The economic system of disinformation
by Max S. Kang, George D. Kho and Yves Lazaro • Published December 30, 2021 at 10:24 PM
from November-December 2021 print edition
UNDER THE political agitation, which is connected with disinformation, hides a complex network of networks that spread false narratives in the midst of weakly regulated social media algorithms. As the public increasingly begins to question disinformation, advocacy groups and the press have consistently stressed the debt of the state and big tech companies. However, due to the enormous market demand, disinformation actors in the local scene continue to operate in a highly commercialized manner – which alludes to a thriving disinformation industry.
With Filipinos reliant on social media as a source of information now more than ever, a better understanding of the tactics of disinformation is crucial to preventing internet users from helping circulate the falsehoods they see online.
Provision of disinformation
Social media has become a potent area of disinformation, as politicians like the Marcoses use it for personal gain on purpose. According to Fatima Gaw, Diliman Communication Research Assistant Professor at the University of the Philippines, it is difficult to analyze or identify disinformation on social media because it coexists with news, opinion and entertainment.
Gaw explained that the difficulty stems from computer propaganda, where disinformation actors use bots and trolls strategically. “Bots are programmed online accounts that can enable massive or organized inauthentic action,” she said, illustrating how the movement of these bots is trending certain topics.
Gaw, on the other hand, described trolls as paid individuals who use inauthentic reports to produce discourses and flood opposing opinions on news articles with very hostile discourses rather than rational arguments.
Trolls and bots have long been used by candidates and government officials to manipulate public opinion on events like the 2016 Philippine election. President Rodrigo Duterte even admitted paying social media users and groups to spread propaganda and disinformation during his campaign.
The spread of disinformation is not only a product of paid propaganda, it is also thanks to the algorithms of many digital platforms. Gaw noted that commercial platforms are not necessarily designed for users from different backgrounds to come together for political debate.
“Your political [and] economic character as a trade [technology] Platform – which denies its media or editorial responsibility – is one of the reasons why disinformation [permeates] these platforms, ”she said, pointing out the platforms’ lack of responsibility in moderating popular and widespread content.
While algorithms are required for platforms to work efficiently because of the sheer amount of content that is uploaded at the same time, there must be mechanisms in place to prevent actors from tampering with them.
“[Algorithms are] not necessarily the enemy here. They are mechanisms of governance [social media content]. But how the algorithm works – the logic that drives your decisions – is what [makes it] problematic, ”explained Gaw.
A whole industry
In addition to algorithms, trolls and bots, disinformation also involves various actors who operate in a disguised but organized industry. Jonathan Corpus Ong, PhD, Associate Professor of Global Digital Media at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, noted that digital disinformation is just an extension of the traditional tools consultants and campaign strategists have long used.
“What we call trolling is often disguised in technical jargon … so it’s done [to] sound more respectable than it actually is, ”he said. Therefore, disinformation actors often see their work as advertising and public relations (advertising and PR) rather than political trolling.
In a report entitled Architects of Networked Disinformation, Ong illustrated different phases of such campaigns. First, political clients set targets for advertising and public relations executives. Strategists then plan how the “click army” will accomplish these goals. Ultimately, the operators implement the plan through positive branding, distraction tactics, negative campaigns, trending or signal scrambling. All of these steps result in networked narratives reaching grassroots supporters and mainstream media.
Ong noted that tracking trolls alone to combat disinformation is inefficient because they are a subordinate of a much larger hierarchy. Besides being smaller targets, operators often see and justify their work as mere gigs, while differentiating themselves from “real trolls” like real supporters. “Nobody is a full-time troll. Trolling is a sideline, ”remarked Ong.
In addition, Ong pointed out that the news media’s focus on pro-government disinformation risks confining the issue to administration. In reality, the industry involves many other political actors to varying degrees.
“Everyone’s doing it,” he said, explaining how advisors would also work for officials at the local level and even between non-party candidates. Therefore, the discussion about disinformation should not only be understood as a battle of political agendas, but as a highly organized industry with actors at various levels who are motivated by commercial interests.
Pass the buck
Social media platforms have practically no monetary incentive to take long-term measures against political disinformation, as they still generate engagement and thus income. This is especially true for countries in the Global South.
While platforms have committed to upholding the integrity and quality of Filipino political content in view of the 2022 elections, guidelines on moderation of content are still implemented on a case-by-case basis and are therefore easily exploitable by disinformation actors.
“As [these platforms] Intervening is very symbolic, very symbolic, ”said Gaw. “For example, very large tentpole events like COVID-19 or the US elections – these things are being implemented. But the problems of smaller countries like us […], it is not a priority for these platforms to respond. “
Gaw went on to point out that platforms are likely to take action only when faced with legal and economic ramifications, such as the ongoing US Supreme Court antitrust lawsuit against Facebook. Nevertheless, she emphasized that social media is only a platform for the advertising industry that actively promotes the spread of disinformation.
Ong similarly warned against glossing over the way advertising agencies accept political clients in mainstream reporting, for whom disinformation is then produced. Therefore, fighting this industry shouldn’t just affect social media platforms. Ong advocated a societal approach.
“There needs to be discussions about ethics and self-regulation within the industry […]. Carefully [yung campaign work] (The campaign work is split) so no one has full responsibility – but everyone is complicit, ”she said.
Both Gaw and Ong emphasized that civil society initiatives remain equally important and encouraged young people to take action together by volunteering to combat disinformation. According to Gaw, voters must remain vigilant about disinformation and educate their personal circles.
Meanwhile, Ong called for safe spaces to be created for disgruntled advertising workers and whistleblowers to share their experiences of creating disinformation.
Ultimately, responsibility for the consequences of disinformation cannot be attributed to any single sector or platform. Only with a holistic understanding and a structural approach to the machinery of the political election campaign can there be a pushback against untruths online.