This portfolio represents journalistic efforts to seek the truth and tell it, despite challenges and uncertainty, especially when this truth is essential for citizens to decide about their future.
Truth does not always win. Yet, in dire circumstances such as what many journalists find themselves in, in a place like the Philippines, there is something to be said for insisting on telling the story.
People have been calling the Philippines the ‘Ground Zero’ of mis/ disinformation because its heavy use of social media has made it a potent incubation point for the atomic-bomb-like explosion of false news in its information ecosystem.
There is no solid proof that there were Cambridge Analytica operations here, at least not in the way that was described and documented by the whistleblower Christopher Wylie. But in the last 6 or 7 years, numerous studies and anecdotal evidence have pointed to systematic operations perpetuated by vested interest groups to weaken democratic institutions (demonize journalists and civil right advocates, shake down certain groups or businesses), and sway the result of elections.
The May 2022 elections when the Philippines installed a president, a vice president, hundreds of legislators and thousand others for local posts, were very important historically, and one that may have been informed and influenced by massive mis- / disinformation on social media, as our stories indicated.
Our team spent months working on a series of special reports auditing the Facebook presence of those running for president; on Facebook because this is the most influential social media platform in the Philippines.
Adding complications to the work is the fact that our organization, ABS-CBN News, has been denied in 2020 a franchise to operate our fleet of free television and radio stations, and related businesses.
Once the Philippines’ biggest and most profitable broadcasting company operating an award-winning powerhouse of a newsroom that produces the country’s top primetime news, ABS-CBN went into an election year in 2022 without any of its dozens of free TV and radion stations, as these all had to be shuttered.
ABS-CBN nearly starved to death with the loss of its broadcast ad revenues, and was struggling to keep afloat with about two-thirds of its resources and manpower gone.
Against this background, remaining journalists who were spared from retrenchment like us decided to go on, be business-as-usual, but extra. We researched extensively and made good with what resources we could muster; we dug deep for data, and put out the story.
Description of portfolio:
**Project team: **
Project lead, editor, writer – Arlene Burgos
Writers – Sherwin Tinampay, Dianne Obdin
Editor – Isagani de Castro Jr.
Developer – Melvin Fetalvero
The contest for the Philippine presidency may have been decided on May 9, 2022 but the battle for people’s hearts and minds on social media appeared to have started six years earlier, way before Filipinos even casted their votes.
Interactions on Facebook over the past six years and in the months leading to the 2022 polls revealed how some candidates or their supporters and critics used Facebook to create buzz, and push or shape narratives.
The reports we produced covered the 5 main candidates for president who had the biggest following and activities on Facebook: Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the deposed dictator who declared martial law in the Philippines exactly 50 years ago; then incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo; boxing superstar and later senator Manny Pacquiao; actor-turned-Manila-mayor ‘Isko Moreno’ Domagoso; and former police chief and later senator Ping Lacson.
A couple of days after the election, when there was a clear frontrunner for the Senate contest, we published the research on the Facebook performance of Robin Padilla, the actor who had the biggest Facebook footprint who also turned out to be the Senate candidate with the highest number of votes.
Our research for each candidate, done at least half a year, stretched all the way to data from 2016 when Marcos Jr. lost the vice presidency to Robredo. Even at the time, there appeared to be traces of groundwork that were being laid down for political narratives that would surface and be prominent 6 years later.
Our stories yielded about 200,000 interactions on social media – likes, comments, shares, as well as exposure via posts by accounts with millions of followers and likes.
Though we were able to use Python to surface and study patterns in the behavior of social media accounts and pages, there were thousands of these actors, and there were millions of interactions that had to be parsed so we can decipher their modus operandi.
Each social media account or page suspected of inauthentic behavior had to be tracked offline, the identities and other related information of their administrators investigated, and their side of the story asked and documented.
In the end, we were able to refer to Facebook dozens of suspicious pages and accounts for investigation.
But a highlight was when our efforts led to the discovery and eventual takedown from Facebook of an account that posed as a radio station, had even managed to get itself verified, and had instigated millions of interactions by provocative posts containing disinformation to favor one candidate.