Faith factor: Spiritual groups on Facebook as effective tools for disinformation

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Philippines

Publishing organisation: Rappler

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-09-04

Language: English, Filipino

Authors: Pauline Macaraeg (author), Dylan Salcedo (data scientist)


Pauline Macaraeg is a digital forensics researcher for Rappler. She started as a fact checker and researcher in 2019, before becoming part of Rappler’s Digital Forensics Team. She writes about the developing digital landscape, as well as the spread and impact of disinformation and harmful online content.

Dylan Salcedo has been a data scientist for Rappler since September 2020. He currently works with the Digital Forensics Team, probing the digital media space and investigating disinformation trends.

Project description:

This project analyzed faith and spirituality groups on Facebook in the Philippines – a predominantly Catholic country that has the highest number of Catholics in Asia.

The researchers looked at how faith groups are being effectively used as boundary-spanning channels to spread different types of disinformation, and unpacked why members of such groups were vulnerable to disinformation/. It also explored the role of spirituality/religion in spreading false information.

This project took a look at the kind of disinformation narratives in these groups, and how the “faith factor” plus the use of spiritual language make it harder to fact-check.

Impact reached:

The project is the first known investigative report that explored and mapped religious Facebook groups containing disinformation. It can be used by other journalists and researchers interested in faith groups on Facebook for further studies.

Techniques/technologies used:

The researchers did a search of public Facebook posts containing keywords related to global conspiracy theories. From the total dataset, we then extracted posts from religious/spirituality groups only. This was done through community clustering of the entities found in the dataset, to determine which groups belong to the community cluster that often shares religious/spirituality content.

After this, we then did a qualitative content analysis on the posts found in the scan and identified which posts contained disinformation or misleading content. Natural language processing of the posts was used to aid us in this step.

We then mapped the shared audiences of the Facebook groups that were found to have shared disinformation/misleading content – based on the type of disinformation they shared (i.e. political, health, online scams). This is to show how closely knitted these groups are, and how likely their members tend to share similar types of content.

Finally, we consulted an expert on the sociology of religion in the Philippines to help us contextualize our findings.

Context about the project:

The Philippines is an extremely religious country. Statistics show that there are 8 out of 10 Filipinos are Roman Catholics. Aside from Catholicism, there are a number of other Christian denominations present in the country, including Evangelical, Iglesia ni Cristo, Aglipayan, Protestant, Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, Orthodox, Methodist, and Seventh-Day Adventist.

Filipinos are also known to be susceptible to disinformation – with 51% of Filipinos finding it difficult to spot “fake news.” Couple this with a high internet penetration rate (68% as of 2022), these factors make it easy for information operations to thrive online.

In terms of innovative technologies, there are no other newsgroups in the Philippines that have the capacity to perform community detection or shared audience mapping on social media. The algorithm created by Rappler is the first of its kind.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

This story showed that disinformation is not limited to political spaces. It can serve as a reminder to other journalists to look at other underreported online communities that spread propaganda and falsehoods.

Project links: