‘Nuanced’ perspective needed to address troll problem – expert

By: Reulene Jezreel Matalog

More than 200 participants attended a webinar on disinformation and trolling last Friday, May 20. Titled “The Politics and Ethics of Representing ‘The Trolls’: Disinformation Research in the Shadows,” the one-hour event (the fifth part in the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture’s [CRCC] series) featured Dr. Jonathan Corpus Ong as the main speaker.

One takeaway was the need for a more “nuanced” perspective to address problems related to online trolls. According to the Associate Professor of Global Digital Media at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, a simplistic understanding of trolls would only lead to simplistic solutions and fail to address the problem. Thus the need for a more nuanced approach.

He also said that the works of disinformation researchers like him aim to empower and inspire whistleblowers to speak up against the industry. 

The webinar poster featuring Dr. Jonathan Corpus Ong, a disinformation researcher and digital media professor.

Political trolling became a prominent issue in the Philippines, especially during the six-year term of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte and most recently, the 2022 national elections. In both times, fake and genuine social media accounts peddled pieces of disinformation and propaganda, usually to malign groups and progressives. Sites such as Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube were also homes to influencers who dabble in this line of work.

At the same time, critics such as journalists and progressives among others were the receiving end of death threats, harassment, and red-tagging from online trolls and state supporters. The situation in the Philippines led to the country being tagged by Facebook’s Katie Harbath, their public policy director for global elections, as “patient zero” regarding the global disinformation epidemic.

In discussing the findings of the 82-page report “Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines” (which he co-authored with Jason Vincent Cabañes), Ong said that network disinformation is structured according to a hierarchy. It is composed of the chief architects or the elite advertising and PR strategists, digital influencers, and community-level fake account operators.

A screenshot from the one-hour webinar event.

When asked about addressing the troll problem, Ong said that it is vital for ordinary citizens to study the works of academics, investigative journalists, and fact-checkers and use them to know what has already worked and what has not in creating persuasive narratives.

CRCC will be continuing their webinar series this Friday, May 27, with Prof. Steven Clayman of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) set to take the stage. The title of the webinar being “Asking about juror bias: The organization and sensitivities of voir dire questioning in the U.S.”

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