The voices of ordinary Filipinos are neglected in the initiatives against disinformation. To address this, a group of researchers conducted a deliberative forum to ask randomly selected Filipinos to generate recommendations on how to respond to election-related disinformation.
Problems and Purpose
Disinformation continues to be a pressing problem in the Philippines, especially in the context of elections. The players involve the State, the private sector, domestic entrepreneurs and–from recent revelations–foreign operatives. While stakeholders have come up with initiatives to address this, the voices of ordinary Filipinos tend to be neglected. What does ‘fake news’ mean to ordinary Filipinos? How do they understand the impact of it in relation to elections? And most importantly, how can we address it? These are the questions that the deliberative forum on disinformation sought to answer.
Background History and Context
In the Philippines, a broad set of disinformation producers have continued to innovate digital operations. The latest trends of digital disinformation include: 1) micro-targeted operations where micro-level influencers seed narratives at the level of small groups and private channels and 2) disinformation hybridized with red-tagging, hate speech, and conspiracy theory. Disinformation narratives circulating online include 1) anti-mainstream media, 2) historical revisionism around the martial law era, 3) anti-political establishment, 4) anti-China hate speech and conspiracy theory accelerated during Covid-19. The deliberative forum on disinformation is an attempt at reshaping the conversation and practice of disinformation by connecting the voices of ordinary citizens to these ongoing efforts.
There have been many efforts in the Philippines at bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders to deliberate and find solutions to shared problems. While the practice of recruiting ordinary citizens through random selection is in its infancy, deliberation is customary in the country. Malayang talakayan in Tagalog and harampang in Waray are practices that celebrate free speech, critical thought, and open-mindedness. The challenge is to expand these conversations beyond the usual citizens who join these forums. To deepen democratic practice, there is a need to extend the opportunity for ordinary citizens to take part in public deliberation. This deliberative forum on disinformation is a step in that direction.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
This project was run by the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University and funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The project team is composed of the following:
1. Nicole Curato (University of Canberra) – Investigator
2. Jonathan Corpus Ong (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) – Investigator
3. Ross Tapsell (Australian National University) – Investigator
4. Bianca Ysabelle Franco (University of the Philippines Diliman) – Project manager
5. Robbin Dagle (Ateneo de Manila University) – Research associate
6. Septrin Calamba (Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology) – Facilitator
7. Yasmira Moner (Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology) – Facilitator
8. FYT Media - Documenter
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The logic behind a deliberative forum is that participation must be open to all. The research team hired RLR Research & Analysis Inc. to facilitate the recruitment. The recruitment firm sent a list of 24 potential participants and 8 reserves (in case of drop outs) who represent diverse backgrounds in age, gender, location, and socioeconomic status. Participants were selected based on a stratified random selection, taking into consideration a balance of age, sex, socio-economic class, and region (National Capital Region, Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao).
The recruitment firm also provided links to the participants’ Facebook accounts. This was done so that the project manager can contact them via Facebook Messenger and invite them to join the private Facebook group for the forum.
Methods and Tools Used
The deliberative forum on disinformation utilized the Zoom platform and Facebook groups for the online deliberations. Asynchronous deliberations were conducted in the private Facebook group created by the project manager while the two days of synchronous deliberations were conducted via Zoom. To communicate with the participants, Facebook Messenger was also used by the research team. These online tools were utilized as an alternative to face-to-face interviews and deliberations due to the limitations posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The deliberative forum on disinformation was held from 16 April to 18 April 2021. Twenty-six randomly selected citizens from across the Philippines were invited to join three days of deliberation to answer a question: How can we protect social media from ‘fake news’ during elections?
The deliberative forum on disinformation started with a learning session. On Friday,16 April, participants were asked to watch short presentations (5-10 minutes) by experts on disinformation in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. These videos were uploaded onto the private Facebook group accessible to participants and the project team. A member of the project team, Jonathan Corpus Ong, served as ‘expert on standby’ to answer the questions and comments of participants throughout the day. The aim of the learning session was to provide baseline knowledge to all participants and develop their confidence as they engage in deliberation.
On 17 and 18 April, participants engaged in plenary and breakout group deliberations. This took place over Zoom for three hours on a Saturday and Sunday morning. The forum began with facilitators asking participants to set the ground rules for discussion. Norm-setting is a key feature of deliberation, for it establishes the legitimacy of the process on participants’ shared values. The participants agreed to take turns, avoid foul language, and remain calm and humble.
The project team launched the deliberation by asking participants to diagnose the harms created by ‘fake news’ during elections. They were asked to identify the parties they considered responsible for the creation and spread of disinformation. Participants were also asked to examine the extent that they were concerned about disinformation spreading in the forthcoming elections, compared to longstanding issues on electoral integrity such as vote-buying, disenfranchisement, threats of violence, and cheating.
The third and final day of the deliberative forum began with a Zoom poll: considering the deliberations thus far, which entities did participants consider to be the most responsible for protecting social media from the harms of disinformation? ‘Ordinary citizens’ received the most votes, followed by the media and politicians (tied). Participants were then assigned to task groups to develop recommendations for (1) ordinary citizens and (2) media and politicians. The deliberative forum concluded with a round of reflections from participants.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
After characterising the problem of disinformation in the Philippines, participants were challenged to generate recommendations on how social media can be protected from disinformation during elections.
Based on a Zoom poll, participants decided to form two task groups. One task group was in charge of generating recommendations for ordinary citizens. Another task group focused on politicians and the media. Task groups presented their proposals during the plenary session, where participants, via viva voce, expressed approval or disagreement with the proposals.
Here are the proposals approved by a near consensus.
1. Craft an anti-fake news and anti-trolling law. Majority of participants support the passage of an anti-fake news legislation, but with clear caveats.
a. First, learning from the lessons from Malaysia and Singapore, there must be safeguards against abusing this law to silence the political opposition, the state’s critics, and ordinary citizens.
b. Second, this law should only be implemented with proper funding. Mon, a thirty-year-old engineer from Butuan City, shared his experience of reporting cyber-crime at the National Bureau of Investigation only to be turned away because the NBI lacked the resources to track down the alleged cyber-crime perpetrator. In response, Jeep, a construction worker from Quezon City, proposed that the state should fund training programmes for IT workers in the Philippines to detect disinformation. This law is only possible when there is enough capacity for IT experts to detect and investigate disinformation.
c. Third, Elica, a former insurance agent from Dasmariñas, suggested that NGOs or civil society groups should play a role in determining what is considered fake news and trolling.
While most participants endorsed this recommendation, they are all cognisant of the unequal implementation of the law in the Philippines. They recognised that this law might only penalise the poor and excuse the rich, therefore they were clear in stating their caveats.
2. Implement and strengthen the anti-dynasty law. Since participants viewed disinformation as part of the wider issue of money politics, they recognized that meaningful electoral reform can only unfold when the concentration of power to a few families is dismantled. Majority of participants endorsed this recommendation, except a forty-seven-year-old businessman from Davao who argued that some families ‘have the gift to lead the country.’
3. Strengthen educational campaigns. All participants endorsed the need to strengthen education campaigns which take the following character:
a. First, these campaigns should be intergenerational. Primary and secondary students should be formally trained to learn about disinformation, while corresponding campaigns should also be launched for older audiences struggling in navigating the online environment. Echo, a fifty-year-old tinsmith from Iloilo reminded younger participants not to underestimate the older generation. Their life experience listening to politicians, he said, equipped them with the skills necessary for the detection of disinformation.
b. Second, these campaigns should be consolidated. A businessman from Davao proposed an ‘anti-fake news educational day’ where all NGOs and civil society groups campaigning against disinformation ‘flood the internet’ with information about fact-checking and scrutinising social media content. The businessman said many good initiatives that citizens are unaware of, such as the work of LENTE, must be intensified and consolidated. He said these educational campaigns should be simple, straightforward, and attention- grabbing, especially for social media users who ‘have no energy’ to peruse complicated instructions.
c. Finally, educational campaigns should focus on outreach. Elica suggested that NGOs should proactively bring disinformation campaigns to residents of rural areas, the young, the old, and the poor.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The deliberative forum is proof that when people with varying backgrounds and perspectives come together in a safe environment, we can come up with solutions to longstanding problems. Despite the polarising nature of social media, these people from across regions in the Philippines with diverse views on politics, were able to peacefully brainstorm ideas. This is not to say that the deliberation did not produce opposing ideas, such as when the young Boom implied that older generations are less able to critically analyse content on social media, and the older members of the group refuted this claim. ‘Let’s not underestimate old people,’ rebutted Echo, ‘old people know social media. We are responsible,’ he added. But this argument was resolved in a polite manner, guided by the ground rules set on the first day of deliberation.
The point is that we cannot dismiss citizens as passive consumers of disinformation. They too have become experts in disinformation and are eager to take part in policymaking when given the opportunity. In fact, the participants’ motivation for joining this project is their keenness to learn about ‘fake news’ and to give two cents on the issue. These reasons, among others, affirm the scholarship  on deliberative democracy – that participants appreciate the intrinsic value of taking part in deliberations: to express their views and learn from each other. If ordinary citizens are given the chance to learn, deliberate, and listen despite their differences, public discourse can be a healthier place for democracy.
Further, the recommendations mentioned above is a manifestation of the success of the deliberative forum. When participants were asked why they accepted the invitation to join the deliberation, many expressed that they were eager to share their opinions and that they wanted to learn more about 'fake news'. In the post-deliberation interviews, participants shared that they are now more cognisant of disinformation tactics and will be more aware leading up to the 2022 elections. After the forum wrapped, the participants even requested that the group remain active in case they want to review some of the expert testimonies and so they can keep in touch with the research team and their fellow participants.
 Curato N., and Niemeyer, Simon. 2013. "Reaching Out to Overcome Political Apathy: Building Participatory Capacity through Deliberative Engagement". Politics & Policy 41 (3): 355-383. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/polp.12015