Fake News in the Philippines, with Jonathan Corpus Ong

Sep 10, 2018

Who are behind the fake news and political disinformation campaigns that plague the Philippines? "They're not exactly who you think," says Jonathan Corpus Ong, co-author of a recent study on this. The most important players are not the notorious bloggers and social media influencers as you might expect. "The people who are the chief architects of network disinformation are people in the ad and public relations (PR) industry."

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I have the pleasure of speaking with Jonathan Corpus Ong. He is professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Jonathan, thanks so much for coming here today.

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Thanks for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: This is part of our ongoing conversations that we're doing on disinformation, propaganda, fake news. We call it the Information Warfare series. It's a very exciting title.

Your specialty is looking at fake news in the Philippines. Your research looks at the "architects of networked information" in the Philippines. Who are these architects who are building fake news in the Philippines?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Architects of network disinformation, so these are the people behind fake news, also those influencing people and trying to rally them online, they're not exactly who you think. Our first impulse would be to look at notorious bloggers, social media influencers, but they're not the people at the top, and that's what we were surprised to uncover in our project. The people who are the chief architects of network disinformation are people in the ad and public relations (PR) industry.

DEVIN STEWART: Advertising and public relations.

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Yes, that's right.

DEVIN STEWART: These are middle-class professionals, or who are they?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: These are upper middle-class people. They have extensive experience in the ad and PR industry running campaigns for soft drinks, for shampoos, and they're transposing existing techniques in disinformation to political marketing, so it's just a change of clients. They're taking these on as added projects, as added sidelines to existing work. It's even in fact an open secret in the industry who these people are.

What we did in our study was to interview some of the company managers associated with politicians in the most recent elections and then ask them to introduce us to the people who work for them, so the different people who end up doing the actual fake news websites, who come up with fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter, who translate the strategy to the street, so who are much more fluent in the popular vernacular.

That's what we discuss in our report, that this is a complicated hierarchy of digital workers. You've got ad and PR strategists at the top, but they need the labor of people who are able to speak the language of the masses, those who in our report we say have "mastery of the popular vernacular" and who are able to express things with humor and also using local pop culture references.

DEVIN STEWART: In what language usually?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Sometimes in Filipino, sometimes in English. Each account would have a particular brand identity. Some accounts might marshal a more middle-class aspirational image, and that's what it is. Imagine satirical or parody accounts on Twitter that you might be following. But there might be accounts that are much more angry in terms of orientation, and so it depends on the actual campaign. You would mobilize the account that would suit your objective. So if you're going to attack a person, some of our respondents would say, "If I need to attack somebody, I would need my bitch account." So it would really depend on the existing identity of these accounts. They seem innocent. They seem to just be spreading humorous messaging or pop culture messages, but at some point they would be slipping in political content there.

DEVIN STEWART: Interesting. It sounds like they're using some of the tools of influence or persuasion that they've picked up from the public relations and advertising industries. Can you give me an example of what types of techniques you would use to sell shampoo but also make a political statement? Where's the connection there? Where's the crossover?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: For sure. On Twitter what we uncovered that was surprising was the use of anonymous influencers. For brands they would be hiring a celebrity influencer. We all know who they are.

It's quite transparent and quite visible when a celebrity would be selling a shampoo, for example. You would see the brand there. You would see the proper hashtag. Some celebrities would even label that tweet or their Instagram post with the hashtag #paidad.

DEVIN STEWART: Paid ad. Okay.

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: But these anonymous influencer accounts on Twitter particularly would operate innocently as just spreading humorous messaging. For example, they could be impersonating a politician or a celebrity.

DEVIN STEWART: Mimicking them?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: So like a fake Hillary Clinton account.

DEVIN STEWART: But it's clearly fake.

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: It's clearly fake.

DEVIN STEWART: A parody account.

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: It's clearly a parody account. So you would follow this account. It's very entertaining. At some point, it would be slipping in paid content for a corporate brand and sometimes for politicians.

Then what we found in our report was that there were particular hashtags for politicians or even political issues that would amplify, that would gain viral status, that would be number one in the Twitter trending rankings, but it's just this team of anonymous influencers actually making it go viral.

Then, of course, real people, real supporters would be re-tweeting these messages without knowing that these are actually paid and seeded hashtags.


JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: We use the concept here of "attention hacking." The main aim is to create this illusion of support, this illusion of engagement, a real sense of grassroots support around a particular issue, with an intention that it would influence a mainstream media agenda and our public discussion. That's very dangerous, and we need to be much more transparent and critical about these practices.

DEVIN STEWART: Roughly how many accounts can they mobilize? Do you get a sense of the numbers?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: One person would often have six accounts on Twitter, six accounts ranging across different personalities from funny people to angry accounts, some aspirational, some lower-class, crass messaging. Then a brand or a politician would be hiring them for a particular project, and they would of course try to mobilize those six accounts simultaneously but would be tweaking the message to that specific identity that is resonant and consistent with that account. These are what we call the "anonymous influencers." They are people in the middle of that architecture of network disinformation.

But at the same time we have at the lower level of this hierarchy what we call the "community-level fake account operators." These are people who have very few followers on Twitter or Facebook. Their main intention is really to just re-tweet, to comment on these key messages being spread by these influencers so that it would unleash and open up the discussion for other real supporters to come in and start tweeting, to start posting, and to share their feelings.

DEVIN STEWART: I think there have been news reports about Duterte spreading propaganda in the Philippines and Philippine politics. Do Duterte and his party engage in this type of activity? Does he hire these influencers?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Yes, he does. In our project what we found was that the Duterte campaign was very strategic in terms of mobilizing social media. Initially he was seen as this outsider candidate. He didn't have that much resources to command and to spend on mainstream media, and television advertising would cost so much more than social media campaigns.

What we uncovered was that with the Duterte campaign they actually relied on multiple teams, so different "click armies" that would be translating his messages in different ways. So there is a consistent strategy at the top, but the execution is quite different.

What is really interesting about how they did their campaign was that they are also competitive with each other. So each team would then try to come up with content that would really be much more unpredictable and would push the boundaries a little bit in the message, and I guess that's why it was so effective in terms of trying to tap into the anger and resentment of the masses. Each team would try to execute that in the most creative way that they could.

DEVIN STEWART: Does Duterte also use it while in office? And if so, how does a politician pay for this sort of service?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: The idea is that with the Duterte campaign right now one could look at the key bloggers and influencers as really the faces behind the spread of disinformation or misinformation, whether it's intentional or just really to disrupt public conversation. You've got key figures who are even paid by the government, figures such as Mocha Uson, for example, and they get a lot of attention. In our project we weren't that much concerned with them but really trying to look at this so much more normalized practice that is not exclusively just Duterte, although we need to emphasize that Duterte's campaign was really effective in mobilizing this kind of populist messaging more than others.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you give some concrete examples about the populist messaging that Duterte is trying to spread?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: One would be trying to discredit the kind of established liberal elite leadership in the Philippines and this kind of leadership that is disconnected with the masses. I think that key messaging was consistent with Duterte in his official speeches but also with the influencers that were associated with him and his fans in general. I think that's one key example of that kind of populist messaging that is really resonant.

DEVIN STEWART: Do his opponents also engage in similar tactics?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: That's one of the key arguments in our report that we would really want to emphasize. There are a lot of journalist accounts and even academic research that would exclusively focus on Duterte and how disinformation and fake news seems to have happened overnight because of Duterte himself or his campaigners. I think that's giving him too much credit.

What we found is that this is normalized across the political spectrum. It's not just his party but across the different parties, and not just at the national level but even going down to the local level. We were interviewing people who were operating fake accounts, infiltrating local city Facebook groups, for example, and the discussion and the intention there is to create support for a candidate for a local mayor. It is such a normalized practice, and that's why we're arguing that we need to have an open conversation about this, that this has become so normalized and also very profitable for all these architects of disinformation.

DEVIN STEWART: How long do you think this has been going on? Clearly, Internet tactics couldn't have existed before the Internet, but in terms of spreading propaganda and disinformation do you get the sense that this has always been around in politics all over the world? How new is this phenomenon?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: The historical argument, right? In our report we try to recognize how this is a historical trend, but at the same time it accelerated, and it is expressed in a new and different way in the most recent series of elections.

One could think about propaganda, the use of satire and parody masquerading as conveying real information. It has gone on for a while. One can think about campaigns to discredit previous political candidates for president. One can think about Manny Villar, for example, as being a target of some of this negative campaigning.

But the use of social media for microtargeting, the use of influencers and anonymous influencers to seed hashtags, these seem to be very new to the 2016 Philippine elections.


JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Yes. There is still a new expression to this existing kind of disinformation that has happened.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you explain the newness of it? It is just become it has become more normalized, or because it has become more known as a tactic, or the tools are more available? What is it?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: That's a good question. I think there is a sense of sophistication and learning among ad and PR strategists who have been doing this for corporate brands, a way of trying to create this sense of authenticity and finding the right language that taps into and resonates with supporters and fans.

At the same time, this particular populist political moment creates this new environment in which hatred and being quite open about it and creating these enemies, this desire for strongman leaders, I think this creates this backdrop in which this kind of disinformation would have much more violent expressions. It would be quite different from previous expressions, which might be seen as still having more emphasis on the humorous side of things rather than clearly trying to mobilize people toward violent tendencies.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned before the podcast that one of the campaigns was to change the legacy of Marcos. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Yes. In our report we discuss how there was a particular hashtag around the Marcos burial. Ferdinand Marcos, the late dictator, there was a move several years ago to have his remains buried in the Heroes' Cemetery.

Of course, this creates incredible disagreement in the Filipino public sphere. Here is a person, a mass murderer during the time of martial law, and so to create support for this initiative we saw a lot of accounts on Twitter and Facebook tweeting hashtags that emphasize healing and moving on, which is very interesting messaging to say, "Let's forget about the issues of the past, and we need to come together as a nation." So a lot of hashtags emphasizing unity, healing, and coming together, pretty much revising history, that it never really happened.

We were able to map out the influencers and fake accounts that were emphasizing this narrative. Also, outside of the elections this was happening. I think it's important to emphasize that disinformation is not just an election-related issue; it's about political issues in the everyday; it's about revising the past and to also orchestrate particular political futures.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned that one of the motivations for these public relations workers is that they compete with one another, they have some rivalry. Are there other motivations or personal stories that you picked up during your research?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: We call this question the "How do you sleep at night?" question. We were really interested to understand what makes a person sign up to become a troll in the first place in spite of this stigma around the label of "troll," around the label of "Dutertard," which is a common expression. It's a play between "Duterte" and "retard," and it is commonly used in the Philippines, even in political discussions. Of course, it is problematic.

DEVIN STEWART: Who insults someone with that? Is that someone who supports Duterte? What is that?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: This would be an anti-Duterte person calling Duterte's fans as "Dutertards," so caricaturing them as this kind of brainwashed mob who are rabid and also quite stupid.

We are working to understand those motivations and justifications. For people at the top, it's really interesting because they see themselves as innovators. They see themselves as digital strategists who perhaps didn't have the best time in the ad and PR industry. They had something to prove to their peers, to their rivals in the industry, and they want to make themselves known in a new sphere. They would even try to compete with campaigners who are quite good in mainstream campaigning and grassroots campaigning. They would say: "Well, you know, the future is digital. I'm here to innovate this whole landscape." That's one of their weird motivations, to see themselves as innovators.

One justification is that they say that political campaigns in the Philippines are super-dirty anyway.

DEVIN STEWART: This is their moral justification that you mentioned in your report.


DEVIN STEWART: "Two wrongs make a right" kind of thing? Is that the ethics here?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Yes. Journalists would actually, the word that they use is bayaran; they're like paid stooges anyway for politicians. "Rather than paying out the journalist, why don't you just hire me? I'm going to do something else in the digital sphere, and you don't have to go through that intermediary." Those are some of the ways in which they see themselves as operating in this environment.

At the same time, they try to fictionalize some of the dangerous consequences of what they do. In our report we were able to capture some of these quotes where they say, "You know, I'm like Olivia Pope in Scandal"—a fictional TV show. We interpret these as ways in which they downplay the real dangers that they do by seeing themselves in these kinds of pop culture metaphors and allusions. It's like, "This is like Game of Thrones, and I'm one of those characters playing with the pieces."

DEVIN STEWART: Wow. So they're telling themselves a very nice story to make themselves morally healed, to heal themselves up morally speaking? That's amazing. That's really interesting.

There's Rappler, which is a news organization, investigative.


DEVIN STEWART: What do you make of what the Philippines is doing to fight fake news and bring light to real news and stories? What's the state of play right now in Philippine society?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: There are different approaches in the fight against fake news. I know there are several bills being considered, and these are all works in progress, bills in Congress and the Senate. Some attribute responsibility to the purveyors of fake news in public office. For example, one senator, Grace Poe, would try to impose stiffer penalties on public officials who are caught lying and spreading fake news, so stiffer penalties around that.

DEVIN STEWART: Are those like fines or what?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Yes. There are fines. Some bills would even have up to several years in prison around fake news. I think the bill in Congress has that kind of provision. It extends beyond just public officials but to ordinary people who are caught spreading fake news and disinformation. These are some of the initiatives at the policymaker level.

At the civil society level there is a lot of emphasis on fact-checking initiatives. Rappler, for example, Vera Files, these are news organizations and journalists who specialize in this particular area. Recently they have even partnered with Facebook. Facebook has provided them some support around fact checking in social media.

A lot of the emphasis is about catching fake news once it's out there, like how to take them down, how to assign responsibility or penalties to these people.

We actually advocate a different approach in our report. Our approach is more about let's make it hard to produce disinformation. Let's find ways in which we encourage transparency and accountability in the process in which we campaign such that we try to create those disincentives before disinformation is out there. So it's a different approach that we take in our project.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned also the need for public discussion about this issue. I guess as a final question, are there any final takeaways or recommendations that you'd like to share with our listeners, even for an American audience as well?

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Sure. I would be quite an advocate for transparency and accountability mechanisms around campaigning. I think this approach wouldn't run into those free speech problems which would be emphasizing disinformation or false news once it's already out there, so it's less about censorship.

Our approach is about transparency and accountability in campaigning. Can we actually name who campaigners are? Can we name who politicians hire as part of their campaigns? Can we name influencers, celebrities, and the entire group of supporters in social media who are mobilized for particular campaigns?

We argue in our project that in fact in Philippine campaign finance legislation there are existing provisions for looking into TV, radio, and print, campaigning in these particular media. How about we include social media there? Can we ask politicians to disclose not just who these people are but also the content and strategies of the messaging that they do, particularly on platforms which allow for microtargeting?

Social media would escape this kind of public visibility around these campaigns just because of that principle that you can narrow cast your messages. But there are existing provisions in our law anyway that would compel politicians to disclose these for TV, radio, and print. Let's add social media there.

At the same time, we also encourage the ad and PR industry to have a real public conversation about this. This is an open industry secret about these kinds of practices for corporate brands and the fact that these techniques are also being used for political marketing. I think it's time we reinvigorate a sense of professional ethics in PR and advertising.

DEVIN STEWART: Jonathan Corpus Ong is a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Jonathan, thank you so much for educating us about this issue today.

JONATHAN CORPUS ONG: Thank you for having me.

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