A study by the UK’s University of Oxford has found that about 10 million pesos was spent to hire online trolls to spread propaganda for President Duterte and target his opponents.
The study entitled Troops, trolls and troublemakers: A global inventory of organized social media manipulation examines how political parties and candidates in 28 countries deploy “cyber troops” to shape public opinion.
The countries examined in the research were Argentina, Azerbaijan, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Mexico, North Korea, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Korea, Syria, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, the UK, the USA, Venezuela and Vietnam.
The study said that Duterte’s team of up to 500 trolls posted “nationalistic and pro-government” comments and targeted dissenters for “harassment” involving “verbal abuse, hate speech, discrimination and/or trolling against the values, beliefs or identity of a user or a group of users online”.
Fake accounts, including “bots”, were also shown to have been deployed. These were used to flood social media sites with “spam and fake news” and inflate the number of likes, shares and retweets to create “an artificial sense of popularity, momentum or relevance”.
The report said: “This is different to traditional digital campaign strategies, which have generally focused on spreading information about the party or candidate’s platform, or sent advertisements out to voters.
“Social media has become a valuable platform for public life. It is the primary medium over which young people, around the world, develop their political identities and consume news. However, social media platforms — like Facebook and Twitter — have also become tools for social control.”
The study alleges that “keyboard trolls” were hired in the run-up to the presidential election last year.
Officials of the president’s PDP-Laban party have denied the allegations, saying they were “plain and simple ignorant”.
Similar allegations were levelled at the previous government. In September 2015 we reported how leftist lawmaker Terry Ridon said: “Many social media experts have repeatedly pointed out how the Aquino administration has systematically deployed cyber armies – aka Internet trolls – to sway public opinion online, especially in times of political crisis.”
The Oxford University study was conducted in three stages. First, through a systematic content analysis of news media articles. The researchers then supplemented the content analysis with other sources from think tanks, government agencies, civil society groups, universities and other credible research. Finally, they consulted with country experts to check facts, find additional sources in multiple languages and assist in evaluating the quality of sources.