Rappler+ Exclusive

Social media, disinformation and the 2019 Philippine elections: Conclusions and Recommendations

Rappler Research Team
Social media, disinformation and the 2019 Philippine elections: Conclusions and Recommendations
Election observers and oversight bodies need to understand social media dynamics better in order to effectively fulfill their roles in ensuring the conduct of healthy, free, and fair elections. Existing policies do not effectively address key concerns.
Written by Gemma B. Mendoza
With research byWayne Manuel, Akira Medina, Vernise Tantuco, Michael Bueza, and Glenda Marie Castro

This is part of the research on the use of social media by senatorial candidates which was released exclusively to Rappler+ members ahead of the 2019 elections.

Given its reach and impact on previous elections, social media is obviously a major area where candidates needed to engage; it also needed to be monitored closely in the 2019 elections.

For candidates, social media is valued as it helps in building awareness. But beyond that, it helps sustain connections and organize followers and supporters whom the candidate has reached in on-ground sorties. It also transforms volunteers into campaign content creators – something no other medium does. Its ability to connect to niche and hyperlocal communities (OFWs, plus provincial locations) allows personalized, tailored messaging which can be more effective than one-size-fits-all messaging.

All of these have the effect of extending the reach of political advertising at a lower cost – which is significant given how much each minute of advertisement costs on broadcast media. For these reasons, social media was, in fact, initially optimistically viewed as a way to democratize elections and reduce the cost of political campaigns.

But clearly, the medium needs to be understood better in relation to campaign finance monitoring, along with its role in the conduct of healthy, free, and fair elections.

For candidates, it is very important to not just treat social media as a tool for broadcasting messages, but also as a tool for engaging with supporters and critics, and addressing potential propaganda by rivals. The latter is critical because, as in Senator Cynthia Villar’s previous experience, delays in response could have a significant impact on people’s perception of a candidate.

Clearly as well, candidates need to step up monitoring and engagement beyond their official pages to effectively address falsehoods published about them on social media.

For the Comelec and election watchdog groups, we list the following questions that need to be answered:

  • Given that social media feeds are personalized, and that Facebook, the most popular platform right now, does not have a transparent API for monitoring all public content on social media, how then can watchdogs effectively watch? Do watchdogs and the Commission have the capability to monitor these new public spaces?
  • Traditional media as well as their online properties have been required to submit reports about candidate placements in their platforms. Would the Comelec be able to track certain activities, such as the guest-posting of candidates in meme and viral pages as ad placements?
  • Given the volume of activity and content tracked here, is it possible that these are all volunteer-generated? How do we distinguish between true volunteer activity and paid engagement?
  • Watchdog groups have said that fake news should be considered as a form of electoral fraud.1 The Comelec has also said that spreading fake news about the polls is an election offense.2 But how do you hold candidates responsible for black propaganda and false claims, particularly those spread by false accounts or anonymously-managed pages?

We have no hard and fast answers to these questions yet.

Watchdog groups and the Commission itself clearly need to develop their capability to monitor social media. Better mechanisms for monitoring these networks are obviously needed.

The key social media platforms need to be involved in arriving at solutions, particularly with respect to addressing false information that could be used to manipulate public opinion about candidates and the process, as well as anonymously managed pages and fake accounts that circulate these propaganda content.

Certain information important in social data forensic analysis, such as unique devices and unique traits of accounts behind these activities, are available only to these platforms. These information are critical to unearthing the provenance of these politically charged activities on the platform.

Beyond that, given that content is tailor-fitted and personalized, ordinary citizens need to be involved.

The bottomline is this: because of its nature, social media cannot be monitored the way traditional media is. There is no center anymore. There is no single point that can be monitored.

Such a media environment requires more eyes and more vigilance, particularly on the part of ordinary citizens and voters who will need to be more discerning and involved in assessing and monitoring content (about candidates and the electoral process) published on their own social media feeds.

Below are links the to the other parts of this series:

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1Sofia Tomacruz, “‘Fake news’ should be considered form of election fraud, says watchdog,” Rappler, December 7, 2018, https://www.rappler.com/nation/politics/elections/2019/218420-fake-news-should-be-considered-election-fraud-kontra-daya

2Norman Bordadora, “Spreading fake news on polls, an election offense punishable by imprisonment – Comelec,” GMA News, March 13, 2019, https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/687852/spreading-fake-news-on-polls-an-election-offense-punishable-by-imprisonment-comelec/story/

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