Jonathan Corpus Ong
In 2016, a series of surprising electoral outcomes around the world—from the election of Donald Trump in the United States and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to the vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom—signaled a “tectonic shift” in the political landscape.
“These were rejections of globalist values and foundational principles of liberal democracy,” said Jonathan Corpus Ong, UMass Amherst associate professor of global digital media. "This kind of war on liberal democratic values played out in social media spaces, where posts and comments provide clear evidence about people’s changing sentiments.”
Ong joined the UMass Amherst Department of Communication in 2017 and has since become known as one of the country’s leading scholars on issues of online disinformation, global media ethics, digital politics, and the anthropology of humanitarianism. He brings a global perspective and a unique approach to his work, having grown up in the Philippines, earned his master’s and PhD in the UK, taught in Hong Kong and the UK, and conducted comparative research on disinformation industries in countries such as the Philippines, Thailand, and Brazil.
Ong is the author of three books, including Trolls for Sale (2022), and more than 25 journal articles based on his research. His scholarship has received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Luminate Group, and the Gates Foundation, and in 2022 he was awarded a prestigious Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, among other honors. In a survey of fact-checkers conducted by Poynter in spring 2023, Ong was named among the top 15 most noted researchers in the disinformation field, while his study was cited as one of the top five most useful.
“Professor Ong is a phenom. He is one of the most exciting voices in the rapidly globalizing field of digital media, culture, and communication,” said Jennifer Lundquist, professor of sociology and associate dean of research and faculty development in the UMass Amherst College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “His field-based ethnographic approach sets him apart from many other public intellectuals who study disinformation.”
If we are to have a future living together, then we need to understand where people are coming from—however strange their beliefs may first seem.
Ong’s native Philippines is a country with a young population that is quick to jump on new digital trends and is extremely active on social media. It is central to both the spread of disinformation and to social media platforms’ efforts to reign it in. Many of the “digital janitors” employed by social media companies to perform content moderation live in the Philippines and other countries in the global south. Yet when Ong set out to interview these workers about their jobs, he found they had all signed non-disclosure agreements.
Instead, he turned his attention to the actors responsible for spreading disinformation. Most scholarship on disinformation focuses on monitoring and calling out falsehoods online, Ong explained, but “rather than going to knee-jerk judgements, I’ve spent a lot of time with paid trolls and disinformers to learn about their different personal, political, and entrepreneurial motivations. Who are these people? What are their official job titles? Do they pay taxes? What makes them tick? My work is very sensitive to people’s fears, aspirations, and anxieties. Through my writing, I try to capture their voices while critiquing their shady unethical practices.”
Ong has learned that many paid trolls do this work on the side, while holding day jobs in the corporate world with titles like “PR strategist” or “social media manager.” He also found digital industries to be largely unregulated, allowing disinformation to flourish.
Ong has observed the evolution of misinformation and disinformation online, from the early imposter websites to today’s diverse ecosystem of propaganda across multiple platforms. “Because of attacks on traditional gatekeepers of knowledge, there are flourishing ecosystems that serve to affirm people’s political beliefs and ideologies. People are really microtargeted in terms of the information they consume and this is exacerbated by social media platforms’ algorithms,” he said. “For example, some were surprised by the number of Asian Americans who supported Trump and other local Republican leaders. But there are Asian American influencers and social media accounts that have targeted these communities with fearmongering narratives that only hard-on-crime politicians like them can protect their communities against the ‘crime wave.’”
With funding from the Digital Good Network, Ong is also studying online health, wellness, and spirituality communities. Such communities increasingly cater to marginalized populations and seek to provide members with healing and an escape from the stresses of contemporary life. Ong has interviewed tarot and astrology readers of color, who view themselves as providing alternative health solutions to clients whose communities are underserved by the healthcare establishment. “I see it as empowering and filling in important gaps, but they’re also very proximal to conspiratorial beliefs and anti-science propaganda,” he said.
Together with colleagues from the Department of Communication, in 2023 Ong received a UMass Large-Scale Integrative Research Award (LIRA) to launch a new Global Technology for Social Justice (GloTech) Lab. This initiative invites faculty, graduate students, and civil society partners to collaborate on new solutions that promote values of social justice, equity, and care in technological systems and practices.
An engaged researcher, Ong finds his work most meaningful when it shapes policy and advances advocacy efforts to address societal problems. He works closely with human rights organizations, and his research has informed their strategies and support for human rights workers. Ong also has testified before the Filipino legislature and advised social media platforms like Meta on their content moderation policies, particularly around anti-Asian racist speech. Ong is also developing educational materials on disinformation for elementary and secondary school students.
Ong’s scholarship is frequently cited by major media outlets, including The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Reuters, and the Los Angeles Times. He co-hosts a popular podcast, Catch Me If You Can, now in its third season, which popularizes his academic research for the public by sharing the voices of paid trolls while exposing the corrupt systems that enable their work.
Ong acknowledges that he has been the subject of criticism for giving trolls a platform on his podcast and through his other engaged scholarship. Yet, he said, “We’re not here to normalize or apologize for their actions; we help listeners understand them as unreliable narrators. We want listeners to realize, ‘They sound like they could be my colleague or my classmate or my uncle. This could be happening right here in my community.’”
“If we are to have a future living together, then we need to understand where people are coming from—however strange their beliefs may first seem.”