The Philippines Has to Take Influencers’ Role in Spreading (Mis)Information More Seriously
Conversations about disinformation and misinformation in the Philippines are often dominated by the mentions of President Rodrigo Duterte, the Marcos family, and their respective troll armies. And rightfully so. The use of disinformation and misinformation campaigns by the two political actors are well-documented. They after all professionalized disinformation operations in the country and helped create a blueprint for other players around the world.
But one of the more overlooked parts of the disinformation architecture (and the country’s information ecosystem as a whole) is what we refer to as online influencers.
Colloquially, our image of influencers is isolated to include only fashion and lifestyle content creators who earn by posting about brands, products, and events. But an influencer is more than that, and their definition has significantly evolved in the last two decades that they’ve existed on online platforms. Today, influencers are online users who have amassed a following and use their online profiles as podiums to amplify messages–from commercial to political.
Influencing has gotten so big that it can now be a full-time engagement. Influencers like Kerwin King, David Guison, Kimpoy Feliciano, Camille Trinidad, and Laureen Uy, for example, have been working full-time as influencers for many years and have crossed different eras of influencing. Their clout spans across platforms, from older ones like Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook, to new players like Tiktok, Kumu, and Bigo.
Other influencers, on the other hand, treat influencing as a side hustle — an activity on top of their professional engagements. This is especially true for influencers such as Arshie Larga (pharmacist), Doc Adam (doctor), Tony Roman (lawyer), and Mighty Magulang (genealogist) — online influencers who previously had established “day jobs” but have turned to the internet to establish a following through knowledge- and lifestyle-sharing practices.
This division between two types of influencers, though seemingly subtle, is crucial in understanding their interaction with information. It intersects with another form of influencer typology, based on follower count.
Influencer studies acknowledge that influencers are divided into different tiers. Academically (and in the world of advertising and public relations), influencers with 50,000 to 500,000 followers are called mid-tier influencers. Macro-influencers, meanwhile, are those with 500,000 to one million followers. There are mega influencers — those with more than a million followers — which include big-name personalities like mass media celebrities, journalists, politicians, and athletes. On the lower end of the spectrum are nano-influencers (1,000 to 10,000 followers) and micro-influencers (10,000 to 50,000 followers).
Regardless of the number of followers, however, each type of influencer serves certain functions for marketing and communicating messages.
Case in point: years ago, it was revealed that influencers had a hand in the disinformation architecture in the Philippines. They were mobilized to spread political messages spanning from support for candidates to spreading pieces of fake news and propaganda. It was detailed in a groundbreaking study by academics Jonathan Ong and Jason Cabañes. The expose, however, did not stop many of those involved from continuing their work, with some of them even advancing to more professionalized roles in the media sphere.
In the recently concluded Presidential elections, micro-and nano-influencers were tapped to spread propaganda, whitewash history, and attack opponents of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. And it worked. Marcos Jr. has just been proclaimed as the Phillippines’ 17th president. Yet, this is just a glimpse of the power that influencers hold over public opinion and social behavior. As a profession that has only been in existence for about two decades, the possibilities for these contemporary broadcasters remain endless.
How COVID-19 Misinformation and Influencers Intertwine
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, influencers were mobilized by some governments abroad to disseminate important messages such as health protocols and hygiene practices. In the Phillippines, medical professionals moonlighting as influencers helped counter medical and scientific misinformation and helped call out their counterparts who spread narratives about bogus cures. You may remember the likes of Korina Sanchez and Mike Defensor promoting Ivermectin, and Doc Adam and Arshie Lagra debunking these messages on their platforms.
Lifestyle influencers were also heavily involved in online and, eventually on-ground, activism. Many macro-influencers even participated in the recently concluded presidential elections by actively campaigning for their candidates.
The expansion of contemporary influencers’ role in our society shows that influencing as a job is very young. And because of the lack of overseeing agency, these modern-day communicators are not bound by stringent rules. Their path, until now, is in their hands.
And unlike journalists, influencers do not abide by any certain ethical standards. Filters that exist, say, for journalists, do not apply to influencers (especially those who do influencing full-time). Professionals who double as influencers online, on the other hand, follow the ethical standards set by their profession. For example, a doctor-influencer is bound by the regulations of the Philippine Medical Association (PMA) and therefore is prohibited from endorsing medical or health products, lest they’ll face legal troubles as it goes against the PMA’s code of ethics.
Rules and regulations, in short, do not exist for others, which allows many influencers to freely use their platforms in whatever way they wish. Obviously, this is a double-edged sword.
During the pandemic, we found many instances of influencers, from both sides of the political divide, inciting, propagating, and promoting medical populism and misinformation. We looked mostly at micro to mega influencers and found that many of the most pervasive misinformation narratives during that time were either promoted or advanced by influencers. This includes the promotion of bogus cures, xenophobic sentiments, vaccine hesitancy, and sowing political divide. And because influencers are not bound by any rules, their freedom to participate in conversations may sometimes result in inadvertently advancing misinformation.
White collar influencers, however, are not immune to spreading misinformation. For example, the spread of misinformation about the use of hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin, two bogus cures against COVID-19, was legitimized when popular and influential personalities touted their effectiveness. Journalist Howie Severino said that it was chloroquine that helped him recover from the virus. Korina Sanchez, on the other hand, promoted the use of Ivermectin on her Instagram page. Raffy Tulfo, another veteran journalist with millions of subscribers on YouTube, also expressed his support for the drug. Severino, Sanchez, and Tulfo, though bound by their ethical duties as journalists, erred by using their online influence to propagate false (and borderline dangerous) beliefs.
What’s worse, the resistance against misinformation about bogus cures was scarce amongst influencers, save for a few articles from popular media outfits discussing in length the verifiable facts about the medications mentioned above. In fact, Severino’s claim even found legitimacy when his journey to recovery against COVID-19 was covered by several media entities who did not counter his claim about hydroxychloroquine.
If journalist-influencers can propagate misinformation, we can only imagine the possible circumstances that may arise when, for example, influencers who have no training or in-depth knowledge of medicine and science, participate in discussions about the effectiveness of certain medications. This is the case for popular dance artist and influencer DJ Loonyo when he conflated the concepts of mass testing and vaccine trials in a live stream. DJ Loonyo erroneously claimed that mass testing is a flagrant health risk because it uses human subjects in “trial-and-error” experiments. He, later on, received some strong backlash and apologized for his mistake.
In a country where people depend on personalities for medical advice, influencers promoting bogus cures helped advance the biggest and most dangerous scams during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without timely interventions, this can happen again and again and can endanger the public’s health. The use of Ivermectin, for one, spread like wildfire, with mass distributions taking place at the height of the pandemic. The Philippine government, seemingly pressured by the public’s clamor for Ivermectin, even allotted a budget for a study on the drug’s efficacy against the virus despite the mounting evidence that counters the prevailing narrative.
Misinformation about simplistic and unproven cures is also an example of narratives that cross the country’s political and economic divide. The uncertainty brought about by the pandemic pushed people to cling to unproven medications to alleviate their discomfort, feel a sense of security, and be able to find control in a situation that provides little to no choice for people. This could have been avoided had there been strong, localized, relevant, timely, and creative interventions. But the strength of online influencers out-clouted institutions in this instance–setting what could be a dangerous precedent for future crises if not addressed by our society.
A way to move forward
There’s no hard and fast way to combat misinformation. Worse, participated by today’s influencers, misinformation narratives can be sold to the public as products they can metaphorically buy into.
Content moderation has always been one way to correct misinformation. Fact-checking, to some degree, also works. But the best approach against misinformation is still a whole-of-society approach. Institutions, academics, the media, civil society organizations, and, yes, private individuals like influencers should chip in their stake to combat misinformation. It is one of the world’s biggest problems after all, which means that anyone will sooner or later be hit by just how severe it is.
We may also have to start treating misinformation as a real crisis, much like wars and climate change. This means that the destruction from misinformation does not happen in one go, but gradually. That there will be those who will not believe its severity. That there will be funding to make the problem worse. And much like any crisis, misinformation will, later on, affect the public in an uneven scheme. While those who have the means will be able to evade misinformation to some degree, those who do not will remain vulnerable. Later on, however, misinformation will hit just about everyone and every corner of society.
At its best, misinformation is but a debate about whether tuob can alleviate COVID’s symptoms. At its worst, misinformation can lead to harm to people’s health.
As for influencers, the latest national elections showed a willingness on their part to use their clout to promote certain political messages. This willingness shows that they can be tapped to participate in nation-building efforts. What gatekeepers of the media ecosystem (e.g. mass media owners) can do is build a bridge between themselves and influencers and ask for help in expanding public discussions. After all, if influencers can spread misinformation, they can also spread correct, timely, and relevant information if given the right tools.
The question now, however, is whether mass media owners are actually willing to build this bridge or not and whether knowledge transfer is possible between journalists and influencers. Either way, the way to move forward is clear, at least for now. The media has to adapt to the changing demands of the public and innovate in both channel and content, while influencers need to learn to not only be effective but also how to be responsible vehicles of information. Without efforts from both groups, misinformation and their instigators will find new ways to game the crisis.