Diverse research approaches are trying to come to grips with the social arrangements and technical processes by which social media have been weaponized to manipulate public debate, hijack mainstream media agenda, and influence poll outcomes. In the Philippines, moral panics are particularly directed at “paid trolls”, as mainstream media reports and public discourse have attributed that “troll armies” were the modern political machinery and have since debased the Filipino public sphere in their sharing of fake news and amplification of sexist speech. This project aims to contribute a unique ethnographic approach to existing research on digital disinformation. Specifically, we seek to better understand the nature of contemporary political campaigning in social media and what paid troll work looks like in the Philippines. We examine online workers’ experiences, motivations, labor conditions, and feelings of shame and pride in their work that is publicly derided and deemed morally reprehensible. We aim to humanize them to shed light not only on compromises and complicities that have taken them deep in the shadows of the digital underground but also to analyze their practices of political deception as actually part of mainstream cultural practices of digital deception originally mastered in fields of advertising, public relations and journalism. We examine the interrelationships between traditional operations of spin in advertising, corrupt journalism, and online scam work as informing contemporary techniques of disinformation and post-truth storytelling practices.
Drawing from the experiences of actual managerial and staff-level workers in the digital campaign industry, the research aims to generate 1) empirical, 2) theoretical, and 3) practical learnings:
1) Empirical level: sketch-out the actors and the overall infrastructure of digital political campaign operations. The empirical evidence aim to challenge some of the assumptions about paid trolls: particularly on their class backgrounds, speech styles and practices, technical skill sets, and the prominence of bots over manual avatar operators.
2) Theoretical level: map out and engage with broader debates on digital disinformation. We bring a unique digital labor and production studies perspective as we emphasize the importance of workers’ social positions and diverse contexts of production. By learning about the processes of producing disinformation from the actual workers themselves, we are keen to gain deeper insight on the diverse aims, outcomes, and moral justifications of political manipulation produced at various levels of troll work hierarchies.
3) Practical level: unpack the broader issues concerning the media industry, and think about the impact of the digital in political marketing and propaganda. We are interested to know how the empirical evidence can better inform discussions about professional reform and codes of ethics in industries of journalism, advertising, and social media as digital intermediaries. We also challenge contemporary media reporting in the Philippines about online trolling as “new” and particularly tied to Duterte and his party.
For more information, please email Jonathan Corpus Ong at email@example.com.