Disinformation is rightly identified as a form of fraud that poisoned the minds of voters in the 2022 elections. However, it is just one aspect of the information disorder that enabled traditional politicians and other malevolent political forces to manipulate the electoral process. In previous elections, political dynasties ensured their dominance by controlling the narratives propagated by corporate media. In the age of automation, this strategy was boosted by flooding the internet with distorted content.
The role of mainstream media was undermined when the Rodrigo Duterte government forced the closure of ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest media network. This created a chilling effect which led small and big newsrooms to hold back in calling out the excesses of the Duterte administration. The shutdown of ABS-CBN also restricted public access to verified information, especially for millions of Filipinos living in the provinces.
The Duterte government didn’t stop with ABS-CBN. It weaponized laws and judicial processes to persecute hard-hitting journalists while independent media news websites were targeted with cyber attacks. Duterte himself led the vicious campaign of vilifying the press.
This was extended to demonizing critics and other opposition forces. It morphed into a red-tagging spree until it became the de facto state policy in dealing with individuals and groups who are perceived to be a threat to the Duterte presidency.
State-directed troll operations were mainly responsible for polluting the cyberspace with inanities as they normalized the spreading of hate and lies with impunity. Troll farms have been existing for many years already but their notoriety in shaping public opinion became more evident when Duterte confirmed an Oxford study that he hired a cyber army to support his presidential campaign in 2016. As social media use became more ubiquitous, politicians increasingly relied on mercenary keyboard warriors to bombard voters with partisan content, including patently false narratives, historical lies, and denialism.
When tech platforms finally saw the need for action by suspending suspicious accounts, it was already too late since elections were just a few months away and many voters have already made up their minds after years of being exposed to dubious information. Enforcement of so-called community standards was also arbitrary, and it even led to the flagging of legitimate accounts and posts of many internet users. For opposition groups, they have to evade both the well-funded trolls and the clueless AI deployed by tech companies.
The elections also reminded us that social media apps are not originally designed for social good but to generate profit. Our data and interaction with each other were monetized and offered to those who can afford to place expensive ads. This means political dynasties and big political parties have a clear advantage in amplifying their visibility on various platforms, even if their promotional materials contain disinformation.
It is also a disservice to voters that what gets widely shared on the internet are not fact-checked reports but posts with emotionally provocative keywords that supposedly elicit greater audience engagement. Scandals and online feuds trigger higher web traffic incentivizing content producers to promote this type of content that is consumed by citizens to make informed decisions. Mainstream and new media thrive on the same perverse logic that feeding the masses with silly infotainment content is a form of public service.
However, the internet has a more sinister role in keeping the public distracted. Indeed, internet users are able to choose their sources of information but few are aware that this is already predetermined by the algorithm of the social media network. We are trapped in comforting echo chambers which prevent us from determining the truth, the unfolding of a political situation, and understanding the sentiment of the majority. Our social media network may be impressive but not always big enough to capture what’s happening on the ground, especially in the semi-digital spaces across the country. We roll out campaign activities based on the numbers reflected on trending hashtags, Google trends, and social media metrics. They are accurate at a certain instant of time but it is wrong to interpret internet data without doing a holistic analysis of the political landscape. There is disinformation unleashed by evil political forces and there is a misreading of the situation when we spend an unhealthy amount of time cheering our reflections in our tiny bubbles.
How can networked disinformation fundamentally affect elections in a country with a persistent digital gap? First, state propaganda is pervasive and its multiplier effect can reach the remotest corners of the land. It means Duterte’s incoherence and brutal sound bites are echoed in the bureaucracy, transmitted and repackaged in various formats in all media networks. Disinformation is legitimized if the troll-in-chief is spreading it as a directive. Second, the pandemic in the past two years forced many to rely on the internet for news about almost everything from health to accessing government programs. During the prolonged lockdown, people spent more time browsing the internet which also made them more susceptible to systematic and sophisticated disinformation campaigns.
A movement has already emerged which aims to counter the nefarious impact of disinformation. It reflects the clamor of the people to make elections and governance more transparent by ensuring that people can readily access accurate and credible information. It is mainly a political demand since it requires the reversal of state policies that negate media freedom. It is addressed to authorities who are using public funds in maintaining a troll army for self-serving interests. Stakeholders calling out the corporate media and tech platforms to assume a bigger responsibility in fixing the broken media landscape. And finally, citizens mobilizing for the protection of digital rights and safer civic space, the defense of truth, and the struggle for a better future.