provided an empirical account of the persuasive power of such political narratives. We showed how in the run-up to the Philippines 2022 national elections, these narratives were most effective when they connected with a particular group’s “shared imaginaries”. This involved weaponizing — for political ends — people’s collectively held stories, sentiments, and practices about their socio-political world.
Based on our account, we argued that for counter-disinformation initiatives to be more effective, they also needed to attend to these shared imaginaries in creative and engaging ways. The same approach can be adopted for pushing back on influence operations that do not necessarily deploy false claims but promote the same manipulative political narratives.
In the Philippines, this emphasis on creative narratives is gaining ground. As opined by Juan Felix, Program Manager for Research and Social Analysis at the human rights education organisation Active Vista Center, and his co-authors, “Fact-checking and digital literacy campaigns can win minds, but we need imaginative and compelling stories to win hearts.”
The news website Rappler’s video-making contest, as part of their #FactsFirstPH initiative, aligns with this new emphasis on information embedded in creative narratives. This contest encouraged young people and professionals in the Philippines to make creative video shorts promoting media and information literacy. Another project is the “Community Engagement Fund” by academics Jonathan Corpus Ong and Nicole Curato. One strand of this initiative brings scholars and practitioners together to work on creative storytelling projects about the production and consumption of disinformation in the Philippines.
Beyond the use of creative narratives, initiatives that push back on influence operations must innovatively and purposefully connect with people’s collective stories, sentiments, and practices. Moreover, they should strategically and concertedly amplify the said narrative. Along these lines, Edson Tandoc, Director of the Centre for Information Integrity and the Internet (IN-cube) at Nanyang Technological University, articulated at a recent ISEAS webinar that countering disinformation and influence operations cannot adopt piecemeal approaches. Efforts to check the manipulative political narratives circulating in society should be scaled-up and systematic.
The work will face challenges, beginning with methodically listening to the shared political worldviews, feelings, and practices that predominate in the different echo chambers that support the Philippines’ rival political groups. Those involved in countering influence operations in the country also need to do the challenging work of collaborating with each other despite their potentially different interests. Those from the news and creative industries, big tech, non-profit organisations and multilateral institutions, the public sector, as well as academia will have to move beyond their concern for their own pet projects. They will need to identify their intersecting interests and also their mutually acceptable rules of engagement. From these shared principles, they will have to agree on what creative projects to fund and what compelling framing narratives to use to connect with the country’s distinct political camps.
With the growing call for genuinely cross-sectoral collaborations that push back against influence operations, one can hope that such initiatives will materialise in the Philippines and beyond sooner rather than later.
Jason Vincent A. Cabañes is Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Professor of Communication and Research Fellow at De La Salle University in the Philippines.