After his noteworthy research on political troll farms and fake news production in the Philippines, Filipino disinformation researcher Jonathan Corpus Ong is embarking on a new study. This time it will focus on the human cost of disinformation, a concerning topic affecting civil society workers and journalists. The study will delve into the precarious work conditions they find themselves in and the impact of toxic content to their job and mental health.
Ong, an associate professor at the department of communication of University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been named a 2022 Andrew Carnegie Fellow by the Carnegie Corporation of New York—one of the oldest, largest, and most influential American philanthropic foundations. He’s one of the 28 scholars selected from among 300 applicants nominated by their respective institutions. Ong was awarded a $200,000 stipend for the said endeavor.
No one is a “troll”
In 2016, in the months leading up to the Philippine elections, Ong received grants to work on a research about the conditions of digital workers in the Philippines. He intended to focus his study on content moderation.
“Content moderators, ito yung mga digital janitors on social media,” he explains. “Sila ang nagfa-flag kung may offensive, sexualized, gory, violent content. Sila ang nagte-takedown ng content on Facebook, on YouTube. So I wanted to know how challenging it is.” But due to privacy policies that his target respondents signed with their employers, nobody agreed to be interviewed.
Unable to get an audience with digital janitors, he interviewed political trolls instead. “I wanted to find out how much they are getting paid,” recalls Ong. “How did they even get there? What were the life circumstances that would lead a person to sign up to become a troll? May ethics ba sila? How do they sleep at night? How can they live with themselves? In 2016, nakita natin all these violence, hate, attacks online—that’s what got me into it.”
What he found out, first of all, is that no one calls himself a troll. “Trolls have very fancy titles. They are PR associates, marketing strategists, content managers, social media community managers,” he tells ANCX. “For me that is interesting—no one is formally a troll.”
He also found out that there are people who did not go into troll work voluntarily. Some were deceived into becoming a troll.
“There is an element of deception in the recruitment. Many respondents mentioned that when they applied to a PR firm, they thought they will be handling a corporate account—say, a shampoo or a soft drink brand. They underwent a series of interviews. May pa-tests pa. So that was the impression that they got. But they would later find out na si Mayor pala ang client. And then ang job pala, aside from writing press releases, is tagagawa ng memes. They were asked to create fake accounts,” he says.
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A PR associate would get at least P15,000 a month. The pay will obviously differ depending on the title. “Some influencers and content producers [do the work on a] freelance basis. They do it as a side gig. Kung hustler ka, e di madami kang kliyente, malaki ang magiging kita mo.”
How the trolls rationalize and justify their work is quite unsettling, says Ong. “Sideline lang naman ito.” “I just need the extra money.” There’s definitely an issue on ethics and morality. But it’s more important to see the bigger picture, Ong says. “We tend to focus on the low-level players, the anonymous fake account operators. But we also need to think about the head troll. Who is the head troll? They are the political strategists. And they are kinda hard to call out. Therefore we need a real whole of society approach. They are protected by their own politicians, so we need to create more transparency from the top down.”
Day to midnight
Ong graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication in 2003 at Ateneo de Manila University. He was summa cum laude and later worked as advertising practitioner and communications professor, stints that would shape his research on disinformation economies. He completed his Master of Science Degree in Politics and Communication at the London School of Economics and his Doctorate degree in Sociology at the University of Cambridge.
The elder of two siblings—his father passed away when he was taking up his PhD, his mother runs a crystal store in Greenhills—Ong has been based in the US for six years, teaching both undergrad and graduate students at UMass. Among the courses he handles are Social Media in Everyday Life, and Technology Ethics and Media Justice. Alongside teaching, he does academic writing and research, providing support and training to graduate students, scholars and researchers, and sharing his expertise on different issues with journalists, civil society workers, and the government.
“A lot of my work is giving back—supporting and mentoring Filipino communities,” he says. This is why a normal day for him extends up to midnight, which is daytime in the Philippines.
He’s been working with Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE), a group of lawyers involved in voter education activities. “They have been trying to translate my work into a legal framework. Their advocacy is to try to create a code of ethics among advertising and PR professionals in the Philippines,” says Ong. He says it is important to be working with local civil society partners to see the real impact of his team’s research.
To reach college listeners who are interested in news and features, Ong and journalist Kat Ventura recently launched a podcast on Spotify called “Catch Me if You Can.” Powered by award-winning podcast production company, PumaPodcast, the program digs into the world of troll farms and online black propaganda machinery in the Philippines.
For two years (2020-2021), Ong also worked as a Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, monitoring misinformation and fake news for the U.S. 2020 elections.
The political elite
Being an Andrew Carnegie fellow is obviously an honor for Ong and UMass Amherst. In his new project, he wants to come up with another important academic research that may help the Philippines and the rest of the world curtail disinformation.
It only takes minutes of scrolling through one’s Facebook or Tiktok feed to see that rampancy of disinformation in the Philippines has divided the electorate. Passions are running so high its scary, Ong says. “We see the other camp as enemies to be defeated, to be obliterated, to be erased rather than people we disagree with. I think we should expect that whatever the result of the elections will be in two weeks’ time will be contested. And there will be violent reactions either way—whether it’s Robredo or Marcos who wins.”
This is the real impact, he says, of how six years of disinformation has thrived on multiple platforms. “We have done well in targeting low-level influencers and fake account operators,” says Ong. “But we haven’t held into account the political elites and the strategists supporting them, the ones who are running the campaign.”
Photos courtesy of Jonathan Corpus Ong