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Collaborators invited for community engagement fund vs. disinformation

Since 2016, my colleagues and I have authored multiple studies about social media disinformation and influence operations and their pernicious consequences to political debate, trust in the electoral process, and even the quality of our personal relationships. The problem has become so much more profound than the attention-hacking stunts and silly distraction peddled by bloggers and influencers. In our recent Harvard University study Parallel Public Spheres: Influence Operations in the 2022 National Elections or Mga Mundo na Hindi Magtagpo: Ang Kapangyarihan ng Influence Operations noong Halalan 2022 sa Pilipinas, we raised the alarm on how political divides do not simply “stay” on social media. In fact, these are real-world fractures we must learn to carefully navigate in our classrooms, workplaces, barangays, even our closest friendships and family relationships.

When my co-author Nicole Curato and I deliver lectures to Filipino college and high school students, the most common questions asked of us by young people are: “How do I talk to my mom who voted for Marcos?” or “How do I talk to my teacher who retells a different narrative about EDSA?” Indeed, the tools of cancel culture and “pile-ons” look convenient and irresistible online when we leverage the support of like-minded followers. But offline we realize these techniques are too blunt when we’re in face-to-face conversations with a radicalized tita, teacher, or client.

Indeed, the problem of social media disinformation is so much more complex for fact-checkers and content moderators to solve by themselves. As we have seen in the 2022 elections, disinformation isn’t simply about false promises or misleading memes; disinformation now includes elaborate victimhood performances expressed through high-budget cinema and glossy lifestyle vlogs, even justified by pseudo-experts and reactor channels on YouTube.

Rather than “fight fire with fire” as some netizens have done, my colleagues and I find it urgent to advocate for creative, collaborative, and long-term-oriented solutions that address the roots of the problem. For us, the problem of “fake news” doesn’t go away either via magical legislation authored by our lawmakers (SIM Card Registration, anyone?) or regulated top-down via a United States or EU framework trying to hold social media platforms accountable. Platform regulation can only achieve so much. We have to acknowledge that disinformation campaigning is truly a homegrown, proudly Pinoy industry cloaked in the respectability of corporate boardrooms offering disinformation-for-hire.

In other words, we still need specific solutions that address Filipino sensibilities, and can empower ordinary citizens to be more critical, courageous, and ethical in the face of disinformation becoming mainstream and financially lucrative work opportunities.  This means creating and supporting a new research collective dedicated to innovate and experiment with community interventions that aim for citizen education, narrative strategy, community dialogue and depolarization, as well as accountability mechanisms targeting chief disinformation architects.

Community Engagement Plan and Funding Opportunities

Having worked in the disinformation space for over six years now, we’re excited to shake things up and blast open this space for new collaborators to come in with their diverse perspectives and skillsets. We acknowledge that there’s traditionally been a huge divide in the disinformation space between academics like us who author research papers and the journalists and civil society leaders who implement the interventions that are meant to engage the general public. We want to flip this dynamic and create community engagement research collectives where academics and practitioners work side-by-side.

Librarians can help us gather and curate the diverse academic research authored by many passionate junior scholars and undergraduates. Creative producers and influencers can then help translate academic insights to diverse audiences in various languages. Legal experts and marketing professionals can form worker collectives that discuss “tactics of resistance” within the workplace and raise questions about ethics and complicity in the creative industry.

In this first round of our Community Engagement Plan, we are inviting applicants to send us letters of interest and brief proposals that can take forward our key initiatives below. We are awarding PhP75,000 as a seed fund for winning proposals and offer mentoring and social support.

Over the past year, we have been inspired by the spirit of creativity and volunteerism of citizens who have reached out to me and my team to offer their talents of strategic communication, language translation, graphic design, community organization, computational analysis, and legal support.

We offer this modest Community Engagement Fund as creative experiment
and sincere commitment to support community organizations and talented individuals keen to work with us.

1. Creative Storytelling about Disinformation Beyond the “Bobotante Trolls” Narrative

There is a tendency for popular journalism about disinformation to reinforce social class divisions inadvertently or overtly. We observe this in stories that overplay the “the uneducated” or those with cheap phones as the main culprits behind disinformation campaigns, or their biggest victims. These forms of popular journalism, while possibly well-intentioned, perpetuate anti-masa sentiments insofar as it stokes middle-class moral panics about the masa, the bobotante, and the bayaran, and directly plays into populist assumptions about “elitist” liberals.

The proposals we want are creative campaigns and educational materials that can dispel the myth of the bobotante voter and the low-income trolls. We also want to support new journalistic features and investigative stories that shed light on the top-level trolls who are the elite strategists and masterminds of disinformation campaigns.

2. Open-Access Disinformation and Digital Ethics Educational Resources

We seek collaborators (teachers, librarians, web developers, graphic designers, skilled translators) to co-create an open-access course dedicated to collaboratively learning about disinformation and crafting strategies to promote digital literacy in the country. We envision this to be a multimedia portal that includes lecture videos, short explainers, podcasts, interactive quizzes, moderated public forums, and links to open-access research publications.

As an academic, I acknowledge that many of us need to improve curation and accessibility of our research, as well as collaborations with teachers in primary and secondary schools who teach the foundations of digital literacy.

We have been inspired by volunteers who offered us their translation skills to communicate our academic studies in different languages (including Ilokano), and we want to continue the practice of producing multilingual translations of our studies.

We seek collaborators from the fields of social psychology, philosophy, and development communication who can co-design teaching materials, conversation guides (“How to Talk to Your Radicalized Tita”), and debate prompts that promote healthy deliberative conversations.

Coders and engineers can help create interactive games and quizzes that bring to life important insights about the digital environment.

3. Supporting Whistleblowers to Expose Disinformation-for-Hire

We need to introduce pain points and accountability mechanisms that shed light on how local advertising and public relations firms profit from hateful campaigns yet operate as industry “open secrets.”

The first step is to create worker support and protection mechanisms that ensure precarious workers would be protected in moments when they expose their organization’s complicity with disinformation campaigns. Policymakers, journalists, and academics can collaborate to create safe environments for whistleblowers to come out into the open, recount their experiences working in political campaigns, or in social media platforms. We seek legal and cybersecurity experts who might provide legal protection to such whistleblowers.

Our collaboration with PumaPodcast Catch Me If You Can is one successful experiment at encouraging disgruntled corporate creative workers to come out and retell their stories of moonlighting for political campaigns.

We also believe that we need to open complex discussions about ethics and transparency in the business of influencer marketing that is best led by courageous industry insiders.

Ultimately we know that what binds us is greater than what separates us, and this Community Engagement Plan can possibly build bridges with more allies. We hope this can help foster new voices and new insights in the fight against disinformation and influence operations in the Philippines.

Submit your proposal to the Community Engagement Fund here:

The study Parallel Public Spheres: Influence Operations in the 2022 National Elections is published by Harvard University and Internews. Our Community Engagement Plan is a collaborative project supported by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Luminate, and Reset. Tweet any of your questions @jonathan_c_ong or email