Social media is a massive iceberg. At its pinnacle, we encounter the usual elements — posts, likes, and followers. However, beneath its icy surface lies a hidden world, that most of us only possess a superficial understanding of it.
Consider it this way. The submerged part of the social media iceberg harbors complex algorithms that manipulate our content feeds. Have you ever wondered why related advertisements immediately follow after you search for something online? The answer lies in platforms like Facebook and TikTok, which have mastered the art of collecting data. They gather information about our online persona, and use it to serve up advertisements that are finely tuned to match our interests and habits.
In its entirety, the design of social media algorithms is fundamentally flawed. While these algorithms excel at finding content similar to our preferences and offering more of it to keep us engaged, they fall short in discerning and distinguishing between reality and fallacy.
Which is, perhaps, why disinformation exists and persists. It exploits a weakness in the system. A loophole we seem to understand, and yet, no one has ever discovered a foolproof solution to putting an end to this crisis. Regardless of the red flags, the Philippines is still the world's social media capital.
Photo from Kyodo News/Getty Images
According to research by Statista, a German firm specialising in market data, Filipinos spend almost four hours daily on social media activities alone. Many millennials and Gen-Z use X, formerly known as Twitter, to stay updated on current events. Since the TikTok’s boom during the pandemic, its market share in the country has continued to soar. Now, over 40 million Filipinos are active users of the said platform.
The more we stay connected in the digital world, the more we get accustomed to following the crowd. For instance, once we are exposed to the same information multiple times within our online network, we tend to experience a sense of pressure to conform to the dominant viewpoints. In every argument, whichever has the higher likes or shares is considered the ‘better truth.” Consequently, many of us become unaware victims of the bandwagon effect.
This grew like a silent disease that spreads swiftly across the virtual community. We, as a society, become addicted to quantifying our beliefs. Of course, the algorithm sees this as an opportunity to show us content similar to our obvious tenets. But lo and behold, a more sinister entity manifests itself in this algorithm.
Farming the algorithm
Using fake accounts for fake engagement to boost questionable social media posts, troll farms manipulated the algorithm to manufacture an illusion.
Their modus operandi involves creating a network of fictitious profiles, complete with fabricated profile pictures, names and even personal details, designed to masquerade as legitimate users. Once these are all set up, troll farms mobilize a concerted effort to manipulate the metrics associated with social media posts, such as likes and comments. This triggers a cascading effect, with the posts infiltrating a larger audience by being propelled as a trending topic.
But it’s not just actual troll farms that exploit the algorithm.
Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British political consulting firm, played a significant role in influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections. President Bongbong Marcos allegedly asked the firm to “rebrand” his family’s image on social media, and looking closely, it probably worked. The country turned out to be the firm’s “petri dish” in testing their techniques.
Photo by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
Let’s not forget how Nic Gabunada made former President Rodrigo Duterte king, who was behind the various tactics to influence public opinion on Duterte during the 2016 presidential elections. Six years later, trolls are stronger than ever — penetrating every space possible, making sure that they feed everyone along their path with lies.
While many of us are aware of paid trolls, the biggest problem now lies in the fact that we only have little knowledge of where such troll farms exist and who operate them. We just knew them because of anonymous interviews from paid trolls themselves.
Of course, nothing lasts forever unexposed. It is inevitable that the culprits responsible for disseminating disinformation would eventually be uncovered. Thanks to Maggie Wilson, she unraveled a Pandora's box, revealing a network of fake news propagators and shedding light on how they were organized and managed.
Wilson's narrative didn't originate with the clumsy propaganda against her on TikTok. The mess commenced following her separation from Victor Consunji in the business world. While the beauty queen managed to move on, it appears that the other party hasn't.
Exposing the dark side of paid influencers
Before Wilson came forward, many TikTok users had already spotted something fishy. They observed that many paid content creators are all using the same script, the same flow, the same hashtags, and even the same screenshots in attacking Wilson.
With this exposure, it further revealed the truth behind the influencer ecosystem.
Screenshots from TikTok
A bunch of young TikTok influencers — some who are even gunning for a seat in Sangguniang Kabataan — have been churning out content lately to promote government messages, mostly about inflation, agriculture, and energy policies. What's more interesting is that some of these so-called TikTok influencers were once in the same boat. They were paid to create scripted videos aimed at harassing Wilson.
Many content creators out here are trading their dignity for payment. But in this economy, who can blame them for wanting to make some quick money? It's no secret that some famous TikTok content creators are raking in more dough than seasoned, full-time employees working at least 8 hours a day for above minimum wages. As a resort, they're turning pro at being internet trolls.
Despite these, we still have a lot of questions. Who is funding them? Who is behind these troll machineries? Professional trolling is a universal problem. Even in America, big accounts have been spreading propaganda against vaccines, not to mention their orchestrated attacks on the transgender community.
While we are familiar with the likes of Macoy Dubs, Arshie Larga, and Sassa Gurl, content creation can be weaponized to plan coordinated attacks, spread fake news and propaganda, and totally change the landscape of social media to an undesirable barren.
The digital landscape is getting scarier by the day, and trying to figure out what's real and what's not is like walking a tightrope. It's a long-running war that's been ongoing ever since social media burst onto the scene. Perhaps, our best shot is to arm ourselves with knowledge and a sharp eye.
It's going to be a tough road ahead, but that's the only way we can navigate this chaotic digital realm and safeguard the truth.