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Social media ‘micro-influencers’ were useful disinformation tool in 2019 polls — report

Those with the most followers on social media may not necessarily be the most influential, at least in Philippine elections.

That is because "micro-influencers"—accounts with 10,000 to 100,000 followers—may have the greatest influence of them all, according to a report on digital disinformation and manipulation in the May 2019 polls.

The report, "Tracking Digital Disinformation in the 2019 Philippine Midterm Election," was published this month on New Mandala Org, a blog providing analyses on Southeast Asian issues, and was written by Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of Global Digital Media at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; Ross Tapsell, senior lecturer and researcher at the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific; and Nicole Curato, associate professor at the University of Canberra's Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance.

Micro-influencers as political tool

According to the report, micro-influencers have the advantage over macro-influencers (accounts with 500,000 or more subscribers) because the latter are subject to greater scrutiny of the public and government regulators.

“What micro-influencers lack in broader reach, they gain in maneuverability and ‘contrived authenticity’,” the report said.

“‘Contrived authenticity’ is the term media anthropologists use to describe internet celebrities whose carefully calculated posts seek to give an impression of raw aesthetic, spontaneity and therefore relatability,” it added.

"This makes it easier for them to infiltrate organic communities and evade public monitoring."

This paved the way for micro-influencers to be enlisted by strategists in digital political campaigns aimed at small groups.

The report said that political camps tapped the services of micro-influencers in the 2019 elections, allowing public relations (PR) strategists to “hide in plain sight and evolve their playbook in the shadows” by enlisting more diverse micro-media manipulators.

“The broader reach of macro-and mid-influencers [who have 100,000 to 500,000 followers] offers appealing opportunities to generate awareness through brand ‘collaborations’ or sponsorships. Meanwhile, micro-and nano-influencers promise brands greater engagement and affinity. Because micro- and nano-influencers lack mainstream fame, they appear more authentic and trustworthy to their small yet intensely dedicated followers whom they can count on for likes, shares, and comments,” the report read.

Agents of disinformation

The report identified three sets of disinformation innovations in micro-media manipulation:

  • political parody accounts that can be either pro- or anti-administration;
  • Pinoy pop culture accounts, which slip in political propaganda in between humorous posts, inspirational quotes, and quotes about failed romances more popularly known as "hugot"; and
  • thirst trap Instagrammers, or the network of attractive young men who sneak in political posts in between their usual photos showing them shirtless and working out in the gym.

“As with other digital influencers, some parody accounts may begin as ‘organic’ and grow their followers by cultivating a sense of intimacy and authenticity,” the report read.

“When they post an election-related joke, tweet a hashtag, or share a candidate’s video, their message comes across as spontaneous and sincere. Their ‘authentic’ exuberance for a political cause becomes an aspirational model for their followers’ own political performance,” the report added.

The report also said that the local influencer industry rates peg the rates of micro-influencer between P20,000 to P40,000 per post, while nano-influencers  (who have 1,000 to 10,000 followers) are paid P5,000 to P10,000 per post.

Challenge to curb disinformation

The authors of the report conceded that disinformation tactics are fast-evolving, creative, and increasingly undetectable, making the challenge to curb them tougher than ever.

“Even in the best of circumstances, regulation on content moderation, among others, can only do so much to anticipate innovations of digital underground operations designed precisely to circumvent existing rules. The challenge, therefore, is broader and more systemic,” the report said.

“Avenues for reform need to take more seriously the enabling environment for disinformation to thrive, from the vulnerabilities of digital workers that drive them to join underground operations to the ethics of the advertising industry that allows unscrupulous practices unchecked,” the report added. — BM, GMA News