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Trolls, Disinformation Make Philippine Election Coverage a Challenge

FILE - A user browses on his phone showing a candidate in the Philippines' upcoming presidential election, in Manila, March 10, 2022.
FILE - A user browses on his phone showing a candidate in the Philippines' upcoming presidential election, in Manila, March 10, 2022.

Journalists covering May’s presidential election in the Philippines say false news and online attacks are making reporting a challenge.

As candidates, including front-runner Ferdinand Marcos Jr., vie to take the helm from Rodrigo Duterte, disinformation is ramping up.

The Philippines is seen as a testing ground for disinformation campaigns and is often referred to as “Patient Zero” by analysts tracking the spread of false news.

Journalists covering the election and politics further describe a hostile environment fostered toward media by Duterte and his supporters, and online trolling and attacks.

The country’s Presidential Communications Operations Office did not immediately respond to VOA’s request for comment.

For Jervis Manahan, a news reporter at the ABS-CBN media network, “the biggest challenge is disinformation.”

“Fake news has become so believable that the public thinks it's true. It has become so pervasive in society,” he told VOA via email.

Manahan has been covering the campaign of Vice President Leni Robredo, which has been plagued by online disinformation since she announced her candidacy.

A study on election-related disinformation by local fact check site Vera Files says Robredo is the main target, including through statements falsely attributed to her.

Robredo’s quotes have been distorted to “make her look like she is spouting nonsense,” journalism associate professor Yvonne Chua said during an online lecture on March 16 organized by the University of the Philippines.

In excerpts of her talk published on the news website Rappler, Chau said part of the problem is “the lack of inquisitiveness of Filipinos — just accepting the flow of information.”

Around half the respondents to a December survey found it hard to recognize disinformation online, Rappler reported.

Flagging disinformation has become a regular task for Manahan’s outlet.

“We have to push back every day. There's no better antidote to disinformation than truth. We have to battle lies with truth. So, we keep on doing what we're doing. We follow Leni Robredo and tell factual stories and report,” Manahan said.

Part of that reporting includes efforts to debunk fake information. Manahan said when reports linked Robredo to the communist movement, his outlet produced reports refuting the claims.

“There were so many online articles attributing fake statements to the (vice president), we published art cards to tell the public they're fake,” he added.

ABS-CBN, the country’s largest network, is also facing off against trolls that seek to discredit its work. It was forced to stop broadcasting on local television in 2020 after the Philippine Congress denied the company its franchise license renewal.

Some critics questioned whether Duterte's administration stalled the renewal.

The president had previously accused the network of not running his campaign ads and attacked it over coverage of his policies, Human Rights Watch said.

Duterte’s office denied involvement, telling VOA last year that the decision came from Congress and not his administration.

ABS-CBN still offers news and entertainment shows online and has agreements to broadcast its shows with other smaller television stations. But a large sector of its operations ceased in the Philippines.

Disinformation campaign

In an interview with VOA last year, award-winning journalist, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa warned that social media in the Philippines is being used to foster “digital authoritarianism.”

She flagged the impact that the loss of ABS-CBN with its provincial stations and the rise of disinformation on social media can have on communities.

“All those provinces have lost their main sources of information, making them more vulnerable to government, to propaganda,” Ressa said. “If we don’t have guardrails around the social media platforms, we will not have the integrity of elections.”

Because of their critical reporting on government policies, Ressa and Rappler have been considered Duterte critics. She is fighting several court cases, with 14 new cyber complaints filed against Rappler in recent weeks.

Around 75% of Filipinos are online, mostly on Facebook and YouTube, according to international nonprofit Internews. But that reach of internet and social media platforms has increased the window for disinformation and propaganda online.

That same widespread use of the internet means it’s easier to target journalists online, with Ressa herself suffering years of online abuse.

A study by the International Center for Journalists found an average of 90 hate messages an hour directed at Ressa in 2016.

The hostility can make for a tense working environment.

“Some candidates have rabid supporters ready to attack a journalist once he posts something about another candidate,” Manahan of ABS-CBN said.

Others, like Rappler journalist Jairo Bolledo, say years of high-level hostility directed at his news website makes him feel unsafe.

“My biggest challenge for the election coverage is the danger it entails because of the culture of violence and hate inculcated by the government against Rappler. It basically makes me feel unsafe at times, but it also drives me to do better journalism for the people,” he told VOA.

“Regardless of who you cover, there are always supporters who will attack you if they did not like or agree with your stories,” he said.

Bolledo said he hopes the relationship between the press and government will improve under a new president.

“We are looking for a presidency where media will once again be treated with dignity.”