Disinformation got to us, but thwarted in Taiwan  

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - The Freeman

Agence France-Presse published an article on Wednesday stating that presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is leading by a mile in another race --the misinformation race. The article goes: “False and misleading claims have flooded Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter in the lead-up to the May 9 polls, pounding Filipinos with a relentless barrage of propaganda on platforms where they rank among the heaviest users in the world.”

“Voter surveys show the son and namesake of the country's former dictator heading towards a landslide victory -- the endgame of a decades-long, well-funded effort to return the family to the presidential palace they fled in disgrace in 1986,” it added.

The question that is foremost in the minds of Marcos’ rivals now is: How can the tide of misinformation and disinformation be turned to prevent a Marcos victory and the ensuing full press forward of transactional politics in the country?

Filipinos have been known to do the impossible. The last time we did it, the rest of the world followed suit from Eastern Europe to Tiananmen Square. But in this particular case now, to do the almost impossible against the tide of misinformation and disinformation, we must first understand in a geopolitical sense what could be the greater force that is driving this tide.

In October 6, 2020, international online news magazine The Diplomat published a report detailing China’s role in spreading disinformation. The report mentioned the Philippines, citing Facebook’s efforts at dismantling a Chinese disinformation campaign that used false accounts and profiles to dupe unwitting individuals into consuming Chinese disinformation. “The network particularly targeted the Philippines, where it actively interfered in Philippine politics and generated millions of digital interactions by promoting politicians favorable to China, including President Rodrigo Duterte,” the report stated. China took a page from Russia’s disinformation tactics and adapted them to its own interests.

The interesting part is that actors originating from China tried the same disinformation campaign during the 2020 Taiwan presidential election, but this time the campaign utterly failed. Hence, it would be interesting to know why the Philippines is so vulnerable to disinformation and misinformation networks and why Taiwan was able to thwart the same.

According to The Diplomat, the Philippines tops the world in daily usage of social media, “with Filipinos spending an average of roughly four hours per day on social media.” That’s 75 million active users representing 71% of the Philippines’ population. More than the easy accessibility of social media in the Philippines, the real major cause for the success of disinformation actors in the country is the slowness of its policy leaders, civil society, and education sector to identify the challenges posed by disinformation operators of foreign and local origins.

Juxtapose this to how quickly the disinformation actors were able to foresee the susceptibility of struggling Filipinos for the nostalgia of a so-called golden age. According to Dr. Fernan Talamayan of the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, in his article entitled “The Politics of Nostalgia and the Marcos Golden Age in the Philippines” published in the academic journal Asia Review, disinformation actors were able to play into people’s frustrations and aspirations and turned these into “expressions of polarizing phrases, hate speech, conspiracy theories, discontent, and hope, which complete the grammar of the Marcos propaganda.”

On the other hand in Taiwan, civil society groups promptly worked jointly with key sectors to counter disinformation especially during the pandemic and the 2020 election. Press conferences were regularly done to announce, clarify, and promote truthful information. Digital media literacy efforts were also prevalent.

Taiwanese society has recognized the real threat of foreign as well as local propaganda in causing political polarization. Its scholars and experts trained their focus on disinformation by doing more research on the matter and also by helping the people know more about it.

In the Philippines, the Commission on Elections has done nothing to counter the threat of disinformation in causing confusion, eroding public trust in institutions, and undermining the voters’ ability to make informed choices. It’s not for lack of willingness or motivation by Comelec. It’s more like Philippine institutions in general do not have the requisite understanding and grasp of the threat of disinformation and misinformation. This hinders any possibility for institutions like Comelec, for example, to work with civil society groups and the academe in mobilizing society against false information and in forging strong partnerships between government and the tech industry, something that the Taiwanese institutions successfully did.


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