MANILA - Facebook accounts and pages aligned with presidential aspirant Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. grew more influential in discussions related to the 2022 national and local elections on the social media platform between May and October 2021, researchers said about their study unveiled Wednesday.
According to the Philippine Media Monitoring Laboratory or PMM Laboratory, their study showed Marcos-aligned accounts merged with those supporting Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, as well as Senator Bong Go and President Rodrigo Duterte to create the biggest interaction "supercluster" or community discussing the 2022 elections on Facebook.
The researchers said that FB accounts in the cluster mainly shared posts from news media pages, as well as pages aligned with Marcos, Sara Duterte, Go, and Rodrigo Duterte. The topics they discussed included attacks versus other presidential aspirants like Vice President Maria Leonor "Leni" Robredo, Manila Mayor Francisco "Isko Moreno" Domagoso, and Senator Emmanuel "Manny" Pacquiao.
They also encouraged people to make their own election surveys, and espoused anti-media sentiment on top of expressing support for Marcos, the Dutertes, and Go.
The findings are part of PMM Laboratory's "Digital Public Pulse" project, which also studies election-related interactions on Twitter 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.
The researchers said between May and July 2021, Marcos-related pages were the seventh-largest cluster of election-related discussions on Facebook, before merging with Duterte and Go-aligned pages between August and October 2021.
Pages and accounts aligned with other presidential candidates also formed into "superclusters" between August and October, with Moreno and Lacson-aligned accounts being the second-largest community discussing the elections on Facebook.
Pages aligned with Pacquiao meanwhile became the third-largest supercluster, after merging with gaming pages that also contained the former boxer's supporters.
Meanwhile, Facebook pages aligned with Robredo, as well as opposition coalition 1Sambayan had already merged with mainstream news media into their own cluster as early as May-July 2021. But PMM Laboratory said the size of this cluster remained the same in the August-October 2021 period. It also concluded that the clustering may imply that Robredo and 1Sambayan supporters heavily engaged in news consumption.
Other communities, meanwhile, were getting their news from government, as well as local and regional media outlets.
PMM Laboratory also noted that Robredo's cluster was the only politician-led community that included both supporters and detractors.
"Unlike the first three clusters which actually became superclusters by merging with smaller communities, the cluster of news media and Robredo remains steady or didn't grow as much. Perhaps grew in size, but it is not really diversifying," said research co-lead Assistant Professor Fatima Gaw.
Camouflaging political content
PMM Laboratory said their findings implied that political content "camouflaged" in supposedly non-political Facebook pages made audiences more susceptible to manipulation. It added that political actors with deep social capital on Facebook may have already cultivated their own ecosystems in the platform way before the official start of the campaign period, making their accounts resistant to investigations and moderation. This also gave politicians access to what PMM Laboratory called "push-button political activation."
"Whenever a politician is criticized in the media, for instance, they can automatically launch counter-discourse campaigns, or they can mobilize members of the Facebook groups they cultivated through the years to amplify their own campaigns," Gaw said.
She warned this kind of system undermined any semblance of equal-opportunity campaigning on the platform.
Meanwhile, Facebook takedowns of inauthentic coordinated behavior on its platform were too little to deter such actions, and too late in minimizing social harm and averting political damage.
Among the study's recommendations was a call on media to rethink its news broadcast distribution model on Facebook, as well as a call on Facebook to develop mechanisms that will help detect suspected inauthentic coordinated behavior in its early stages.
PMM Laboratory also said government should investigate how its pages and accounts were being used for political campaigns, as well as expanding the definition of "political spending" outside of political ads.
Gaw noted a Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism report that said Marcos had no recorded ad spending on Facebook.
"Yet he has the biggest voice in the platform, so it is interesting if there is underground spending unaccounted for in the regulatory mechanisms of Comelec," she said.
The researchers said an investigation into the patterns of posting, the patterns of behavior of Marcos-related or supportive channels could show whether or not they were coordinated or paid for. Though they noted that some of these actions could also be organic.
"Until then, we can't say. But there are those signs already," Gaw said.
Research co-lead Assistant Professor Jon Benedik Bunquin said how fast the posts spread could be studied to determine coordinated behavior.
"It's really looking at the phenomenon from a coordination perspective, 'no. How are these similar posts or similar pages working together? How much time does it take for one similar post to be posted by the next page. I mean patterns of linkages emerging from all of these pages," Bunquin said. "Those are really your telltale signs when political opinion or popularity is being manufactured."
PMM Laboratory said it expected more community mobilization on Facebook as the 2022 elections draw near, as people come closer to a decision on which political candidate to support.
The researchers are set to present the results of the comparative cross-platform analysis of their findings on February 2, 2022, 10 a.m. The presentation will be live streamed on their Facebook page.