An exposé of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte’s internet propagandizing shows what is increasingly in store for netizens all over the world
The president of the Philippines compared himself to Hitler in a positive way on Saturday. But the frightening thing is that his online propaganda tools should concern you much more than this comment.
Although “troll factories,” propaganda amplifiers, and harassment campaigns have been extensively detailed with respect to Russian, Chinese, Turkish, and American politics before, The Rappler now offers a deep dive into how such tactics are being employed in the Philippines, with its 54 million Internet users. Their investigation outlines the work of pro-government boosters through “social media campaigns meant to shape public opinion, tear down reputations, and cripple traditional media institutions.”
The most recent example of how this messaging, and the backlash against it, operated took place over the weekend in regards to President Rodrigo Duterte’s invocation of Hitler and the Final Solution over his anti-drug crackdown. First, he told reporters that, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]” and that he would be willing to kill “3 million drug addicts” to achieve his goals. Then, the Reuters reporters who covered the remarks were pilloried by Duterte’s supporters online, who said he was contrasting himself with Hitler, rather than claiming inspiration.
Duterte subsequently apologized for the remarks when challenged by the local Jewish community, saying he was not favorably citing the Nazis’ Final Solution as a model for his anti-drug campaign. But, to be clear on his goals, he reiterated his promise to physically destroy all “addicts,” so no one could doubt that he means to continue his crackdown on real and suspected drug users unabated.
Since taking office, Duterte’s controversial comments on what direction to take the country in have drawn condemnation from some sides, but rapturous adulation from his own camp despite efforts by his Cabinet to walk back statements that upset Manila’s diplomatic partners. Despite the walkbacks, such red-blooded messaging is meant to appeal to his base, including his online legions of fans who amplify his messages and take the fight to opponents who publicly oppose him.
Duterte’s administration in Davao, where he began his political career as an anti-drug, anti-vice mayor, was marked by significant levels of social media engagement and messaging by supporters. This active online presence contrasted with that of other towns and cities, and later, with the presidential campaigns of his rivals on the national level.
“Virality of content became one of the key goals,” The Rappler noted in its overview of the presidential campaigning online. “The [Duterte] team tried its best to measure every aspect of the digital campaign, including messengers, messages, design, video, voice, segmentation and other tactics,” and, most importantly for Duterte’s public image, “The team was not selling a candidate, they were simply covering the movement around the campaign” in a way that allowed supporters to make their own user-generated content imagining him to be “their” candidate. Not only is such material free for the campaign, as it may use it online but does not actually produce or solicit it, it fed into the news cycle around Duterte simply by existing, a ready-made form of PR.
Such tactics have become central to U.S. politics in the 2016 election cycle, especially the Republican Party’s messaging, though it remains to be seen just how decisive it may (or may not) prove when voters actually go to the polls on November 11.
In the Philippines, though, The Rappler‘s findings are quite clear: Effective use of human resources, free content, and legions of human (and bot) commenters got the winning candidate’s message out and laid the groundwork for containing activism in support of his policy program. And, after the election ended in a Duterte victory, in mobilizing opposition to his critics seen as impeding it.
“The entire campaign would have been worth millions, but because it’s all volunteer work, it’s not big,” his social media director told The Rappler. Building on real-world networks, the campaign’s coordinators put together a “message of the week” to be disseminated on Twitter and other social media forums. Much of the messaging was aimed at buttressed Duterte’s own image, as well as attacks on his rivals. The campaign denied it made use of bots: instead, the volunteers said they went to a core group of 500-600 people, who were responsible for spreading the marketing materials through their networks to reach thousands more Filipino citizens. Since then, the messaging has been amplified by celebrity endorsements, like those of boxing icon Manny Pacquiao or the actor Robert Padilla, that reach their tens of thousands of followers (and bots). Duterte’s nickname, “The Punisher,” further lends itself to this celebrity, since it evokes a well-known American comic book vigilante, an anti-hero often at odds with “superheroes” because of his willingness to kill the same sort of criminals who murdered his family years ago.
Although Duterte’s team disavows the use of bots, these were integral to adding volume to Duterte’s social media presence during the 2015-16 presidential election season. The Rappler estimates that up to 26% of the tweets mentioning him in one sample study were “mirror tweets” probably generated by bots, a percentage well above his rivals’ own bot-to-people ratios. But, interestingly, the sample showed the limits of automation without proper messaging behind them. The content of these tweets was either unflattering or irrelevant, so it seems that they took off without any real human direction, and certainly not any from Duterte’s own campaign team.
Human direction is still necessary for the full effect.
Today, readers’ increased reliance on the internet for information, automation, and the emergence of loosely-knit social collectives in cyber space means that actors can coordinate these campaigns online to smear their opponents.
Traditional media efforts to keep up with the apparent emergence of a new trend or hashtag activism drive ironically feeds into the viral mien. And even though users often recognize commonalties shared by bots pushing a single message as loud as possible, well-crafted messages are not so easily called out.
The Rappler‘s look into fake news stories, hijacking of online polls, misattribution of sources, spam comments, and well-paid social media curators shows how easily these can fool news algorithms and real human media consumers. Despite the high level of automation present, much still depends on real people, but they do not fall into the same categories.
True believers and clock-punchers
There are the true believers who spend free time (unpaid) to promote messages they believe in, or, for the perceived attention-getting and tempers-flaring value.
And then there are those who, in the words of one “troll farmer” speaking to the website sobaka.ru, are “expected to work the hours from 9:00 [am] to 5:30 pm and produce 20 news items, of which 70% are to be original items” for $579 to $726 per month.
The true believers are well-outnumbered by the “it’s a living” crowd (and even some of the bots), but all work in concert to successfully make the messages go viral. And, given both the bot and human power behind the “fakes,” actual corrections to the record tend to go unnoticed after the fact so the original messaging remains.
Such tactics are part and parcel of what former TV producer Peter Pomerantsev has dubbed “the menace of unreality.” This includes the coordinated dissemination of talking points, financial resources, and outright lies to sway public opinion or, failing at that, to discredit competing views by making so much noise most people will not bother seeking out more accurate information. This approach to the internet offers, according to the blog Russia Without BS, “a myriad of alternatives and whether you pick one, several, or refuse to believe anything or anyone is just fine with them.”
In other words: as many people as possible can imagine a movement or a candidate to be “their” guy (or girl) despite the fact that the common cause can be fleeting and contradictory.
Such behavior is not new: domestic political campaigns have employed “dirty tricks“, and “astroturf” echo chambers for centuries. Nor is it a step backwards for democracy that the internet has allowed voters, pollsters, and activists to mobilize supporters online. Skillful use of algorithms can amplify talking points without candidates needing to raise a large real-life army of helpers to go out into the streets to do so at prohibitive costs.
The Rappler notes, “The 2016 elections were the most engaged in Philippine history, but they also pointed out that the period also highlighted some of the angriest and vicious political discourse” in the country’s electoral politics. Yet, the solutions probably do not lie in censorship or smarter algorithms, but in addressing real-world conditions that make people so willing to believe in these campaigns, because there is a need for people to believe them, one that no spam filter can filter out.
And in the meantime, legal liabilities and social stigma associated with harassment or disinformation are still much less of an issue given how new these techniques are online, despite some proposals to make penalties for faking news and digital identities more serious.