The cancer of disinformation

THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan - The Philippine Star

The deed is done. Our votes are cast and all we have to do now is wait for the final tally.

Without doubt, disinformation was the main actor in this election exercise. It was used to retell history, portray candidates in a certain manner and demolish reputations of political opponents. In response, opposing candidates spent the lion’s share of their resources trying to invalidate disinformation. The push and pull of disinformation became the main preoccupation of candidates, their supporters and the voting public.

At this stage of our democracy, one would think that the Filipino would be a more discerning voter. Why have we become susceptible to disinformation? The answer lies in the absence of regulations on the part of the social media sites.

Think about it – why wouldn’t politicians use social media to push their narratives, whether true or false, when they can very well do so without consequence? Why wouldn’t profit-driven corporation or propagandist do the same?

Disinformation is a cancer because it propagates confusion and leads us to make bad choices. Nobel prize winner Maria Ressa said that fake narratives propagated over social media have the power to build up personalities, tear-down enemies and create a parallel universe of truths. But what it does in the process is invalidate credible media institutions like The Philippine STAR and other such media firmaments. With so many “truths” out there, the public is left confused. A confused public results in an equally confused shared reality. But our shared reality is the basis of our laws. So if our reality is twisted by lies, how can the rule of law prosper? Here lies the danger of disinformation.

Disinformation is the weapon and trolls are the soldiers. The arena they operate in are social media platforms. Problem is, social media platforms have done only ceremonial acts to control the profusion of trolls and the lies they spew. Their inaction has made them the enablers of disinformation.

Worried by the negative effects of disinformation, patriot and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis spearheaded an initiative to quash disinformation and trolls. In collaboration with California-based software maverick Liz Derr, a new software program was developed to identify trolls. The program is called Trollexploser.com.

How do we define trolls? Trolls are manufactured personalities who repeatedly posts inflammatory, digressive, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community. Their purpose is to manipulate perceptions.

One can tell a troll by these signs: They are usually anonymous accounts with fake names. They are relatively new accounts. They have less than 10 friends and have no personal descriptions. They make hateful comments and outrageous claims. They are relentless and won’t let go of a topic. They post the same messages repetitively in various groups. They write with atrocious grammar.

Trolls are typically composed of students and middle aged unemployed looking to earn an extra buck. Manila-based trolls are paid P1,000 a day while those in the provinces are paid P500. They spread messages based on scripts and dialogue guides written by “public relations strategists.” The latter are usually proprietors of fly-by-night PR firms who secure the service contract from the principal, whether a politician or a corporation. It is common for such PR firms to have 250 trolls in their payroll, each operating 100 fake accounts.

Trollexploser.com tracked one troll in particular, a certain Fernando Tolentino (fake name). Within three minutes after a vile message was posted on his Facebook source site, “Huwag Iboto si Leni, Nakakamatay,” Tolentino re-posted the same message in 35 other chat groups. This is how fast messages can spread.

The Philippines has the most number of trolls in the world, claims Derr. Using Trollexploser.com, she was able to identify 100 trolls spreading fake narratives, 737 accounts that red-tag Leni Robredo and 77 source sites which host fake news from which to share.

Beginning Dec. 2, 2021, Derr wrote a series of letters to Facebook to report the online behavior of certain trolls and their source sites with the request to take them down. After all, Facebook claims to stand against trolling and fake news. Facebook responded by saying that they are looking into the matter. They said this repeatedly for months on end with no results up to this time.

We recognize that social media platforms are profit-driven businesses and not gatekeepers of the truth. Their objective is to have their subscribers spend longer hours on the platform so they can sell more ads. Still, this does not negate their social responsibility to block disinformation, considering the damage it can inflict on people and societies.

In its website, Facebook claims they don’t have the capacity to read every message posted on their platform, hence, have no power to control trolls. I don’t buy it. Look, if Trollexploser.com can identify troll accounts through simple algorithms, how can a giant like Facebook be unable to?

I can only assume that they refuse to quash trolls for two reasons. First, the presence of trolls adds to engagements and more engagements translate to more opportunities to sell ads. Second, the presence of trolls and the narratives they push give social media sites sway over world events such as national elections, territorial disputes and wars. It is a way of controlling global events.

Politicians and corporations have culpability since they finance disinformation campaigns with malicious intent. PR agencies and trolls have culpability too since they spread lies for pay. But the one who enables the spread of disinformation, the social media platforms themselves, carry ultimate responsibility.

Disinformation is so serious that it can no longer be swept under the rug. We need legislation, both through global accords and local laws, to nuke this cancer. Left unregulated, disinformation can lead societies to chaos.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook @Andrew J. Masigan and Twitter @aj_masigan



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