The Business of Online Disinformation

From 2005 to 2014, the use of social media has jumped to a high of 64% worldwide and because of the availability of this technology, online disinformation has become the bread and butter of so many PR and advertising agencies. Because social media is enjoying its Pax Romana in the Philippines, many of us have become very gullible and unable to detect what is true from the lies. This is something that many unscrupulous individuals have come to exploit as online disinformation becomes gospel truth for those don’t know any better.

Curiously enough, you may not be so surprised to know that there is, indeed a science to online disinformation. It is not something that is propagated without careful planning. You will notice the amateurs who try their hand on making a few quick pesos by making Facebook pages and bombard these with lies that are espoused by some companies or even government officials. This article aims to help educate my readers on the hows and whys of online “black ops”.  Allow me to show you how they have managed to propagate some of the lies that abound online.

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MEMES

Many of them are funny and still others are inspiring, but in the last elections, memes were some of the most effective ways of getting support for a specific party of candidate. There were memes that were funny, but there were also that ended up as our profile or cover pictures. The most disturbing, were the ones that contained lies that people actually believed by sharing and resharing. Examples are:

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Of course this wasnt true, but why did it spread? Because online disinformation feeds on a person’s values and beliefs of right and wrong. Many Pinoys consider it sacrilege to sift through and pilfer boxes meant as pasalubong to their families here. Balikbayan boxes are lovingly filled to the brim with the fervent desire to make the family feel loved despite the distance.

Many OFWs who saw this on Facebook never even bothered to verify if this were true or not. Their anger seethed and felt as if it were their boxes being pilfered and sorted like garbage.

This picture was taken in Taiwan by those who were packing relief goods for Yolanda victims, and not taken from the LBC express warehouse as many had believed. LBC Express has released an official statement about this being absolutely untrue and a fabrication of a Filipino living in Spain. His intent as to why he is doing this is unknown, but he will soon find himself holding a subpoena, or worse being arrested.

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Countless netizens were angered by the news that the late President Cory Aquino’s dog was given full military honors and buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. This reminds me of a kind of strategy used by the military call the “scorched earth defense”. If a territory cannot be protected from invading forces, they will just render the territory unusable, thus the name scorched earth. In this meme, defenders of Marcos and his loyalists launched this campaign to enrage netizens into believing that while many are protesting the burial of Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the opposing group which is the Aquinos have actually used it to bury a dog, which no matter how loved, had desecrated a national cemetery dedicated to some of the country’s heroes both in combat and in civil life. Following their logic, desecrating LNMB makes Marcos more than fit to be buried there. If it were true and if I were a member of the Marcos family, why would I allow our family’s patriarch to be buried in the same place as our political opponent’s dog?

Obviously this news is absolutely untrue. As of the time of writing this piece, the Supreme Court is currently studying if Marcos will be buried there or not.

MISINFORMATION VS DISINFORMATION

There is a small difference beyond the spelling. Misinformation is when you are using or spreading information which is false but is not intended to be false.  Its like thinking actor Nicholas Cage is dead but isnt, then telling everyone that he is. Disinformation, on the other hand, is preparing, curating and carefully planning the release and dissemination of false information, glaring examples of which are the LBC Express meme and the LNMB meme.

Online disinformation is perhaps one of the most sneaky, malevolent and destructive of all online campaigns. It finds that which matters most to you and attacks you right where you are unable to defend yourself. It matters not if the news they present is untrue. What is important for these online “black ops” people is that you react, you get upset and when you lose control, they control and shape your opinion. They’ll give you cardiac arrest if that is what it takes to get you riled up. What matters to them is that you clicked and you shared especially to those who feel the same way as you do about a particular issue.

Even adding to the stress is that online disinformation is very very difficult to undo. After a while, the target netizen’s belief system has been hijacked by all kinds of wrong information that they immediately reject fact checks or clarifications. It’s like a religion when you have based all your decisions on this strong belief and knowing that it is all a lie. Try telling a Catholic that God doesnt exist and you will have Hail Mary rain down on you like the Holy Spirit. Outwardly you will see anger, but deep down it is embarrassment, betrayal and maybe even regret.

Here are some tips on how to prevent yourself from being hijacked by online disinformation:

1. Keep calm. OK so they are making premarital sex illegal. Check the newspapers, ask a reporter or check the source. If it’s a meme, think again.  Remember, the angrier you get, the more susceptible you are to the fake meme/news.

2. Who passed it around? A co-worker? Your special someone? Knowing who passed around will give you an idea as to the veracity of the meme/fake news. YES! I believe you can tell from the person’s character or reputation if he/she is an idiot or not. In which case, that should give you a better indicator if the meme is true or not.

3. Believe only legitimate news agencies. Stop reading pseudo news websites. Words in the domain name like “trending”, “viral”, “buzz”, “wiki” should warrant a second look. Personally, I just get my news by following legitimate and known journalists/broadcasters, and newspapers like Inquirer, Philstar, CNN Philipines and the like.

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