AMHERST, Mass. – Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Leeds (U.K.) have released a new research report that sheds light on the network of digital workers designing political disinformation campaigns, authoring fake news and fanning the flames of public discontent in the Philippines.
The report, “Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines,” outlines the motivations and strategies of people it labels “the chief architects of networked disinformation”—a professionalized hierarchy of political operators who maintain day jobs as advertising and public relations executives, computer programmers and political administrative staff.
Co-authored by Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of communication at UMass Amherst, and Jason Cabañes, lecturer in international communication at the University of Leeds, the report is based on a 12-month research project that involved in-depth interviews with disinformation architects and online observation of the fake accounts they operated.
“We were initially curious about the kind of people who become ‘paid trolls’ and how they manage to live with that stigma,” said Ong. “Meeting the people behind fake Facebook accounts, we learned that there is actually a professionalized hierarchy with ad and PR strategists at the top.”
The study explains how strategists set campaign objectives based on input from their political clients, then delegate political marketing responsibility to a team of digital influencers and fake account operators. These operators infiltrate online communities, artificially trend hashtags to hijack mainstream media attention, and disseminate disinformation to silence enemies and seed revisionist history narratives.
While the Philippine public’s moral panic about fake news is often directed at high-profile digital influencers and celebrities who are seen to incite political divisiveness and harass journalists, Ong and Cabañes argue that the real chief architects of disinformation are hiding in plain sight—wearing respectable faces as leaders in their industry while sidestepping accountability.
“Our aim is not to name and shame individual workers, but to expose the system that has professionalized the organizational workflow and salary incentive schemes of ‘paid trolls’ and fake news authors,” Ong adds.
Campaign finance legislation and gaps in self-regulation of the advertising and PR industries allow digital campaigns to remain unchecked, and for PR and ad executives to take on ethically dubious freelance work without fear of being held accountable.
According to Cabañes, “There’s no one-size-fits all solution to disinformation. Countries need to understand the work hierarchies and financial incentives that reward these ‘paid trolls.’ Simply blocking accounts or blacklisting fake news sites—while often well-meaning—does not treat the underlying causes of the problem.”
The research report proposes policy-driven solutions to industry, government and civil stakeholders and calls for new collective interventions to the systematic production of disinformation. These recommendations include self-regulation measures in the digital influencer industry and legal reforms for campaign finance transparency.
Calling attention to the country’s highly skilled, highly organized online freelance labor force—described as “a stockpile of digital weapons”—the report challenges global actors to look beyond the West and consider how fake news production in countries such as the Philippines, currently the outsourcing capital of the world, might have long-reaching implications on digital disinformation in democratic countries such as the United States, and vice versa.
The report, which was released at the Democracy and Disinformation Conference at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City, Philippines, was funded by a British Council Newton Fund grant and is available for download here.