Research notes significant growth in Marcos-related election chatter on Twitter

Mico Abarro, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 19 2022 07:10 PM

MANILA - Election-related conversations on Twitter about presidential aspirant Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. went from insignificant to making up their own "interaction cluster" between May and October 2021, registering in the radar of researchers that went though more than a million interactions on the social media platform during that period.

Those in the cluster were Marcos' account and Duterte-administration-aligned actors talking about support for Marcos, the need to "bring back" Marcos as leader, and how he was the "savior of the country." Among the main topics in this cluster were "BBM content vlogs on YouTube" and "government media updates" related to the the country's anti-COVID-19 task force, said the Philippine Media Monitoring (PMM) Laboratory which unveiled their findings about election-related Twitter conversations on Tuesday.

PMM Laboratory
PMM Laboratory

This is part of PMM Laboratory's "Digital Public Pulse" project, which also studies election-related interactions on Facebook and YouTube. PMM Laboratory is a consortium of communication, political science, and data science researchers led by members of the Department of Communication Research from the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

Marcos had no distinct interaction cluster between May to July 2021 before "growing significantly" between August and October 2021, said Assistant Professor Jon Benedik Bunquin, main presenter of the project's Twitter findings. Marcos filed his certificate of candidacy for president under the Partido Federal ng Pilipnas in October.

Robredo, opposition clusters among largest, became target of attacks

On the other hand, while Vice President Maria Leonor "Leni" Robredo and the opposition's interaction cluster was among the largest on Twitter, this community also contained users that engaged in anti-Robredo and anti-opposition attacks, the researchers said.

PMM Laboratory
PMM Laboratory

"Of course merong supportive interactions there, positive interactions directed towards Leni and the opposition. But it's only within their cluster that we're able to see na meron attacks really directed towards these candidates, or these political actors," Bunquin said.

(Of course there are supportive interactions there, positive interactions directed towards Leni and the opposition. But it's only within their cluster that we're able to see that there are really attacks directed towards these candidates, or these political actors.)

"There are people who might express dislike for political candidates, but the difference is that they're not engaging; 'I'm gonna tweet I don't like candidate X, but I'm not gonna tag candidate X, or I'm not gonna tag the followers or supporters of that candidate,'" added PMM Laboratory co-lead Assistant Professor Fatima Gaw.

"The difference with the Robredo opposition cluster from our findings now is that they directly engage in these attacks, so that's one notable finding I think that can be investigated further," she said.

Unidentifiable users 'overtaking' news media 

PMM Laboratory
PMM Laboratory

PMM Laboratory also found that unidentifiable users, as well as users that have been suspended or removed by Twitter, had overtaken news media as central actors in election-related conversations. The group said these accounts could be part of coordinated campaigns that aim to manipulate and mislead electoral discourse on the platform.

Though news media and their audiences remained the biggest election-related interaction cluster on Twitter, they were found to be mostly detached from the other clusters.

Meanwhile, the researchers said they expected the number of suspended and unidentifiable accounts to rise further and exert more influence as the May 2022 elections draw near.

"We see that platforms are playing this endless whack-a-mole game in their crackdown of abusive accounts," Bunquin said. "And sadly, we feel that they're not really winning. Twitter's policy is very clear on the activities considered as manipulative and abusive. They have automated mechanisms to take down abusive accounts. But the thing with this is that discourses are already left damaged before abusive accounts are taken down. Some accounts, they go undetected by the automated troll-detection machines because the interactions, although inflammatory, although abusive, they appear organic."

But PMM Laboratory added that Twitter provided users the opportunity to see agendas and ideas outside of their own communities, which would enrich political discourse on the platform. That is why the group called on voters to diversify their Twitter interactions to gain access to ideas they initially did not know of.

It also suggested that news media take advantage of Twitter in covering the elections, while being more discerning with reporting trends which could be manipulated by actors on the platform.

PMM Laboratory is set to present its findings on election-related discourse on Facebook Jan. 26, 2022, 10 a.m. The presentation will be live streamed on their Facebook page.