The auditorium was slow to fill up, as students and community members trickled into the event. The projector above the speakers moved through slides with captions such as “Senator DeLima is still imprisoned” and “Duterte is called the indisputable king of Facebook conversations.”

In an event at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy on Wednesday afternoon, Davey Alba, a reporter for the New York Times, and Ceren Budak, an assistant professor at the School of Information, discussed the crisis of social media disinformation in the most recent election in the Philippines. 

Alba, a Filippino American journalist, recently won the Livingston Award, a prize bestowed by the University each year on media professionals under the age of 35. In her article “How Duterte Used Facebook To Fuel the Philippine Drug War,” Alba exposed the disinformation campaign Filippino President Rodrigo Duterte used to get elected. 

In 2013, Facebook paired with internet providers in the Philippines and allowed citizens to access Facebook for free. Alba said about two-thirds of citizens have internet access, and 99% of users have a Facebook account. But during the 2016 presidential election in the Philippines, Alba began to notice a change in the way people in her home country used Facebook. 

“It started to shift when the presidential election in the Philippines was getting underway, from just like cute cat videos, to this really extreme rhetoric backing certain candidates that had really aggressive platforms like Duterte, who had a law and order platform that he used to promote what he said was the way to solve the country’s problems, which were a war on drugs,” Alba said.

The Duterte campaign used social media influencers, blatant disinformation campaigns and general fear regarding drugs to gain support across the country, Alba said. After Duterte was elected, he continued with the disinformation campaign to fuel his war on drugs, which Alba described as a human rights violation. Alba said each of these issues was a focus point for her journalistic work.

“When I was conceiving of this story, I wanted the drug war to be part of the story because I wanted to connect the human consequences of Facebook’s platform to the drug war, and just show that it’s not just algorithms operating in the void and changing people’s opinions, but the cost of disinformation is sometimes an actual human death toll,” Alba said.

The larger consequences of this issue struck Alba, who emphasized the fact that the dominance of certain social media platforms and new sources could limit what information people are exposed to. 

“Facebook is all about the world (media) domination,” Alba said. “They obviously started in the U.S., but really, really quickly their ambitions grew to an international scale, and the Philippines, this country that was very ripe to be a testing ground for what a Facebook country could look like.”

A similar disinformation campaign to the one that occurred in the Philippines in 2016 happened in the U.S. just six months later, during the U.S. presidential election. However, according to panelist Ceren Budak, a researcher who studies the diffusion of information on social media, the situation in the U.S. was different from the Philippines. Most private citizens in the U.S. have wide internet access, and much of the population still got their news from the mainstream media, rather than from social media. However, as Budak pointed out, Americans have different laws regarding how candidates can contact citizens on social media. 

“That’s one of the things that we care about in the U.S., is the personalization of information where the political elite can reach out to particular people and give them a very narrow message, and there is no accountability for that,” Budak said.

Budak explained how users get their information on social media and said the algorithms tend to expose users to what they already want to hear. 

Calling social media an “echo chamber,” Budak said it’s important for people to expose themselves to different sources of information. She stressed that people have to carefully choose what news they pay attention to. 

“From research, once something is out there it is really hard to stop,” Budak said, “So it is important to be able to stop sharing, don’t do it right away, just give yourself a couple of minutes before you share something.”

Alba and Budak both agreed the issue of social media disinformation is not an easy one to solve. Because the problem is both social and technological, multiple steps are required to fix the issue. According to the panelists, however, solutions include creating proactive policy, getting individuals to purposefully expose themselves to different ideas, targeting domestic disinformation creators and cutting off the revenue sources to the people who spread disinformation.

The issue of disinformation has played a role in several contemporary political issues. According to LSA junior Jackson Hawkins, the events in the Philippines have worldwide relevance.

“I thought this was really interesting because even though this was about the Philippines the same thing happens in the U.S.,” Hawkins said. “I really liked the solutions that they offered, such as disincentivizing advertising and disinformation.”

Alba concluded the event with thoughts on her home country and how social media disinformation has continued to be an ongoing problem across the world. 

“With this stuff happening before the U.S. election and the same stuff happening during the U.S. election, it felt like the platforms being American-centric companies instigated the move to scrutinize these platforms and the power of these platforms,” Alba said. “I really wish this didn’t have to go that far and that they had looked at it even when it was going on in the Philippines.”

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