Tracking digital disinformation in the 2019 Philippine midterm election

Election campaigns Politics Social media Fake news Philippines

For the first time, digital operations are fully integrated in the overall campaign strategy. In previous elections, social media were peripheral to political campaigns, serving as supplements to the ‘air war’ of television and radio advertisements and ‘ground war’ of political machinery. Now, a significant chunk of the campaign war chest goes to social media. Politicians from the national to the barangay (village) level enlist digital workers for campaign operations, with operators ranging from the professional to the amateur to the ad hoc.

While the practices of the 2016 election of unleashing toxic incivilities continue, much of what we see in disinformation practices in 2019 are more insidious and camouflaged. Digital campaigning is increasingly multiplatform, extending beyond Facebook and Twitter to cover YouTube and Instagram. New strategies of micro-media manipulation aim to seed political messages to discrete groups of unsuspecting voters. We also observe the rise of a more difused network of micro- and nano-influencers—the seemingly benign online celebrities targeting smaller, niche audiences—designed to fly under the radar and evade detection.

Social media do not singularly determine electoral outcomes. Where social media make a diference is their profound role in transforming the character of political conversations. Candidates now have opportunities to speak on a broader range of issues using vernaculars that reach out to communities in diverse platforms. The dark side of this trend is the emergence of hyper-partisan platforms, such as closed Facebook groups and imposter news channels on YouTube, that exploit citizens’ mistrust against the political establishment in exchange for clicks that can be monetised through advertisements.

These trends have serious consequences for democratic politics. At stake in the normalisation of disinformation are democratic principles of transparency, accountability and electoral integrity. The final section of our report puts forward recommendations that are befitting of the demands of today’s fast-paced and unpredictable communication landscape.

We argue that current regulatory experiments by public and private sectors have not caught up with disinformation innovations that render obsolete current frameworks of content policing. We argue for process regulation—where decision-making around campaign finance regulation, platform bans, and fact checks should be made more transparent and inclusive, involving academics, civil society, big tech companies, and government. Regulatory reform should be guided by bold ethical principles while handled with a legal soft touch so as not to compromise principles of free speech and tolerance.

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