On election day, May 9, I had to take a Grab car to the television studio, where I was scheduled to host the primetime show from 6-9 p.m.
The driver, trying to make conversation, asked if I’d voted. I said yes, I have, and returned the question. He said he was finishing up his shift in two hours and would then head to the polling precincts.
Against my better judgment, I asked if he’d made up his mind.
“Of course Marcos,” he said emphatically. “For my family, there’s no question.”
Marcos, of course, was Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the late dictator, who had been leading pre-election surveys by a mile.
Being the stubborn journalist that I am, I tried to reason with him using good old-fashioned facts. But facts, as we are all learning the hard way, are no longer enough.
“The ill-gotten wealth was never proven; no court in the world ever convicted them.”
“Tax evasion? That’s just something their political opponents concocted.”
“The Marcos family was wealthy before they even entered politics. They have gold.”
“The father’s time was really the golden era; we want to go back to that.”
This was my first up close and personal encounter with someone who had fallen hook, line and sinker for all the false narratives and propaganda poisoning discourse on social media. Before him, I had seen the vitriolic debates online, of course, but always assumed trolls were paid to brawl with others for the engagement numbers. Surely no one actually believed that the Marcos family bought entire buildings in New York City using honest money?
“The head troll isn’t a low-income person,” Jonathan Ong, associate professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told PumaPodcast in a new show called Catch Me If You Can. Ong is also a disinformation researcher at Harvard University and has spent considerable time studying troll networks and how fake news spreads.
“This person operates from a very respectable boardroom. They handle corporate accounts usually and also mix it up with political clients,” he said.
This is a point I’ve heard Ong make every time he’s had to speak on the subject, because the popular notion remains that trolls are poor, uneducated bums in hoodies, working in dark, moldy apartments or offices. What Ong wants people to understand is that that’s a poor stereotype. He says head trolls, the ones who do the most damage, are out in the open–sometimes in fancy high-rise offices in the business districts. They’re well-educated. Many work for prestigious ad or PR agencies.
“They use a lot of tools to monitor reach and engagement and they obviously have strategies of branding. And they transpose that kind of thinking to people. They package politicians in a certain way,” he said.
One way local journalists tried to fight back is by coming together for Tsek.ph, a fact-checking collaborative among 34 partners from academe, media and civil society.
A month before the elections, Meta also said it took down more than 400 accounts engaged in malicious activities, including ones that defaced legitimate news sites in the Philippines as well as those that suddenly changed the focus of their group, like a page that shared dance videos that renamed itself to “Bongbong Marcos news.” Fact checkers have long identified Marcos as the biggest beneficiary of online disinformation.
But others say the tech platforms need to do more–beginning with taking down content that’s been flagged as false. Rick Berdos, a fact checker for independent media Vera Files, told PumaPodcast that Meta has a forgiving penalty system.
“For instance if you’re a vlogger–let’s say three or more of your claims [have been] rated as false by a fact-checking partner, [Facebook’s algorithm] then rates you lower or stops recommending you and your content, which means less monetization [opportunities],” Berdos said. But he pointed out that the content continues to live on the platform and circulate, albeit with a “false” tag.
The Commission on Elections itself acknowledges they have no means of going after candidates who engage online influencers or troll farms. And journalists who tried to follow the money often came up short.
“Actually a lot of the clients pay cold cash and the only paper trail for investigative journalists to look at is the transfer from ATM to [the trolls],” Jason Cabañes, a communications professor at De La Salle University, told PumaPodcast. Cabañes also worked on the research paper “Architects of Networked Disinformation” with Jonathan Ong. “[But other paperwork] linking [the troll] to a client and principals would prove very challenging because they don’t leave a trace,” he said.
And of course, fact-checking is a tedious, laborious process. Undermanned and under-budgeted newsrooms are no match for entire networks of disinformation. Debunking one meme alone takes hours.
“It’s just that you’ve been kinda slow in reacting and it’s the nature of broadcast and traditional [media] in terms of editorial control, in terms of making sure the [facts are checked], etc.,” said Atty. Tony La Viña, lead convenor of the Movement Against Disinformation, in an interview on One News. “But we need to learn how to do things faster. We all need to learn how to do videos better than those that disseminate false information.”
According to Tsek.ph’s research, Facebook remained the biggest enabler of disinformation among the social media sites, followed by Youtube and TikTok. But La Viña says the Chinese social media platform is the one to watch.
“Facebook is not even the best vehicle now for disinformation–it’s TikTok. It’s short videos. You can have something destroyed or something built up with a single video especially with the youth,” he said.
Indeed, my Grab driver referred me to TikTok during our exchange about the various courts in the world that did convict the Marcos family of plunder.
La Viña’s group, the Movement Against Disinformation, says post-elections, they will gear up to challenge the social media platforms in court.
“We want them to implement their community policies–and number one is ‘no falsehoods’. Where there are civil, criminal, and administrative cases, we will file them even after the elections. Because the war against disinformation will not end there,” he said.