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How to game the Philippine Elections

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By Prof. Rom Feria

The midterm elections in the Philippines happens in May 2019, and this is another year when the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) will be using an “old” automated election system (AES). Whilst I do have reservations in the trustworthiness of the current AES, or at least the third-party contracted to manage it, this isn’t about that. Today, I am writing about the misinformation, its distribution, aided by the internet, that impacts the outcome of the election.

Fake News or Misinformation

Spreading propaganda is not new. It has been in play ever since elections started. However, today’s technology has increased its efficacy. The most common vector in spreading propaganda is Facebook and Google. However, let’s look back several elections, and see how Facebook and Google come into play.

In the US, when former-President Barack Obama was elected, aided by social media experts using Facebook, Twitter and Google, nobody criticized the role of technology. The same can be said of the election of former-President Benigno Aquino III.

Forward to the current, in the US, with President Donald Trump, and in the Philippines, with President Rodrigo Duterte, both gaming the use of social media, the opposition, and those who support the opposition, are up in arms, with some going against the same social media machinery that propelled them to power not too long ago.

With the Philippine Midterm elections coming soon, the use of the same tactics will be evident, if not, escalated to levels that you cannot imagine. Several factors come into play: cheap smartphones, and free access to social media, known vectors of spreading misinformation.

Whilst the benefits of cheap, affordable smartphones cannot be contested, although there is downside to this that I will discuss in a future story, the main concern is the free access to social media that both Smart and Globe, the two major mobile phone companies in the Philippines, provide.

Free access to Facebook, and other select online services, is definitely a violation of net neutrality, which unfortunately is not protected in the Philippines (no thanks to the Department of Information, Communications Technology, whose former secretary didn’t have a clue what net neutrality is when asked about it, and to the National Telecommunications Commission, with an overstaying commissioner who did nothing to regulate internet service providers). The consequence of these telco’s deal with Facebook is the free access to misinformation, aka fake news. And as we all know, fake news spreads faster than the truth. On the other end, the same telcos do not provide free access to publications that debunk and disprove these fake news. In summary, fake news is free for Filipinos, but the truth is not — thanks to Smart and Globe.

Google is also a player in the spread of misinformation, by selling the same ad spots to the highest bidder. Searching for the truth, hoping to debunk the fake news that you found on Facebook, will show you the same misinformation, as a paid advertisement by the same group, or an affiliate, that posted it. And remember, these paid advertisement often appear at the very top of the search results. And oh, the same can be said of YouTube — the suggested videos are similar.

DeepFakes

Videos used to be more difficult to fake. It used to be that the most you can do is modify the video by cutting relevant segments to remove context and make it sound that opponent is saying something controversial.

Today, thanks to advances in AI and Machine Learning, you can change the faces on a video with somebody else’s, whilst retaining the entire clip, audio, background, lighting and all. Fake video, or DeepFakes, will emerge as one of the most powerful propaganda tools starting next year.

There are tools being developed to detect them, but its distribution, once again, aided by YouTube and Facebook, will make it more difficult to debunk it.

Is there hope?

Facebook does not care about its users — only their bottom-line, i.e., engagement whatever it takes, even hiring PR agencies to go against their critics. Its users overseas are reacting by not using Facebook. However, it will take awhile before Filipinos will do the same, unless Smart and Globe start caring about the Filipinos, instead of its bottom-line, and remove the free access to these select online services. I have heard an argument from Smart that this is to “bridge the digital divide”, but if you are truly serious about this, provide free, access to the open internet, and not just to a select few that pays you.

The Commission on Election will need to have more powers to control online campaigning. It is unfortunate that the same politicians who benefits from the social media machinery are the same ones expected to create laws to regulate it — maybe it is time to stop voting for them, too.

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