How social media 'influencers' helped Twinmark disseminate fake news

Warren de Guzman, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 08 2019 06:55 PM | Updated as of Mar 08 2019 08:24 PM

MANILA - “Fake news” – or more accurately, disinformation or misinformation – has spread like wildfire on Facebook in the last few years, thanks in part to so-called social media influencers.

Twinmark Media Enterprises, which was banned by Facebook for exhibiting “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” paid social media influencers between P5,000 to P150,000 a month to re-post or share fake news.

Based on a Twinmark's 2017 "advertising list" obtained by ABS-CBN News, many of the pages that shared Twinmark content were linked to showbiz celebrities, fan pages, news media personalities, and politicians. There were also a number of meme, quote, or joke pages that had huge followings and likes.

This was how the scheme worked:

  •  Twinmark tapped Facebook accounts that are either linked to famous personalities, or have huge following and/or high engagement.
  • The accounts were given “deliverables” or the things they needed to do for Twinmark, ranging from 2 to 10 posts, re-posts or shares per day. In some cases, the deliverable was to hit a certain number of posts (ex. 120 or 180 posts.)
  • After meeting their quota, the “influencers” were paid in check deposited in a bank account, or in cash sent through a money remittance center.
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So, who exactly were these Facebook “influencers” that Twinmark claims to have paid tens of thousands of pesos a month for sharing its content?

The talent agency

In four months in 2017 alone, Twinmark deposited nearly half a million pesos in a bank account in the name of this Quezon City-based talent management agency. This, in exchange for posts and shares on Twinmark content in the Facebook pages of the agency’s talents -- including a model who is the sister of a better-known actress and TV host, and a radio DJ. It was not clear if the artists were aware of how their agency ran their Facebook pages.

The vlogger

Twinmark also deposited payments in a bank account in the name of a female vlogger, who is one-half of a couple famous on Facebook and in vlogging circles. For 2017, a total of P2 million were deposited in the account.

The former sexy star 

The name of this former sexy star also appeared regularly in Twinmark’s “advertising list.” Based on the 2017 list, Twinmark paid P750,000 for just 5 months of posting and sharing of its content on the former star’s widely followed Facebook page. The money was deposited in a bank account that bore the name of the star’s manager.

The ex-child star

Also on the Twinmark 2017 “advertising list” was the name of a former child star. For 9 months of posts that year, a total of over P600,000 was deposited in a bank account that bore the child star’s real name.

The rest of Twinmark’s payments were made to various fan pages of several entertainment, media, and political personalities, and popular pages dedicated to funny, inspiring, political content, pages that have tapped successfully into what the Pinoy digital audience likes to consume.

According to Prof. Jason Cabañes of De La Salle University, these so-called digital influencers, under which social media influencers can be considered a sub-group, play a key role in translating and disseminating digital campaigns created by a “chief architect.” The “chief architect” is usually a PR manager or advertiser hired to put together a social media campaign.

Together with Jonathon Ong of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Cabanes co-authored “Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines,” which gives as a detailed description of digital influencers based on research conducted between 2016 and 2017. 

“What we found is that, the chief architects pretty much follow the principles of PR in constructing these political campaigns. They have these things like brand bibles, media plans. The have all these techniques of advertising and PR. The role of the digital influencer is kind of translate this very conceptual language from the chief architects into something that is more in line with popular vernacular, the language of everyday Philippine culture,” Cabanes said. 

“They are not really accounts that are geared explicitly toward advertising campaigns, or political campaigns. They are accounts that share with you funny quotes or funny memes or even prayers, or nice poetry. That’s the kind of base level of these accounts. That is how they generate a lot of following,” he added.

However, Cabañes said administrators were able to change their material at any time, allowing them to capitalize when politicians come knocking on their door.

“The thing to be said is these are not political accounts per se. They are made for something else, and then they are hijacked for more political purposes,” he said. 

Twinmark operations 

But Cabanes noted that Twinmark’s operations differed in one respect.

“What we found in our study is that in many ways, it is a top-down approach. It was the chief architects leading the campaign. Very orchestrated, very organized. In this particular instance, it is much more bottom-up. People online being entrepreneurial about the capacities and vulnerabilities of social media,” he said. 

Cabañes also believed it was likely that none of these influencers pay taxes on their online revenues, being mostly unreported, underground work. However, the money these influencers earn are a pittance compared to that earned by the “chief architect.” 

“One of the chief architects that we talked to said that for a particular 3-month campaign for a particular issue, this person got paid around P30 million, and the bulk of that goes to the chief architect. Very, very little goes to the anonymous digital influencers and community fake account operators (trolls.)” 

Based on Twinmark documents, Twinmark earned over P250 million in revenues from Facebook and Google alone, revenue from other sources were not recorded. Twinmark insiders said the company paid out about P70 million to its list of digital influencers for hire in 2 years.

The Internet Tax Leak 

The internet is a huge tax leak, and it’s a challenge for the Bureau of Internal Revenue to collect taxes, accountant Mon Abrea said. 

“Our tax code is very clear: all sources of income are taxable unless otherwise provided to be exempted,” Abrea said. "But the same tax code states the declaration of taxable income is voluntary."

“Whether it is online or traditional way of doing business, it is really upon the declaration of the taxpayer how much they earn and how much they will pay. It’s up to BIR, through their audit and investigation, to check whether we have really paid the right taxes or not. So it’s really a challenge," he said. 

Despite Facebook’s takedown of Twinmark’s Facebook network and other pages linked to them, Cabañes is convinced many digital influencers-for-hire are still operating.

“Isa lang ito sa ginagawa nila. Gumagawa pa rin sila ng advertising, gumagawa pa rin sila ng PR. So, kahit wala na ang Twinmark, meron pa ring marami dyan, at siguro mas mahirap silang hulihin dahil may front sila na iba ang ginagawa nila,” he said. 

With the May elections coming up, Cabañes and Ong expect many “architects of disinformation” and “digital influencers” are out there operating.

Despite the proliferation of disinformation online and the role digital architects and influencers play, Cabañes and Ong say they were not in favor of state regulation of content as this is dangerously close to censorship. 

Instead, they said, there should be transparency in the way digital influencers do their work and in financial transactions related to online posts.

Abrea added that the best way to ensure transparency is to lift the veil of bank secrecy to make it easier for the BIR to go after those who make money spamming “fake news.”