Research on fake news gets prestigious Carnegie grant

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Filipino professor and researcher Jonathan Corpus Ong will get a stipend totaling $200,000 in “philanthropic support” for his project “The Human Costs of Disinformation.”

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life, May 4) — Online propaganda wars continue to shape online conversations with our country’s future at stake. This has been the focus of the research of Filipino professor Jonathan Corpus Ong, who has been recently named a 2022 Andrew Carnegie Fellow by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He has co-authored several studies on the subject, such as “Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines” and “Politics and Profit in the Fake News Factory.” He has also recently co-authored a Harvard Kennedy School report "Human Rights in Survival Mode: Rebuilding Trust and Supporting Digital Workers in the Philippines,” which talks about the downturn of human rights in the Philippines during the Duterte administration.

Ong’s research has unveiled the deeply embedded workings of troll farming and disinformation and how it has been legitimized as an industry. In “Politics and Profit in the Fake News Factory,” findings include the structure of Twinmark Media Enterprises, which has 220 Facebook pages, 73 Facebook accounts, and 29 Instagram accounts and employs community managers salaried at ₱600 with no benefits, and often at “precarious conditions.” Furthermore, the motivations of Twinmark were driven by profit and not by politics, and earned them ₱400 million in profit in just four years. The digital marketing group was banned on Facebook in 2019 due to “coordinated inauthentic behavior, the use of fake accounts, leading people to ad farms…”

For Ong’s Carnegie grant, the stipend totaling to $200,000 will support his work on his new project “The Human Costs of Disinformation,” which will focus on the “precarious work conditions and digital harms experienced by pro-democracy civil society frontliners in global context.”

Ong is currently an associate professor of global digital media in the department of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has also served as a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center for the Technology and Social Change Project. He is one of 28 authors, scholars, and journalists selected from 300 applicants. Some of the chosen research topics for the Carnegie grant this year include climate change, infant mortality, and U.S. defense.

“In recent years, as we have looked to respond to our world’s most complex problems, the Carnegie Fellows have provided important contributions through their exceptional research, pursuit of knowledge and creative approaches,” said John J. DeGioia, chair of the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program jury and president of Georgetown University in a release announcing this year’s selection.

We caught up with Ong through email for a short chat about his work and what the Carnegie grant means to his research.

Hi Jonathan! What does being named a Carnegie Fellow mean for you and your research projects?

Studying disinformation isn’t easy. You’re exposed to toxic online content and in my work I had to interview powerful and arrogant people organizing troll armies. The Andrew Carnegie Fellowship is an affirmation to keep doing this kind of work on a more supported basis. I’m hopeful it helps draw more global attention and support to the Philippines, particularly junior scholars doing ethnography and communication research and journalism.

Your work on disinformation and troll farms has been expansive so far but how much work do you think has to be made yet? Especially in the context of the 2022 elections?

In 2016, we were caught flat-footed and “fake news” and “troll armies” were words new to our vocabulary. In 2022, media coverage has done better to expose the inner workings of political campaigns and we hear a lot now about narrative strategies and digital strategies. This is a good thing — but still many of us make the mistake in our troll-hunting and we start at the bottom. Journalists and lawmakers are still focusing energies on unmasking anonymous trolls, such as in the SIM card registration act that just got struck down. What we haven’t done is get political strategists and political elites on the hot seat. They’re the ones on top of the architecture of networked disinformation.

Can you tell us more about your project "The Human Costs of Disinformation?”

My new project involves doing research as well as organizational and policy advocacy for pro-democracy frontliners, particularly the social media workers in civil society and human rights organizations and news outlets. These workers bear the double burden of having to respond to troll attacks on their organization’s social media page while often lacking material, social and mental health support within their organization. By centering their voices, particularly of workers in the global South, I hope to support them in their communication strategy as well as access to healthier work conditions.

Counting the 2022 elections, there have been two elections since you published "Architects of Networked Disinformation." Has there been change in terms of how social media has been weaponized for the elections?

We predicted the shift to micro-influencers way back in 2019 in our report Tracking Digital Disinformation. This was also supported by a CNN Philippines partnership. This trend has only accelerated as TikTokers have become important players getting political messages out there. And the playful TikTok algorithm means that misinformation gets amplified unpredictably, and I’ve written about how pro-Marcos and Duterte TikTokers spread viral misinformation about the Russia-Ukraine war.

What are the things we still need to improve, starting from the state, to the media and the individual, when it comes to being vigilant when it comes to these troll farms? Do you think the approach "starve the troll" works?

Troll-hunting should always start from the top. I think we waste a lot of energy getting riled up and gusto natin patulan ‘yung mga nag co-comment on our wall or news feed. You don’t have to do that all the time. You can prioritize your own mental health and walk away from it. Truly, it’s our politicians and their strategists who still hold the power and they haven’t been held into account.

"We must find ways to encourage more worker organization and whistleblowing from the creative industries."

I just recently launched a new podcast called "Catch Me if You Can" with co-host Kat Ventura and produced by Puma Podcast. Here, our podcast guests are actually paid troll workers. We get to hear directly from them about how they got recruited, how much they’re paid, and whether they have morals and are able to sleep at night.

You mentioned the rise of TikTok as an important part of disinformation. The audience on TikTok is fairly young. Are they more inclined to believe disinformation on the platform? Or are they smarter than what others think?

I think TikTok is a platform that has a very playful and unpredictable algorithm: there’s almost like a lottery system that as long as you post regularly you can go viral at some point. My research uncovered that pro-BBM and pro-Duterte TikTokers' misinformation praising Putin and strongmen leaders like Marcos Sr. and Duterte when the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out. One TikTok video reached up to two million views.

You also mentioned the psychological toll of disinformation with fact checkers but based on your interviews with troll armies, does their work also bear a psychological toll on them?

If there’s better work conditions in the digital and creative industries, then it’s possible that people won’t slip down into the digital underground in the first place. As we heard directly from a former troll in our podcast "Catch Me If You Can," there’s sometimes an element of deception in troll recruitment. Young college graduates apply to a PR firm thinking they’d handle a shampoo brand, and it turns out the client is [a] mayor pala.

We must find ways to encourage more worker organization and whistleblowing from the creative industries. We should get disgruntled workers to talk about their work so we could fix the broken system underneath.


Find out more about the Carnegie Fellowship here.

ERRATUM: An earlier version of the story stated the stipend is $5.6 million. It should be $200,000. We apologize for the oversight.