A week-long case study captured by Rappler that shows how information operations turned a potential disaster for the Philippine government’s handling of the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) 2019 into a win, successfully manipulating public opinion and isolating “mainstream media,” attempting to provide cover for potentially corrupt or blatantly incompetent acts of government officials that resulted in logistical blunders, insufficient food for delegates, and workers racing to finish the construction of venues.
The project underscores a playbook of the kind of systematic and sustained attack traditional journalists and news groups in the Philippines have been subjected to in the past 3 years. Enabled by social media platforms, it leaves journalists and news groups vulnerable to repeated attacks that incite anger and hate.
The story’s quick turnaround (published while the information operation was still ongoing), allowed for the public to be discerning of information they see online, and ultimately help stop the spread of disinformation about the games. The report also identified actors involved in the disinformation and government propaganda, and defend journalists and their coverage of the event.
Producing the story within only days after abnormal online activity was detected was only possible with the help of proprietary tools made by Rappler, third party tools acquired specifically to monitor online disinformation in the Philippines, and the author’s mastery of social network analysis.
To monitor disinformation online, Rappler built a database and social media monitoring tool called the ‘Shark Tank,’ which records troll-like and propagandistic behavior online. The author used data from the Shark Tank and supplemented it with data on conversations about the games, scraped by third party social media monitoring tools. The author also used Natural Language Processing (NLP) to process thousands of social media posts as well as news articles published about the event.
Using data from mixed sources allowed the author to map out the conversations online, identify the “content creators” driving the conversations, as well as the thousands of groups and pages that amplify government propaganda.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Being able to publish the story as quickly as possible was the most challenging, yet most important part of this project.
The process of gathering, processing, and analyzing thousands of posts and news articles usually takes weeks to do, but the author made great strides for the story to be published while the topic was still relevant, in order to mitigate, if not reverse, the impact of the disinformation campaign about the games. Despite the quick turnaround, the story not only involved a detailed analysis of social networks, but used Natural Language Processing to process and visualize the different narratives being spread online. This was only possible with the existence of tools specifically acquired and builty by Rappler beforehand to monitor disinformation, as well as the author’s familiarity with data processing and analysis.
It’s also worth noting that after the publication of the story, the propaganda network identified in the report directed its attacks towards the author on social media. Just hours after publication, propagandist-bloggers doxxed and defamed the author, while their followers, in usual fashion, were sending threats and insults en masse.
What can others learn from this project?
The project shows that there is merit in newsrooms investing in resources that would allow its journalists to monitor disinformation and produce quality data stories accurately in the shortest amount of time. Data stories on disinformation, which are difficult to produce, are usually published after weeks or months, when they’ve likely already lost their relevance and potential to stop the spread of false information. Data stories, if published immediately, can be a potent tool in the fight against disinformation online.