Before the pandemic, we had a different kind of epidemic. Our spending so much time—an average10 hours daily—online made us most vulnerable to the disease so that by 2018, we were tagged “patient zero” in the global disinformation epidemic.
And deservingly so since we grew the virus in our labs (farms, technically), its rapid growth spurred by our proficiency in English, facility with social media and the lure of money from campaigns looking for a new way to get an edge over the competition, to quote a November 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times.
Experts agree that disinformation through social media first made its presence felt during the 2016 elections when keyboard warriors were hired to promote the campaign of almost all presidential candidates and destroy their opponents. They were handsomely paid, according to the LA Times article—the equivalent of P50,000 per month.
Most of those hired as trolls were college students or recent graduates whose job was to create “multiple fake Facebook accounts designed to look like they were created by actual voters or grassroots groups.” Their “handlers” were, of course, rewarded more handsomely, in some cases with appointments to high government office.
With another presidential election fast approaching, expect the trolls to grow in numbers and become even more active. Last week, Sen. Panfilo Lacson claimed that a ranking government official has started organizing troll farms to discredit critics and opponents of the administration.
It is going to be a huge disinformation network with each province, according to Lacson, hosting at least two troll farms. Although he did not identify the official by name, he said that he was an undersecretary, fueling speculations that he could be the same person, a former television executive, who manned Duterte’s social media campaign in 2016.
In March, 2019, Facebook shut down 200 Facebook pages identified with Duterte’s social media handler for coordinated inauthentic behavior. In September last year, Facebook removed from its platform several more Facebook accounts that were based in China and supportive of the President.
But “such moves by Facebook are doing little to slow the trolls,” the LA Times said. “You can look like legitimate Facebook users to trick the company’s artificial intelligence,” according to Ross Tapsell, a researcher at Australian National University who came to Cebu to document the surge of paid troll activity, the newspaper also reported.
We can be sure that it is not only the administration camp that will organize troll farms for the 2022 elections. His camp may have benefitted from it the most five or six years ago, but I’m sure the others have learned their lesson. The fight for competitive advantage in lying, bashing and threatening opponents has already begun.
So hello, mudslinging. Goodbye, elevated discourse.