Disinformation campaigns: Thirst traps and ‘hugot’ in 2019 Philippine elections

AT A GLANCE:

 

MANILA, Philippines – In the age of free Facebook and cheap smartphones, trolling and propaganda in the Philippines has become a widely-documented cottage industry

A study "Tracking Digital Disinformation in the 2019 Philippine Midterm Election", by Jonathan Ong, Ross Tapsell, and Nicole Curato shows how these operations in the Philippines have innovated and shifted underground during the 2019 midterm Philippine elections.

Three years after the 2016 elections, Filipinos have grown accustomed to a highly polarized social media space occupied by rabid supporters both real and automated. Online influencers and new social media personalities gained notoriety, with some being appointed to government posts.

As these personalities have come to the surface and gained mainstream attention and amassed large followings, disinformation operations and political propaganda in the Philippines have expanded into the realm of closed groups and micro- and nano-influencers. The space, once dominated by public pages with huge followings have dispersed into smaller, intimate conversations.

One of the authors, Dr Jonathan Ong said they have observed more hyper-partisan and micro-targeted campaigns: “The fact that they try go subterranean, more underground, micro-targeted that’s a specific quality of the agents who are seeding disinformation narratives. The disinformation agents have also become more hyper-partisan with separate markets and they supply the humor, snark, negativity, and hatred – different kinds of emotional messaging – to rally both bases.”

As their audience size and interests have shifted, so have the tactics involved in seeding messaging and narratives. While well-known social media personalities position themselves as political pundits or commentators, smaller influencers employ a different approach. With a more focused audience following them for niche content, the influencers in these spaces are sneakier in terms of political messaging. 

According to the study, political discussions are not front and center for micro-influencers. Instead, content such as hugot (emotional) anecdotes, thirst trap visuals, and inspirational quotes are quietly interspersed with political messaging. This tactic is effective in reaching out to demographics that may otherwise be tuning out of, or are not at all interested in, political discussions. 

The authors identified 3 types of "micro-media manipulation" that surfaced during the recent elections: micro- and nano-influencers, alternative news, and closed groups.

Meet the micro-influencers

For the micro- and nano-influencers, some distance from upfront political messaging worked in their favor. In the case of thirst trap Instagrammers and pop culture accounts, their steady stream of entertainment and lifestyle-related content lent them a veneer of authenticity when they posted about politics.

A smaller base also made them appear closer to their followers, said Suzie*, a public relations strategist who worked on digital campaigns during the 2019 elections.

“We like listening to our friends, family, people we trust. Influencers with smaller followings at that point in their influencer life cycle have followers who are early adopters who feel more close with them versus being one out of 500,000 followers,” said Suzie.

They also appeal to political operators and digital strategists because they are cheaper.

Micro-influencers are much easier. On the part of an agency or someone connected to micro-influencers, maybe they see that hiring influencers without political alignments or large folllowings would be easier to reach and cheaper to engage if they had some sort of monetary payout,” she said.

The shift from macro- to micro- and nano-influencers is not unique to political campaigns but rather, an experiment that is also employed by digital strategists for products. According to Suzie, the ethics of employing these strategies to market political propaganda is an entirely different conversation from product placements on an Instagram post.

“When it comes to products, it’s very easy to do that because no matter which micro-influencer you choose, they wear clothes, perfume, use cheese. It doesn’t have to be something you personally support but with politicians it’s so insincere to hire a micro-influencer that does not necessarily support the candidate you’re selling. You’re basically paying them to support a person that they’re not really that invested in,”

"One of the errors of people tapping micro-influencers in the past elections is they chose micro-influencers who did not really have a social media following that expected political content. These are micro-influencers who built their brands off of fashion, lifestyle, travel. It was very incongruous that suddenly there were posts about politicians."

Political parody accounts

Political parody accounts, however, use humor and trendy memes to get their messaging across, but still benefit from an organic and authentic approach to their content. These political parody accounts are popular across the spectrum and have contributed to a more polarized digital space in the Philippines, confirming existing biases of their target audiences.

“Parody accounts are humorous and are able to call out people’s excesses in an indirect and funny way. The subversive quality of their humor appeals to this kind of group — very intellectual and snarky. Parody accounts will appeal to their base but it’s not going to change other people’s minds,” said Ong.

Another kind, "alternative news," can either present themselves as sources of information for local issues while quietly seeding political propaganda or overtly marketing themselves as hyper-partisan alternative news sources catering to audiences of a specific political alignment. Previous iterations of dubious news sites were more crude, with some masquerading as mainstream news outlets but there are new localized iterations.

“At the local level, they’ve also spread and could be pertaining to different topics or angles like ‘No to Graft and Corruption Philippines,’ making a normative stance and supposed to be curating anti-corruption news. These are very specific beats, if you think of it, equivalent to a mainstream news beat. They have their own subgenres. They could be about Manila Bay, but really it’s for Erap,” said Ong.

Closed groups and communities

Lastly, the study found that closed groups played an active role in the 2019 elections as silent breeding grounds of disinformation and propaganda. These online communities catered to audiences such as OFWs or conspiracy theorists such as flat-earthers.

Hyper-partisan groups in support of political alignments, personalities, and policies have been on the radar of Facebook and fact-checkers as sources of disinformation.
 

In 2018, a Facebook group that initially started out as a fan group for South Korean actor Kim Soo-hyun was surreptitiously changed into one called “President Duterte Supporters.” The account behind the name-change was also found to be a member of other pro-administration groups such as  "President Duterte V.P Marcos Worldwide Supporters," "President Rody Duterte Facebook Army," and "President Duterte News." (READ: From Korean idol group to Duterte Supporters on Facebook?)

Apart from pages and accounts, groups have also been subjected to takedowns by Facebook because of what the platform calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

Evolving tactics of online propaganda

Are these tactics more effective? In the case of products and services, digital marketers view micro-influencers as more engaged and more likely to deliver conversion versus macro-influencers who bring awareness. In the case of political propaganda, Suzie said this may not necessarily be the case.

"If you were an influencer who didn’t penetrate politics before, it would be a different case. Even though you had a small following who really liked your posts about going to the gym or traveling, they would be pretty pissed off if you posted suddenly out of nowhere about politics." 

"In the PR industry with all these tools, platforms, and techniques, we don’t have a guidebook telling us what the best practices are. Everything is mostly trial and error, you’ll have an agency trying something new, like tapping influencers who aren't necessarily political bloggers. That may have been an experiment gone wrong because there was backlash. In this industry some experiments can succeed, some can fail."

In the case of thirst trap Instagrammers, Suzie said some followers caught on to what they were doing.

"In one case there really was backlash. It was concerted, it all came out at the same time and there were several accounts that were doing it. At first not everyone saw that a lot of accounts were doing it but eventually some saw that it was a systematic thing and that's when they got pissed off."

According to her, the audience and followers were millennials – young and tech-savvy who knew how to check profiles across different platforms.

"In that particular case, there were no posts about politics or candidates. It became quite suspicious because there was no precedent of political activity in those profiles. Because the market was more discerning and critical, it was easy to spot that it was out of the ordinary."

This evolution has made the business of political propaganda in the Philippines even sneakier as people who might initially follow accounts for relatable or thematic content are now faced with seeded political narratives.

Digital operations are now non-negotiables for candidates and political strategists. In 2022, the Philippines will be electing a new president and with this, we can expect disinformation and political propaganda to evolve in order to remain under the radar.

The researchers called for more transparency through process-oriented approaches to content moderation and political campaigning. These approaches move beyond doubling down on policing content by way of fake news legislation that may be used to hamper freedom of speech.

As political digital strategists experiment with more intimate and closed ways to reach and engage with their audiences, tracking and monitoring inauthentic behavior online will be much harder to spot. We can expect them to develop new ways to entrench themselves in online communities.

“There will be more partisanship in terms of disinformation and we should be ready for that. It would be harder to agree on basic facts. Fake news will be increasingly harder to catch,” warned Ong.

Earlier this year, Facebook announced that small groups on the platform will be at the forefront of their revamp.

"As the world gets bigger and more connected, we need that sense of intimacy more than ever," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said. 

"That's why I believe the future is private." – Rappler.com

*Name withheld upon request

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