More than a matter of fact: Perspectives on the 2019 electoral campaign trail

Mounting a successful electoral bid in the Philippines is no easy feat. With over 60 candidates vying for 12 available seats, senatoriables are seeking all possible avenues to stand out and capture the people’s votes. While some have taken more to social media, others have opted for the traditional mass media-centric route—with one even going as far as releasing his own biopic just before the official campaign period began.

Offering their insights on the ongoing electoral campaigns, communication scholars Dr. Cheryll Soriano and Dr. Jason Cabañes of the College of Liberal Arts broke down candidates’ campaign communication choices and highlighted the growing threat of disinformation online.

Misinformation versus disinformation

While differentiating the two terms may seem more like a concern of the academe, Cabañes shares that the difference in meaning has significant implications. “Misinformation [is] something that was told to you that was incorrect, but wasn’t done with any kind of spiteful motivation. Disinformation is something that is strategically done, something that is orchestrated,” he explains.  

The practice of disinformation is not entirely new, but Cabañes says that it became more evident during the 2016 presidential elections, which is often remembered for the rise of the so-called trolls. The phenomenon was the subject of his recent research with Dr. Jonathan Ong of the University of Massachusetts.

Aptly titled Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines, their findings showed that an entire network of people was involved in disinformation. At the helm of these operations were the “chief architects”, who were found to be skilled professionals from the advertising and public relations industries.

Although the public is now aware of the existence of trolls, Soriano thinks that disinformation will still be a part of the 2019 midterm elections, saying, “The possibilities of using disinformation for advancing political goals manifested in a lot of ways for different candidates from the previous elections. Therefore, it is very likely for candidates to follow suit or continue to tap on the use of disinformation, including trolls for the current elections.”

She adds that it is also possible for the scale of disinformation to vary given that candidates are aiming to be one of 12 proclaimed winners rather than the sole winner, which was the case during the presidential and vice presidential races in 2016.

‘Permanent digital disinformation campaign’

As mentioned before, the process of disinformation begins with the chief architects who use corporate branding techniques and other similar advertising methods to set the objectives for their clients’ campaign. This is followed by the information being cascaded to “digital influencers” tasked with communicating campaign messages as is or as viral posts.

“Community-level fake account operators” are then hired to respond and comment in support of whatever is being published to bolster the popularity of messages online in what Cabañes and Ong called “an illusion of engagement”. Finally, the information reaches “grassroots intermediaries” who voluntarily share it to other members of the public, unaware of the hidden intent to disinform.

Unfortunately, it is the very nature of disinformation to appear authentic, which Cabañes admits makes it difficult for the average user to detect it online. As important as it is to educate users, institutions must also initiate large-scale change to dismantle the structures that support disinformation.

“If you put the onus on the individual, that’s really tough to do. We need to do something structural. It can’t be na tayo yung may kasalanan sa whether we’re interpreting things right or wrong because it’s hard as a consumer to do that,” he argues.

(It can’t be considered our fault whether we’re interpreting things right or wrong because it’s hard as a consumer to do that.)

To assume that disinformation occurs only during elections would be a grave oversight. As Ong and Cabañes discovered in their study, issues such as the controversial burial of Former President Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani can also spur disinformation. Cabañes calls this “a state of permanent digital disinformation campaign.”

Presence matters

Globally, the Philippines takes the top spot in social media usage rankings based on the 2018 Global Digital reports produced by advertising agency We Are Social and social media management platform Hootsuite. However, Soriano argues that candidates cannot confine their campaign efforts to social media platforms alone.

“We would think that a lot of Filipinos are on social media, and yes, people spend a lot of time on social media,” she admits. “But still, [the] masses tune into television and specifically, specific slots on television [like] primetime.”  

Candidates need not be limited to personalized advertisements or televised debates to capitalize on the reach of mass media. In the lead up to the official campaign period, a biopic about the life of former Philippine National Police Chief Ronald ‘Bato’ dela Rosa hit cinemas.

Former Special Assistant to the President Christopher ‘Bong’ Go had his own life story portrayed on ABS-CBN’s Maalala Mo Kaya, while re-electionist senator Cynthia Villar opted for hers to be aired on GMA Network’s Magpakailanman.

Villar and former Metropolitan Manila Development Authority chairman Francis Tolentino also guest starred on kids’ show Goin’ Bulilit!.

Interestingly, this entertainment-centric approach in campaigning is not new. Soriano cites the approach as one borrowed from earlier elections, dating back to Marcos’ presidential bid. “[You] need to depict yourself as someone who your prospective fans [and] supporters can look up to, but at the same time [someone] can relate to, that you are actually accessible. You have the same set of problems. Then, you live with the same set of struggles and so on,” she expounds, since the objective is to make the candidate worth idolizing and relatable at the same time.

In light of candidates’ growing presence on entertainment platforms, Cabañes emphasizes the need for voters to remain cautious of the messages candidates are communicating to them through what he calls “soft content.”

“We are less guarded when we watch these [entertainment media]. Our antennas are not up whether this is fake news or not because this is just entertainment, but it does shape the way we look at things,” he elaborates.  

Miguel Angelo Rabago

By Miguel Angelo Rabago

Maxine Ferrer

By Maxine Ferrer

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