QUICK: Who is the biggest source of fake news in the country? For opponents of President Rodrigo Duterte, the answer is him and his army of online “trolls,” who post messages for him or against his adversaries. But for communications professor Jonathan Corpus Ong of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and his fellow PhD across the Atlantic, lecturer Jason Vincent Cabañes of the University of Leeds, it’s complicated.
“Multiple political parties at both national and local levels make use of ‘click armies’,” said their new report, “Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines,” based on a year of interviews and observation of online political messaging activities.
“Previous reports have spotlighted only Duterte’s Partido Demokratiko Pilipino Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) as hiring fake account operators,” the paper explained, “thus overlooking the systematic manipulation of political discussions on Facebook and Twitter by various players across the political spectrum.”
Translation: Everyone is playing the fake news game, so singling out one tree, so to speak, misses the forest of digital strategists, bloggers, click messengers, and other online grunts driving and often distorting political discourse online and even in media.
So, before you get taken in by one group of online political campaigners dissing its rival click armies, read the Ong-Cabañes study, or at least its executive summary. It’s available at: <http://newtontechfordev.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/ARCHITECTS-OF-NETWORKED-DISINFORMATION-FULL-REPORT.pdf>.
Seven truths about spreading untruths
The executive summary lists seven key findings, which should surprise no one who has closely monitored online political discourse for the past decade. In fact, digital influencers have been posting, liking and sharing messages for politicians, parties and movements for at least a decade. And in the Aquino regime, the Presidential Strategic Communications Office piloted its online troll horde.
Hence, the first finding, quoted above, is widely known, though no player would admit it: “The use of fake accounts and paid influencers on Facebook and Twitter for political operations is widespread.” In fact, these click soldiers also fill the comment forums of leading news sites with their opinions, making it seem that a particular viewpoint has many supporters or dissenters.
Finding No. 2 is lesser known, though probably not surprising either: “Politicians often employ campaign strategists from local ‘boutique’ advertising and PR agencies as chief architects of networked disinformation campaigns.” After all, what works in selling soap could also be effective for those standing on soapboxes. “These experts use tried-and-tested corporate branding techniques like ‘core campaign messaging’ and ‘brand bibles’,” the authors found.
Why boutique, not big-name agencies? Two likely reasons. First, many politicians can’t afford the huge fees of multinational advertising and public relations firms. But a bigger reason may be the deception involved in these campaigns. Any reputable agency caught deploying trolls to disseminate untruths would quickly lose its bread-and-butter clients among established corporations careful about their reputations.
Third finding: Campaign strategists rely heavily on “digital influencers” with 50,000 to 2 million Facebook or Twitter followers, as well as “community-level fake account operators.” The widely followed influencers and teams of fake-account operators pump out messages for pay. Influencers charge PR industry rates based on reach and engagement. Operators are paid per day with message posting quotas.
So, don’t be impressed by masses of likes and positive or negative comments. Many may have been bought.
Fourth and fifth findings are about the “disinformation workers.” Those interviewed, while working mainly for the money, are also mostly “aligned with the client.” And fake account operators, like other freelance online staff, must be flexible and able to send messages and comments anytime. Besides this constant pressure, they labor with the mental chore of “justifying this work both to others and themselves.”
Sixth, online disinformation work involves “two opposing dynamics”: staff must follow a script, but be creative in posting messages, so that they get shared and go viral. Thus, campaign strategists want control over messaging, but allow a range of expression to ignite “maximum, if uncontrolled, spreadability.”
That can get nasty: “Emotionally charged campaigns tapping into populist sentiments of anger and resentment may thus achieve their strategic goals, but inadvertently unleash uncivil expressions of misogyny, anti-intellectualism, and other forms of offensive speech into the public discourse.” Which, on the other hand, may be exactly what strategists want.
Much as the disinformation trade craves public attention and excitement over its posts, all but the big-name influencers are largely nameless and faceless. Drs. Ong and Cabañes report that “While nobody really admits to being a troll, everyone in the disinformation hierarchy seems to be engaged in various degrees of trolling.”
There is widespread acceptance of online deception as part of normal marketing and PR extended to politics. Even the public tolerates some disinformation as part of the promotions business. Result: “This long-standing acceptance paved the way for political disinformation to thrive unregulated in a digital underground that only very subtly hides from plain sight. Thus, there is little accountability for what is really the corruption of public discourse on weighty public issues, including the selection of national leaders.
Protecting your mind against fake news
So, what to do, especially for citizens serious about public affairs? There are some basic common-sense rules of mind, which everyone should follow in using news, like any other product.
First: Don’t instantly believe everything you read. That especially applies to sources that do not have the solid reputation of professional news organizations. But even established media can make mistakes and distort coverage due to partisan or ideological leanings. So, double-check reports with other entities.
Second: Read, listen and watch a wide range of material on topics of interest, so one is not indoctrinated by certain political or ideological perspectives. The one we don’t agree with prods our minds to assess rather than just accept the opinions we hold.
Third, be aware of the different kinds of distortion and deception. Here is a rogues’ gallery of disinformation: < https://firstdraftnews.org/fake-news-complicated/ >. Let the reader beware.