Meme accounts could be 'disinformation actors,' warns prof

Jauhn Etienne Villaruel, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 20 2021 04:49 PM

Facebook said it had blocked a network in Vietnam and the United States which posted pro-Trump messages aimed at US citizens. Johanna Geron/illustration, Reuters

MANILA – Your favorite parody and meme accounts could potentially be "disinformation actors" employed by an operator to promote or attack a politician, a communication expert told lawmakers Wednesday, as they discussed the vulnerability of the digital space ahead of the 2022 national elections. 

"[T]he Philippines mixes and merges a whole range of disinformation operators. On one hand there are private industry actors who serve as political consultants who mastermind campaigns... [And then there are] influencers and microlevel influencers," Jonathan Corpus Ong, a faculty member of the University of Massachusetts' Amherst communication department. 

"They could be operating parody accounts, or meme accounts na akala mo nagpapatawa lang sila, but at some point they are also seeding memes and posts promoting a politician or attacking their opponents," Ong added. 

 'LOCALLY-PRODUCED' 

The hearing called by Sen. Imee Marcos, chairperson of the Senate panel on Electoral Reforms and People’s Participation, was meant to discuss how to detect "potential foreign interference in elections via social media," but Ong pointed out that most disinformation operations are in fact "locally-produced."

"Disinformation is actually pretty local. Even though it is important for us to secure our online spaces from foreign actors interfering in our electoral discourse, it’s also important to acknowledge how a lot of our disinformation are locally-produced," Ong said.

However, Ong said he was able to uncover "foreign intervention" not on the national level but only in local politics. 

"Entrepreneurs who wanted to advance local infrastructure projects locally and they were funding the digital campaigns of certain mayoral candidates in the Philippine, local level campaigns and not so much national," he said.

 FLOURISHING INDUSTRY

Ong and his colleagues did ethnographic studies both during the 2016 and 2019 national elections and noticed that the disinformation industry even flourished. 

"We haven't really done enough from 2016 to 2019, so parang nag-flourish pa lalo 'yung disinformation industry... We haven't come up with a comprehensive framework that would penalize and... introduce financial disincentives to PR firms, advertising agencies, high-level political consultants who are marshalling all of the online trolls and influencers," Ong said. 

Ong said a "multi-stakeholder collaboration" is needed to control disinformation, but cautioned against too much government regulation that could lead to "self-censorship and silencing."

"We agree that a very careful, conservative, and nuanced approach should be taken, given that this may infringe on everyone's fundamental right to free speech," Marcos told Ong. 

Repression of freedom of speech and expression had flourished during the dictatorial regime of the senator's father, the late Ferdinand Marcos.

In September 2020, Facebook took down several social media accounts belonging to two networks -- one based in China, the other with links to individuals associated with the Philippine military and police -- that were found to have violated its policies.