A P1.5-B industry: ‘Political influencers’ raked it in
MANILA, Philippines — Some candidates in last year’s presidential and vice presidential elections spent between P600 million and P1.5 billion at least on social media “political influencers” who conducted covert campaign operations, according to recently published research.
The study titled “Political economy of covert influence operations in the 2022 Philippine elections” claimed to be the first to estimate the “economic cost” of commissioning influencers in poll campaigns, which it called the new norm.
Authored by Filipino academicians Fatima Gaw, Jon Benedik Bunquin, Samuel Cabbuag, Jose Mari Lanuza, Noreen Sapalo, and Al-Habbyel Yusoph, the report was sponsored and published online by Internews, an international nonprofit organization that supports independent media.
Published last month, the study referred to influence operations as “these broader but highly organized mechanisms to manipulate public opinion, including but not limited to disinformation and propaganda.”
It noted that disinformation and manipulation have become “more rampant” since the 2016 presidential elections, with “deceptive strategies” evolving from the “classic fake news playbook to more subtle manipulation techniques.”
Influencers’ ranks growing
According to the authors, while propaganda campaigns still promote false information, there was increasing coordinated amplification of partisan messages, organized attacks against opposing candidates, and politicization of nonpolitical spaces.
Based on the research, social media influencers who were commissioned for covert political campaigning ran in the “thousands,” with the authors able to identify 1,425 online accounts that were engaged in campaign influencing.
Most of them were on video-based platforms YouTube and TikTok, followed by networking platforms Facebook and Twitter.
By the study’s conservative estimate, these accounts earned at least P600 million if they were on a “retainer” basis or at least P1.5 billion if they had a “pay-per-post” deal with their clients.
Unlike regular advertising and marketing, political influencers set their prices based on their degree of popularity or the number of followers, notoriety, and ability to promote their clients’ agenda.
The study said that varying rates, the several layers of intermediaries, and the “secretive and hidden” transactions with political influencers made estimating the cost of covert influence operations difficult.
The substantial payments also went largely unreported in the candidates’ official statements of campaign contributions and expenses in view of the nominal spending limit.
According to the study, social media influencers were used not only to campaign for their clients but to also “seed misinformation and disinformation in the larger influence operations.”
It took note in particular of how YouTube influencers were able to promote historical disinformation about former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. to help rehabilitate the family’s image.
Aside from conducting extensive online research, the writers were able to interview 21 persons directly involved in covert influence operations. Most of those contacted by the group declined to be interviewed.
“During the 2022 elections, new kinds of influencers relied less directly on explicitly false and harmful content, and more on content that used coded language signaling disinformative sensibilities,” the study said.
“For instance, while the official TikTok account of President ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. is popular with 1.7 million followers as of the time of writing, the most popular posts come from supporters, focused on creating lifestyle feel-good and aspirational posts and on whitewashing the Marcos family image,” it added.
Based on their findings, the authors recommended that the government expand the scope of candidates’ statement of contributions and expenditures to include a broader range of nonadvertising expenses, “including the commissioning of ‘gray’ actors such as influencers, vloggers and content creators.”
They also proposed that social media influencers “be required and incentivized to make their engagements with political campaigns transparent” so they would register as independent contractors and file taxes.
The authors further suggested that social media companies establish mechanisms “to penalize those who not only promote disinformation but also monetize malicious activities” by withdrawing the content creators’ verified status and demonetizing their accounts.