New report finds underground digital operations are becoming more prevalent, manipulative and exploitative
AMHERST, Mass. – A new international report into the latest trends in digital campaigns during the 2019 midterm elections in the Philippines has found that underground digital operations are becoming more prevalent, manipulative and exploitative, posing a serious threat to global electoral integrity.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Australian National University and the University of Canberra developed a ‘Disinformation Tracker’ that observed social media activities of Filipino politicians, digital influencers and online fan communities in the 2019 election cycle. The study revealed that social media and disinformation campaigns grew more widespread compared to the results from previous elections in the country, as politicians across political parties from national- to village-level races enlisted digital workers for both official and clandestine operations.
The finding is one of many captured in the landmark study exposing the ever-growing threat of fake news in the digital environment. Of significant concern to the researchers were the more sophisticated and discrete methods utilized in the 2019 election cycle. In the 2016 election, public attention was largely on high-profile bloggers as the source of fake news, but in 2019 the Disinformation Tracker exposed a wider network of micro- and nano-influencers targeting smaller groups of voters and circulating manipulative stories designed to mobilize political supporters, including parody accounts, sexy online celebrities and closed conspiracy groups.
Study co-author Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of communication at UMass Amherst, said that the key lesson from this election was that disinformation is a systemic problem.
“We can’t simply put the blame on a small group of bloggers paid out by President Rodrigo Duterte or his administration in Malacañang Palace,” Ong said. “It's actually a growing industry that's financially lucrative and totally unregulated.”
Digital campaigners exploited legal loopholes around both social media campaign regulations of the Commission on Election (COMELEC), as well as advertising industry guidelines around influencer endorsements.
Ross Tapsell, senior lecturer of gender, media and culture at the Australian National University (ANU) and report co-author highlighted the lack of accountability as a significant problem.
“Politicians are currently not obliged to sign off on social media content in the same way they are obliged to approve their television ads. Social media campaigns can therefore become more vitriolic, while politicians can deny involvement in any of these ads,” Tapsell said.
The study provides policy recommendations to help ensure election integrity and fairness in future elections, and the researchers argue for a “soft-touch” approach to social media regulation that should not compromise principles of free speech.
“We do not agree with heavy-handed laws such as in other Southeast Asian countries that grant government powers of social media censorship. We suggest new legal frameworks that promote transparency and accountability in political consultancy arrangements, particularly for digital campaigns,” said co-author Nicole Curato, associate professor at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance of the University of Canberra.
The Disinformation Tracker was a collaborative project between international and local researchers including junior scholars and student volunteers in the University of the Philippines Diliman and Manila, Ateneo de Manila and Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology. The researchers also worked as consultants with the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE) in social media campaign regulations and monitoring efforts.
The report, “Tracking digital disinformation in the 2019 Philippine Midterm Election,” was published by New Mandala, a website providing analysis and perspectives on Southeast Asia hosted by the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and can be found at www.newmandala.org/disinformation.