Researchers describe the Philippines as the 'canary in a coal mine' for how misinformation subverts democracies.
They worry TikTok's algorithm and lack of transparency are creating new avenues for election misinformation.
The Philippines election may indicate how TikTok misinformation will impact elections around the world.
In 2016, when the Philippines elected strongman president Rodrigo Duterte, prominent figures including journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa pointed to the outsized role social media — particularly Facebook — played in spreading disinformation and garnering support for his candidacy. Looking back, some researchers pointed to the country as a "canary in the coal mine" for how misinformation can subvert global democracies.
People in the Philippines spend more time on social media than in any other country. And while older platforms like YouTube and Facebook remain widely popular and influential, TikTok, which boasted nearly 36 million users over 18, has seen runaway user adoption since 2019.
Although the platform has partnered with the Philippine Commission on Elections (Comelec) to provide authoritative information about the country's elections being held today, researchers and fact checkers that spoke to Insider worry that its unpredictable algorithm, lack of transparency, and ease of content creation has created another avenue through which election mis- and disinformation can spread.
As TikTok sky-rockets in popularity globally, the Philippines election could be another predictor for how the newest social media phenomenon may impact elections around the world.
The Marcos family is using social media to rehabilitate its image
Most recent polling showed that by election day, May 9, the race had narrowed down to two candidates: current Vice President Leni Robredo and Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr, the son of the country's former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
Robredo has been a staunch opponent of current president Rodrigo Duterte, speaking out against the violent drug war that has seen thousands murdered in extrajudicial killings. Marcos, Jr. ran as Duterte's Vice President in 2016, but narrowly lost to Robredo (the presidential and vice presidential positions are elected separately).
While the Marcos regime, which ruled the Philippines as dictator for twenty-one years from 1965 to 1986, was characterized by corruption, soaring national debts, violence, and martial law, the family has waged a largely successful PR campaign to rehabilitate its image. On social media, including Facebook,YouTube, and TikTok, accounts push a softer version of the family's history, describing years marred by state violence and martial law "the golden years." Their messaging situates the younger Marcos children, particularly Marcos, Jr., as the rightful inheritors of the country's leadership.
"We've noticed that the Marcos campaign is much better at using social media, at responding to things quickly," said Pipo Gonzalez, a project assistant at the University of the Philippines and member of Tsek.ph, a collaborative fact-checking initiative made up of 34 leading journalism and civil society organizations. Tsek.ph is funded by Meta and Google News, among other organizations. Gonzalez also noted that most mis- and disinformation that Tsek.ph tracked tended to favor Marcos, Jr.
TikTok does not publicly disclose whether it takes down misinformation networks
While fact-checkers say Facebook is still responsible for hosting the majority of election disinformation, according to Celine Samson, a fact checker with the nonprofit newsroom Vera Files, video mis- and disinformation have increased across platforms, including TikTok.
Researchers said that TikTok's lack of transparency, both on how users encounter content, and the amount and nature of misinformation on the platform, make it particularly worrisome. Though the company does put out quarterly reports, unlike Facebook and Twitter, it does not publicly disclose whether it takes down misinformative content or the networks of accounts that promote it.
In the company's most recent Community Guidelines Enforcement report, from October-December of 2021, the Philippines had the fifth most content removed from the platform of any country. But the report did not specify what the content was, why it was removed, or whether it related to election mis- and disinformation.
When asked about whether the platform has identified any influence campaigns related to the election, or how much mis- and disinformation content has been removed, TikTok declined to answer.
"TikTok prohibits election misinformation and works with independent fact-checking organizations who help assess content so that violations of our Community Guidelines can be promptly removed," a spokesperson for the company told Insider. "We also provide access to authoritative information through our in-app Election Guide which was developed with support from the Commission of Elections."
"With regards to disinformation or influence operations in general, what we are seeing is that even people who choose to have sanitized [TikTok] feeds get to see these things and they're being put 'at risk' of exposure," said JM Lanuza, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines. And while the algorithm can also promote factual content to people who might not otherwise see it, "it's still a question of volume."
Smaller profiles are spreading misleading content — making it harder for researchers to track
This opacity is compounded by the Philippines' robust influencer economy, where meme accounts or individual influencers will accept money from political candidates to post supportive content. Whereas the country's 2016 election was marked by popular influencers and accounts with tens of thousands of followers spreading disinformation, researchers have noticed a trend towards smaller profiles — some with less than a few thousand followers — creating misleading content.
"We saw people posting their full name, their real face without any filters, and they're spreading that information themselves," said Samuel Cabbuag, assistant professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, who co-authored a report on TikTok's role in the Philippines' information ecosystem. This can make it hard to distinguish whether someone is posting a legitimate political view — perhaps inadvertently spreading misinformation — or whether they are being intentionally misinformative.
A January investigation by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism found that the Marcos campaign was eschewing Facebook ads in favor of paying influencers for support, a transaction they often do not disclose.
"Since the influencers have smaller audiences, it's harder to track," said Lanuza. "It's harder to see where this information originated from, how big the reach is."
According to Lanuza, unlike other social media platforms, which show users content based on their connections or their expressed interests, TikTok's algorithm is more unpredictable. The same forces that can propel obscure content to virality can also spread disinformation.
TikTok is democratizing the tools that make videos go viral
TikTok's filters, effects, and sounds have made creating viral and compelling content easier. While those tools can be used to make videos that are completely innocuous, they could also be weaponized by bad actors.
"For creating misleading or false information and content, TikTok offers a very permissible space," Ciaran O'Connor, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who monitors disinformation online, told Insider. "Often [these tools] are used on videos of dance trends or cooking videos, but also they're used by disinformation practitioners to create content that is eye-catching."
The speed and brevity of the TikTok clips, which can include text, images, captions, sound, and voiceovers, also means that AI and human moderators may have a more challenging time reviewing the content compared to text-based posts.
These problems are compounded by the more than 100 languages spoken in the Philippines.
"Platforms generally have a lot of problems or see significant issues when they move beyond the English language," said O'Connor.
A spokesperson for TikTok declined to answer questions about the number of moderators the company had that spoke any of the country's major languages.
After Duterte won the 2016 presidential elections, some researchers noted the role Facebook's Free Basics program — which provided users in Philippines access to the company's products at zero-cost to their data plan — contributed to the platform becoming a hub for misinformation. In recent years, telecom providers have introduced data bundles that make video apps like TikTok and YouTube cheaper for Philippine users, and may also be contributing to an increase in video-based disinformation in the country.
"Those kinds of bundles are making these platforms, even if they're video intensive, very accessible for the broader part of the masses," said Lanuza.
TikTok misinformation is spreading to other platforms
Misinformation on TikTok is part of a larger ecosystem, one that includes large platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, private messaging apps like Viber and WhatsApp, and independent websites. The app's content can also easily be amplified on those platforms.
"You can very easily download a video and post it on Facebook or post it on Twitter," said Lanuza. This allows disinformation actors on TikTok to "increase their media shares," he said.
The place Lanuza has found several TikTok videos? On the platform's competitor, Facebook Reels.
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