A UNIVERSITY of Oxford study that was published in July 2017 revealed that the Philippines is one of the countries where troll armies are allegedly deployed by the government in an attempt to manipulate social media. The title of the study is “Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation.” The study further alleges that the President spent about $200,000 to finance this operation.
The study was featured in an article in the Diplomat on November 18, 2017, entitled “Beware Duterte’s Troll Army in the Philippines.”
My main problem about the argument of the study is that first, it assumed that only the government is doing it and not the political opposition. Second, it also makes it appear that the use of propaganda in politics is a new irregularity in the operations of democracy in late capitalism where social media has taken over traditional platforms of communication.
It would have been a balanced article had the researchers of the study provided a total picture of the use of social media by both government and the opposition, and perhaps made a comparative picture by contrasting it with the previous administration of Noynoy Aquino.
And it would have been fairer if it amplified the point that propaganda and information manipulation are something that politicians have been doing on both sides of the political divide, and that what has only changed is that instead of traditional media, or of the use of campaigners on foot knocking on every house, they now use social media.
Obviously, the main intent of the article was to once again paint President Duterte in a bad light, and to smear his army of supporters by accusing them of gaming the rules of democracy.
Democracy has always been gamed. It is an adversarial exercise between political partisans where the goal is to get the people’s votes. Ideally, it should be done in a fair manner, but in reality morals and ethics have both escaped political practice, and where propaganda is no longer about inflating one’s credentials, but also blackening the other side with lies. Squid tactics, character assassination, black operations and negative campaigning were already practiced even before the onset of the internet. What social media has done is simply to give it a platform to be reinvented.
What makes the practice more intense in the Philippines is the fact that we have a predisposition to be more personalistic about our politics, that the smearing becomes too easy and convenient. It is because we judge our politicians not in terms of their position on issues, but on their character and their looks, that it is now easier to launch ad hominem attacks against them as womanizers, thieves and ugly.
Social media has given these negative and darker sides of the political endeavor a new domain to thrive and innovate. Character assassination and the propagation of lies have now become digitized.
This is not a comforting reality. And this is also not a monopoly of just one side of the political equation. It is a malaise that afflicts both the administration and the political opposition, and for one side to claim innocence is simply inauthentic, if not a bald-faced lie.
At issue here are the new technologies available to engage in political propaganda.
And here, I will grant that indeed a new breed of cyber-mediated technologies is now available to give propaganda work a different spin. Whereas in traditional political operations, including black ops, the army that is used consisted of actual warm bodies that need to be paid to be deployed as crowds in political rallies or as campaigners, or even as political assassins, in the age of social media, propagandists can manufacture fictitious or fake accounts in Facebook and Twitter to simulate not only the breadth and depth of supposed support, but also to be deployed to do battle with the other side. Political assassination has taken on a new meaning by converting it into trolling and Internet bashing, and the ease by which one can create anonymous accounts has turned even organically real people into anonymous trolls.
I cannot overemphasize the fact that this is a strategy that is not the monopoly of the administration, but is resorted to by the opposition. In fact, in the current climate of political cyber-warfare, more opposition figures in social media are hiding behind anonymous accounts.
It is, however, interesting to note a new phenomenon that has emerged in the age of the Internet, and of cyber-mediated political contestations. This can be found in the emergence of social media bloggers who gain autonomy from serving the political interests of their principals, and have reversed the logic and turned social media blogging into a commodity and reinvented themselves into merchants of cyber-mediated political influence.
Armed with the technological familiarity that enables them to increase their likers, followers and viewers by purchasing these through different third-party applications, this new breed of political operators can manufacture their popularity and imagined political power and influence. Some of them can use this for future plans to run in politics, while others can use this as leverage to secure accounts of political candidates. Political marketing has taken on a new face so that in addition to strategic thinking and a keen eye for political combat, there is now the new tool of gaming social media to have the appearance of phenomenal engagements.
But just like the traditional ways where one who wins by fraud, even if electronically done, can easily be unmasked by an electoral protest, someone who games democracy by inflating and manufacturing Internet reach can easily be unmasked as well.
Vice President Leni Robredo could lose her seat when and if it is shown that her votes were electronically padded. Likewise, the powers of purchasers of likes and views will evaporate once it is shown that majority of their followers are in fact bots. The thing about these electronic fraudsters using technology is that they can also be unmasked by using technology.