“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 one of a two-part paper on fake news and internet propaganda in the last three elections, including the upcoming 2022 elections, which will be discussed in part two.
The 2016 Philippine general elections is said to be a watershed moment for social media and elections in the Philippines. The increased availability of social media led to its effective use by Rodrigo Duterte in his campaign for the presidency. His campaign highlighted how social media can be used in Philippine elections, and all the issues that entails. One of the more significant issues is the rise of internet trolls, fake news, and internet-based propaganda in Philippine elections, as supporters and campaigners began using social media as an electoral propaganda platform. This continued all the way to the 2019 legislative and local elections, having proven the potency of social media.
But how have Filipino elections come to this? We would explore the history of fake news and internet propaganda in the 2016 and 2019 Philippine elections. How did it start? How prevalent fake news was back then? What were the most recurring themes? And how did these affect Philippine politics?
A bit of Philippine social media history
The Philippines is currently considered the social media capital of the world by amount of use, where eighty million individuals use social media on average about four hours a day. Facebook is the predominant platform in the country, accounting for 93 percent of the country’s social media market share as of 2020.
This is the result of the Philippine telecommunications companies, such as Smart Mobile, availing the Free Basics service from Facebook in 2015, a service where data usage is made free to users through bundled prepaid and postpaid promos to the telecom companies.
But social media and information technology have been with Filipinos much earlier, especially in their social and political lives. Text blasts were the leading method in organizing EDSA 2, the protest movement that ousted Erap Estrada from the Presidency. It is through social media where survivors of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) not only indicated their survival to their family and friends, but also made their attempts to get over their experience by documenting and memorializing them. PDAF, or the Presidential Development Assistance Fund, was disestablished as the result of the August 2013 “Million People March” in Luneta Park.
In terms of elections, social media has evolved from a peripheral yet potentially powerful area, to a major arena and tool for political propaganda. Rappler has documented such a rise leading to the 2019 elections. Although 2016 was the first election where social media became a major factor in elections, 2013 was the first election where a major case of social media’s effect on elections took place. Cynthia Villar’s “room nurse” comment that went viral over social media cost her a substantial portion of her potential voter support in the senatorial elections, though she still managed to retain her performance as top polling senator.
Then, 2016 came, and Duterte’s campaign took advantage of social media, going as far as to get assistance from Facebook in optimizing their social media presence. They also utilized online volunteers and internet trolls to bolster support to Duterte and his slate and harass their opposition. Much of the reason for Duterte’s heavy reliance on social media in 2016 is practical: his campaign team did not have the resources that the major political parties had, maximizing their minute 10-million-peso media campaign budget through creative means.
Of course, there have been countermeasures since then. Rappler has established the Fact Check section, where articles are published to rate the falsity of claims made on the internet, not just political ones. Facebook is also doing its part, an example being their efforts to take down Philippine-based pages and accounts that spread false news in the site.
Fake news in 2019
As a rudimentary measure of the prevalence of and major themes in fake news during and around the 2019 elections, we looked at Rappler’s Fact Check articles published between October 2018 and May 2019. The selected period covers the months from the filing of candidacy to the actual 2019 elections. To measure prevalence, interactions, or the sum of available likes, reactions, shares, retweets, views, and comments in each claim or article are used. For prevailing themes, keywords are considered. Note that what would be recorded would be data from the time of the publication of the Rappler articles.
Checking first on some preliminary statistics, we find 135 articles tackling specific claims in Rappler between October 2018 and May 2019. These articles rate claims from (ideally) true, to mixed, to false. Of these 135 claims, seventy-three are rated as false, forty are hoaxes, and nineteen are misleading claims. Facebook is by far the biggest source of recorded interactions, with 104 claims being posted in the social media site, while nine claims came from direct statements from interviews and other records. The articles have recorded a combined total of 4.36 million interactions from the claims. Assuming that these interactions are divided equally to likes/reactions, shares/retweets, and comments, and are done by the same people, this meant that there could be as much as 1.45 million people that has viewed fake news, giving us a preliminary estimate on how many people are vulnerable to fake news and internet propaganda.
Moving now to the major themes or typology of these articles, we find that political claims form most claims studied and rated during the selected period, with eighty-two instances. It also has the greatest number of recorded interactions, with close to two million interactions recorded. This may not be surprising at all since much of these articles and even the claims themselves have arisen (or in some cases resurfaced) from the then-upcoming 2019 elections.
Looking at the specific themes or topics, the 2019 elections as a source of claims can be argued as both direct and indirect. Directly, the 2019 elections contributed to a sizable number of claims, at 10. Indirectly, the 2019 elections was supported with other top topics. For example, the presence of President Rodrigo Duterte as the top topic in the claims can be construed as support to his party and his chosen slate of candidates. Claims on Otso Diretso, Liberal Party’s senatorial slate for 2019, meanwhile, can be seen as, at the very least, arguments to their failure to capture seats in the Senate.
To say that the 2019 elections is the major source for the rise of all the 135 claims attested by Rappler is a stretch, however. Looking at the top five claims by the number of interactions garnered, the selection is mixed, with the misleading claim regarding processing costs for land titles being the overall top article.
Zooming into the political claims, and it is still a bit mixed. Only one article of the top five, that of voter fraud via pre-shaded ballots, explicitly mentions the 2019 elections. The top story was about the lack of evidence on former President Ferdinand and former First Lady Imelda Marcos’ graft and corruption. The middle three, meanwhile, are focused on the achievements, both real and supposed, of President Duterte.
Nonetheless, fake news and internet propaganda were then effective. A strong social media presence can help candidates boost their electoral performance, especially if said candidates have multiple supporter pages helping them spread all their messages and statements, including memes, viral content, and fake news. For example, out of the eighteen candidates for Senator running in the 2019 elections, all but three have official Facebook pages.
The 2016 and 2019 Philippine elections give us a look at how widespread fake news and internet propaganda is, and how much these could affect elections. Even in this cursory look, the fact that more than a million people can be argued to have been exposed to fake news just based on recorded interactions alone is quite telling.
A more complete data, which include followers and page views might paint a better yet different picture. But this can already be indicative of a virtual political environment that is vulnerable to malicious and deleterious propaganda.
Everyone, therefore, should be vigilant, especially that another national and local elections is forthcoming. One now wonders; however, how far fake news and internet propaganda has taken hold in this upcoming election. We shall see soon enough. – 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 continues to teach Political Science, Development and History at various Philippine universities since 1992.