#FactsFirstPH research

YouTube channels ‘hijacking’ news genre to influence PH polls – study

Rochel Ellen Bernido

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YouTube channels ‘hijacking’ news genre to influence PH polls – study
(1st UPDATE) UP researcher Fatima Gaw says YouTube has yet to come up with any 'meaningful' action to address the proliferation of disinformation on the social media platform

MANILA, Philippines – Hyperpartisan channels posing as legitimate “news” channels use online video sharing and social media platform YouTube to influence the upcoming elections in the Philippines, according to the findings of University of the Philippines (UP) researchers.

“The rise of Meta-partisan ‘news’ ecosystems on YouTube,” a study done by researchers Fatima Gaw, Ira Cruz, and Luisa Pineda, noted the disinformation being propagated on the platform by so-called “news” channels  for the 2022 Philippine elections.

“The extent of our empirical investigation does not confirm nor deny that these ‘news’ videos are considered ‘news’ but we are making the point about the increasingly nebulous definitions of ‘news’ in contemporary media environments,” said the researchers from the Philippine Media Monitoring Laboratory, UP Department of Communication Research in their study

“Amidst the decline in media trust, pervasiveness of creator culture, and the emphasis on the autonomy of users in choosing their sources of political information, actors with vested political interests exploit the gray areas to manufacture their own partisan ‘news’ content to counter fair and free democratic discourse,” they added.

The “meta-partisan ‘news’ ecosystem” refers to the “highly partisan political world” that these Youtube “news” channels are trying to create or construct online. They do this by manipulating public discourse and by manufacturing “newsworthiness” in their videos just as when there is growing skepticism of viewers towards mainstream media. 

The study said: “The meta-partisan ‘news’ ecosystem stabilizes this political reality such that no amount of fact-checking can unravel the convoluted lie built through its multitude of manipulative scaffoldings.”

From May 2021 to February 2022, the researchers sifted through 20,000 videos. They used keywords (such as “news,” “balita,” among others), and performed social network analysis, and discourse analysis to map the “news” channels and understand the social context of production. 

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The study identified 124 out of 3,453 channels on YouTube linked with state-owned People’s Television (PTV) Network and Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), the media network of President Rodrigo Duterte’s longtime friend, US fugitive Pastor Apollo Quiboloy.

During a #FactsFirstPH briefing on Wednesday, April 14, Gaw said that the 124 channels had 500 videos over the last 10 months. “That’s a lot of videos. And I’m assuming, each video has, you know, 50,000 views that’s multiplied [by] 500. That’s really a lot,” she said.

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The meta-partisan ‘news’ ecosystem 

The study found out that social network analysis determined by the YouTube recommendation algorithm showed that the identified “news” channels are frequently located in “one major community” which includes the following: 

  • Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) News Channel
  • People’s Television Network, Incorporated (PTNI)
  • Bongbong Marcos (BBM) Channel
  • Erwin Tulfo
  • Toni Gonzaga Studio 

The Youtube recommendation system also recognizes the “high” relatedness of the topics, formats, and audiences of these “news” channels. This is the reason why they most likely appear next to each other on the platform’s algorithm, the study showed.

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According to the study, the closeness of the neighboring communities (such as the mainstream news media, Marcos Jr. partisan influencer, and content creator channels), legitimizes their existence as a “surrogate to journalistic reporting” or a “complement to politically charged content.”

Manufacturing ‘relevance’ on YouTube 

As a response to YouTube’s system of “rewarding” clout generated by successful creators, these “news” channels use traditional news values to construct “newsworthiness” and to appeal not only to the audience, but also to the platform, the researchers said.

The study listed some of the techniques that these channels use on the social media platform:

  • ‘Extend, expand, and expound’: Identified channels pick up information delivered by the mainstream mediawhich are not necessarily of public interest, but may be beneficial to them. They package this in a video and further “elaborate” on the topic. 
  • ‘Reposting and curating’: Published content from different news outlets are being upcycled and edited to fit a certain political narrative. In post-production, the lifted information is combined with the own content of a certain “news” channel. 
  • ‘Production of “affective” content’: By stirring emotions, these “news” channels are also influencing the viewers’ decision-making regarding a certain political issue, while simultaneously encouraging “movement” from the audience. 
Troubling gray area: Packaged as ‘news’ 

Channels deliver disinformation on YouTube through the conventional news styles that viewers are familiar with. By using these conventional news styles, they appear to be legitimate and familiar, and appear to have “journalistic authority,” the study said.

How do these dubious “news channels” do this? They use audio-visual and textual cues, like a broadcast character generator (example “breaking news” or “news update”), news crawler, and reporter voice over.

Despite the similarities, these YouTube channels are unlike legitimate news channels. The former’s headlines are riddled with vulgarity and incoherence, footage is cherry picked to discredit news outlets, targeted candidates’ speeches and actions are deliberately misrepresented, and videos are manipulated. 

During the #FactsFirstPH briefing, Gaw noted how YouTube creators posing as “news” channels continue to exploit the “troubling” gray area when it comes to defining what is news.

“It’s that gray area that is really troubling us here, and what we want to imbibe in our new viewers today is the increasingly nebulous definitions of ‘news’ by the exploitation of political actors to manufacture their own partisan ‘news’ to counter free and fair democratic discourse,” she said.

“Once this gray area is manipulated or exploited, I think we need to think differently from how we want to approach news-making or news storytelling.  We need to move past ‘fake news’ because it’s not anymore productive label. We need to acknowledge that there’s a sophistication in hijacking the news genre,” Gaw added.

Still no ‘meaningful’ action from YouTube

Gaw noted that YouTube was the largest platform in the Philippines in 2021, and apparently also for 2022, surpassing Facebook, thus the continued “scholarly interest in interrogating YouTube” in relation to the proliferation of disinformation. Such efforts, however, have not prompted any “meaningful” response from YouTube, she said.

“I don’t think YouTube has done anything meaningful and I’m sorry to say this upfront. I think there are more meaningful ways to engage, especially using empirical-based research like ours to think about – not just fact-checking, not just reporting this individual video and taking it down, it’s just one of the hundreds,” she said.

“I don’t think we have realized the size of the problem yet that’s why we’re not acting on it in a meaningful way…. I think YouTube is like any other channel – as long as there’s no public pressure, they wouldn’t do anything,” Gaw added.

The UP researcher noted that she had done research on the Marcos disinformation ecosystem and historical revisionism on YouTube and raised this to the social media platform but nothing was done about it.

“There are historical distortionist content out here and it’s racking up views. We reported a list of channels to them. They didn’t do anything,” she said.  (READ: YouTube networks spread propaganda on Marcoses, Martial Law – study)

Gaw said that in her opinion, YouTube’s decision to ban political ads is “counterproductive…because you removed the avenue to legitimately do political campaigning and you push everyone underground to engage in this, you know, malicious, insidious attempt to shape political discourse.”

She also said that the burden of fighting disinformation on social media should not be solely placed on individual internet users. She also urged nongovernment organizations and other institutions to come forward and help in the fight against disinformation. – Rappler.com

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