I bumped yesterday into another interesting article from Rappler, the online news outlet that the Duterte administration wants to close. The article is titled, “Chief Disinformation Architects in the PH: Not Exactly What You Think” and written by Jonathan Corpus Ong and Jason Cabanes. It is based on a 12-month study conducted by researchers from the University of Massachusetts, University of Leeds and our very own De La Salle University.
The study’s title is equally kilometric: “Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines.”
One interesting finding is that the main producers of disinformation in social media in the Philippines are not the troll armies of Mocha Uson, Sass Sasot, etc. called the Diehard Duterte Supporters (DDS) but those wearing “respectable faces as leaders in the ad and PR industry, hiding in plain sight while sidestepping accountability.”
The study did discover that “disinformation production is a professionalized enterprise.”
I consider this setup logical because the disinformation producers’ clients, who are politicians, surely consider dealing with shadowy groups or personalities messy and tedious. Here, they will only approach an ad or PR firm and are assured the work would be “professionally” done. I use the quotation marks there because the study actually found out that these disinformation producers are “exploitative in their morality and ethics.”
On the ad and PR firms, the study noted that many of them hold leadership roles in “boutique agencies” in the country and are “handling a portfolio of corporate brands while freelancing for political clients on the side.”
“With their track record for launching Facebook business pages, trending hashtag campaigns worldwide, and building engaged communities for household brands, telcos or celebrities, tried-and-tested industry techniques of spin and reputation-building acquire new power and momentum in their hands– and these skills are for sale,” the study noted.
The ad and PR firms in turn utilize anonymous digital influencers, or those who usually operate one or more Facebook pages or twitter feeds with from 50,000 to 2 million followers. They are anonymous, unlike, say, Uson, Sasot, Thinking Pinoy, etc., meaning, they didn’t get the privilege of being invited to the Senate hearing on fake news called by Sen. Grace Poe.
At the bottom of the hierarchy are the fake account operators. These are the people who flood social media with scripted posts giving the illusion that a politician has popular support or his policies are warmly welcomed by the public. They are the ones who flood accounts with toxic messages, especially those critical to the clients of the ad and PR firms.
Of course, what makes the entire operation work is money. Millions of pesos for those at the top and thousands of pesos trickling down to the bottom. Since the clients are politicians, the money most probably comes from the government coffers.
With this knowledge, I hope the Senate probe and the public won’t be fooled the next time around.