[ANALYSIS] Fake news and internet propaganda, and the Philippine elections: 2022

“Fake News, Internet Propaganda, and Philippine elections: 2016 to 2019” is a study presented in a #FactsFirstPH research briefing held on May 04, 2022. The full copy of the research is reposted with permission from the authors.

This is Part 2 of a two-part paper on fake news and internet propaganda in the last 3 election cycles, including the upcoming 2022 general elections, which is the focus of this article. The full copy of the research is reposted with permission from the authors.

Part 1: [ANALYSIS] Fake news, internet propaganda, and Philippine elections: 2016 to 2019

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We found that fake news, though not new in Philippine elections, has its modern form rooted in the 2016 and 2019 elections. Between October 2018 and May 2019, Rappler reviewed 135 claims, 73 of which were rated as false, 40 as hoaxes, and 19 as misleading claims. These claims had accumulated a total of 4.36 million interactions, from which we argued that as many as 1.45 million people may have been exposed to fake news. Political claims dominated the shares of claims by typology, while Duterte was found to be the top topic or specific theme in the claims, joined by Noynoy Aquino, Otso Diretso, and Leni Robredo, among others in the top 10.

Finally, we found that fake news and misinformation had been effective for those favored candidates with strong social media presence. Now one would wonder how it would be in these upcoming 2022 national and local elections. Of note is the race for the presidency of the Philippines, where Vice President Leni Robredo and former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. are in a high stakes rematch from their 2016 vice presidential match.

We ended Part 1 in a bit of a cliffhanger, where we wondered how fake news would play out in the upcoming 2022 national and local elections, which would include elections for president and vice president of the Philippines.

Here in Part 2, we explore how fake news and internet propaganda looks like in the upcoming 2022 elections. We note how much different and similar 2022 is with 2019. We also take note of the historical background of the upcoming elections, especially in terms of the election for the Philippine presidency.

The long game

As noted earlier, the presidential race is a rematch, perhaps even a grudge match, between the two leading candidates as of the recent surveys: Marcos and Robredo. Robredo defeated Marcos in the 2016 vice presidential elections. The latter protested the result of the elections, and the Supreme Court, functioning as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, eventually dismissed the cases in a unanimous decision.

These upcoming elections are also said to be high stakes. Bongbong, son of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has been in the forefront of his family’s attempts to revise history and reclaim the presidency of the Philippines for their family.

In 2019, it was found that a significant part of this attempt was the use of social media, particularly fake news and internet propaganda sent through coordinated amplification and their extensive network of anonymously managed pages and profiles.

Meanwhile, Robredo decided to run for the presidency as a response to the clamor of her supporters and her own conviction to end the incompetence, corruption, and culture of violence that had persisted under the Duterte regime. This was further prompted by the endorsement of the 1Sambayan opposition coalition, which moved to oppose President Rodrigo Duterte and his endorsed successor.

Fake news in 2022

To measure the prevalence of fake news and their major themes during and around the 2022 election season, and to be as consistent with our earlier analysis as possible, we looked at Rappler’s Fact Check articles published between October 2021 and March 2022.

The selected time similarly covered the months from the filing of candidacy to the campaign period of the 2022 elections. Furthermore, the currently available data ends on March 31, 2022, as of this writing.

To measure prevalence, interactions, or the sum of available likes, reactions, shares, retweets, views, and comments in each claim or article were used. For prevailing themes, keywords were considered. Note again that what would be recorded would be data from the time of the publication of the Rappler articles.

Looking at the current data, it would be rather obvious that fake news and internet propaganda have been stronger and more active than ever. Rappler studied 256 claims from October 2021 to March 2022. Of these claims, 207 of them were falsehoods, while 39 missed the contexts and nuances of their claims.

Facebook remained the top social media platform for misinformation, with 207 claims posted in the site, but it was now joined by YouTube and TikTok, which had 24 and 20 claims, respectively. Collectively, the claims garnered a total of about 67.48 million interactions. This was more than 15 times the interactions in the 2019 elections. Likewise, based on our estimation methodology, where we assume that interactions were divided equally between likes/reactions, shares/retweets/views, and comments, we can say that as much as 22.49 million people had been exposed to fake news.

Unsurprisingly, politics dominated the major themes, with 179 out of the 256 claims covered by Rappler and this study. Interestingly, besides the increase in the absolute number of claims, political claims experienced a 15.11% increase in their share of claims from 2019. These increases could be attributed to the time, the type of election, and the stakes involved.

Meanwhile, military and medical claims ranked next to political ones in terms of interactions, but this was expected as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic contributed much to the military and medical claims, respectively.

Moving now to the specific themes or topics, the 2022 elections, by itself, gained the greatest number of claims and interactions during the selected time. The next two topics were the two main presidential candidates, Robredo and Marcos. Looking at the tabulation alone may give the impression that Robredo had benefited more from fake news.

However, this is far from the truth, as virtually all the claims regarding Robredo were against her – from accusations of bad campaign behavior to supposed support from communists. Meanwhile, those false claims regarding Marcos almost always painted him in a more positive light, such as claims on supposed wealth and academic achievement. This was further supported by the presence of false claims regarding his father, the late dictator Ferdinand, with such a range of claims as purported political and economic achievements during his regime.

Zooming in to the top individual claims by interactions, we found falsehoods on the Russia-Ukraine conflict occupying the top two spots, with the top claim garnering more than 8.7 million aggregate interactions. The next two spots were medical claims and, interestingly, neither were directly involved with the COVID-19 pandemic. The 5th placer claim was regarding Robredo’s supposed statements on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Although arguably classifiable as political because it involved Robredo’s name, it was classified under military since it pertained to an actual conflict.

Filtering then to focus on political claims, and the picture indicated a virtual clear focus on the upcoming elections, or at least the important actors therein. The Top 5 claims ranged from campaign chants supposedly present in a K-pop concert to one candidate’s failure to recall her first bill in Congress.

These claims might influence the upcoming elections. Ever since surveys began for the 2022 presidential elections, Marcos has consistently led surveys, even getting majorities in the latest Pulse Asia survey results, for example. 

This is a clear indication that a Marcos Jr. presidency is possible, perhaps arguably highly probable. It has been argued that such a presidency would result in an authoritarian government that follows Duterte’s template. Robredo, meanwhile, can be seen as being pincered in the internet campaigning and propaganda front. Not only were false claims in favor of Marcos effective, so were those against her.

Pulse Asia March 2022 Nationwide Survey on the May 2022 Elections
Conclusions

Beyond the current elections, things look rather bleak. The current landscape of fake news and internet propaganda in the Philippines paints the country more and more as increasingly vulnerable to, and more easily persuaded by, fake news.

At the most pessimistic, the Philippines would slide to full blown authoritarianism fueled not by fear and force, but by lies and deceit. Politicians, especially the would-be incumbents in power, would have the license to lie, cheat, and steal not through coercion, but rather through unwitting consent as people would blindly and unquestioningly believe whatever these politicians would say despite how little truth there is. They can then sway the people to produce more falsehoods for them to either drum up support to otherwise unpopular policies, destroy or silence opponents, or even both.

The experience in the United States can also be a clue in an equally disturbing possibility: a nation fully partisan and bitterly divided, something that could be worse here due to the fragility of our institutions.

This is certainly not new. How many fell for the fascists and Nazis in Europe and Asia before and during the Second World War? What is novel and frightening however is the speed by which lies are made and propagated, and how fast the unwitting consent is formed and given. With the Filipinos’ penchant for social media immersion, this becomes more concerning.

So how do we stop fake news from affecting our democracy? Social media platforms, news media, and other fact-checking organizations have already gone as far as they can, but more work must be done. There are several public actions suggested, such as the mobilization of fandoms and their celebrities against disinformation.

But the first and most basic step is education not just for us, but for others as well. There is the need to learn and teach how to discern and think about what is being read or viewed, and check for other sources for confirmation. It is hoped that by our individual and collective efforts, truth would prevail. – Rappler.com

Gerardo V. Eusebio has had extensive experience in public service, consultancy work, and academia. He has served in both the legislative and executive branches of government. He is currently the head of political marketing at Warwick and Roger and board director of Lilac Center for Public Interest and has been teaching political science, development, and history at various Philippine universities since 1992.

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