MANILA: A 12 month multi-university study into fake news in the Philippines has uncovered widespread use of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts by professional PR and advertising firms working for political interests during the 2016 elections.

This is according to researchers from the University of Massachusetts, University of Leeds and De La Salle University Philippines, who conducted in-depth interviews and online observations of people operating fake accounts as well as the strategists who script and schedule messaging in the Philippines.

“We found that disinformation production is a professionalized enterprise: hierarchical in its organization, strategic in its outlook and expertise, and exploitative in its morality and ethics”, write Jonathan Corpus Ong, Associate Professor in Global Digital Media at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Jason Cabanes, Lecturer in International Communication at the University of Leeds.

“Occupying the top level of the networked disinformation hierarchy, ad and PR executives play the role of high-level digital strategists. They hold leadership roles in "boutique agencies", handling a portfolio of corporate brands while freelancing for political clients on the side”, the pair write in Rappler.

Further down the pecking order, operatives tap into attention hacking: jumping on trends from inspirational quotes to humour websites to further the campaign strategies. These “work part-time and per project, alongside day jobs in IT, corporate marketing, or online community management for celebrities’ fan clubs.

“They are the Philippines’ precarious, aspirational middle-class, taking on freelance digital work to achieve a certain kind of lifestyle. They are an organized, skilled, and digitally savvy labor force.”

The researchers advocate bringing more transparency to political campaign finance in order for it to include digital spending, which does not yet have to be declared, and not just traditional media spend.

But the issue, they believe, burrows down into the working conditions that make creative professionals in the Philippines seek out murky work. Legislators and citizens alike need to think about “creating industry sanctions and safety nets that prevent [creatives] from slipping into the digital underground.”

Similar to the US’s interest in the circulation of false information following its own election in 2016, the Philippines has witnessed fake news become a major political issue. Rappler, the publication that published the study, has felt the sharp edge of the Duterte government’s regulator which revoked the publication’s operating licence after it alleged that the government was spreading propaganda through social media.

Sourced from, Rappler, CNBC; additional content by WARC staff