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'Chief architects' of fake news in PHL come from PR, ad industry —study

The "chief architects" of disinformation and fake news production in the Philippines come from the public relations and advertising industry, according to a research study released on Monday.

In an 82-page report, Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, and Jason Vincent Cabañes, lecturer in international communication at the University of Leeds, said these individuals have occupied roles in corporate brands while "maintaining consultancies with political clients on the side."

"Our study uncovers the professionalized and hierarchized group of political operators who design disinformation campaigns, mobilize click armies and execute innovative digital black ops and signal scrambling techniques for any interested political client," the study read.

"Stemming from the Philippines' image-based political system, the chief architects of network disinformation come from the advertising and PR industry, whose mastery in corporate marketing hyperextends to an unregulated and highly profitable industry of digital political campaigning," it added.

The study claimed executives from these industries supposedly assemble their own groups of "anonymous digital influencers and community-level fake account operators."

"These anonymous influencers weaponize their fluency with the popular vernacular in covert digital operations designed to mobilize populist public sentiment," the study said.

The researchers conducted interviews with 20 "disinformation architects" at managerial and staff level and conducted participant observation of Facebook community groups and twitter accounts used by informants.

"We do not intend to cast moral judgments on the participants’ actions nor play at investigative journalism to 'expose' troll account operations and name and shame specific politicians involved in these," the researchers said.

The study also examined 20 Facebook groups and pages and Twitter accounts supporting various political players at both national and local levels.

The "architects" are supposedly transposing "tried-and-tested" reputation-building techniques and "spin to network disinformation campaign."

They said disinformation activities in the Philippines follow the general structure of project-based digital work, which is characterized by workers on short-term contracts with their clients who measure the delivery of output by specific criteria and metrics.

Subjects interviewed in the study didn't think their work was a form of "trolling" or fake news.

All of the people interviewed claimed that there are “real supporters with enthusiastic zeal and fan adoration for their candidate who are more likely to be invested in making personal attacks and hateful expressions in online arguments—not professional, project-based disinformation architects like themselves."

The interviewees also said they have worked with media people to coordinate communication schedules, select key opinion leaders and celebrities to endorse their candidate, and pay corrupt journalists to disseminate the core campaign messages they work on.

One respondent said their role was meant to disrupt existing social hierarchies and challenge established power players in political marketing.

"I’d actually like to phase out our company practice of paying out journalists to seed or delete news because they can be entitled or unscrupulous. The reason why I'm more passionate and committed about online work is because I don't like the politics in journalism," a young strategist named Rachel said.

Meanwhile, the researchers said efforts to blacklist fake news websites do not address the problem of disinformation production.

“There’s no one-size-fits all solution to disinformation. Countries need to understand the work hierarchies and financial incentives that reward these ‘paid trolls.’ Simply blocking accounts or blacklisting fake news sites—while often well-meaning—does not treat the underlying causes of the problem," they said.

The researchers instead recommended self-regulation measures in the digital influencer industry and legal reforms for campaign finance transparency. —JST, GMA News