Filipino Researcher on Troll Accounts and Fake News Awarded $200K Carnegie Grant For Next Project

Filipino professor Jonathan Corpus Ong has been named a 2022 Andrew Carnegie Fellow by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The American philanthropic foundation was established in 1911 by Andrew Carnegie to support education programs across the world. According to their website, “the criteria prioritize the originality and promise of the research, its potential impact on the field, and the scholar’s plans for communicating the findings to a broad audience.”

Ong is an associate professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Out of the 300 applicants nominated by their respective institutions, he was one of the 28 scholars who were awarded a $200,000 (USD) stipend for the said endeavor. [Roughly around 10.5 million Philippine pesos]

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Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines” is one of Ong’s noteworthy studies. In an interview with ANCX, Ong said that “how the trolls rationalize and justify their work is quite unsettling”. Apparently, Ong had already received grants months before the Philippines’ midterm election in 2016 to research the conditions of digital workers in the Philippines. He originally intended to focus his study on content moderation but was unable to get an audience with “digital janitors”. That was when he interviewed political trolls instead.

“I wanted to find out how much they are getting paid,” he recalled. “How did they even get there? What were the life circumstances that would lead a person to sign up to become a troll? May ethics ba sila? [Do they have ethics?] How do they sleep at night? How can they live with themselves? In 2016, nakita natin [we saw] all these violence, hate, attacks online—that’s what got me into it.”

Upon hearing trolls claim that “sideline lang naman ito[this is just a sideline] and “I just need the extra money,” Ong noted that there’s definitely an issue on ethics and morality. He added, however, that “it is more important to see the bigger picture”.

“We tend to focus on the low-level players–the anonymous fake account operators–but we also need to think about the head troll. Who is the head troll? They are the political strategists, and they are kind of hard to call out. Therefore, we need a real whole of society approach. They are protected by their own politicians, so we need to create more transparency from the top down,” Ong told ANCX.

Now, the Filipino disinformation researcher is set to embark on a new study that will focus on the human cost of disinformation with his Carnegie grant. An update on his previous research, this study will reportedly delve into the precarious work conditions that civil society workers and journalists find themselves in, as well as the impact of toxic content on their job and mental health. Ong aims to come up with another academic research that would help the world, especially the Philippines, diminish disinformation.

It is reportedly apparent on social media that rampant disinformation in the Philippines has divided the electorate. He said, “passions are running so high, it’s scary. We see the other camp as enemies to be defeated, to be obliterated, to be erased rather than people we disagree with. I think we should expect that whatever the result of the elections will be in two weeks’ time will be contested, and there will be violent reactions either way—whether it’s Robredo or Marcos, who wins.”

According to Ong, this is the real impact of how six years of disinformation have thrived on multiple platforms. “We have done well in targeting low-level influencers and fake account operators but we haven’t held into account the political elites and the strategists supporting them, the ones who are running the campaign,” he concluded.

Jonathan Corpus Ong graduated with a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Cambridge as a Bill Gates Scholar in 2011. He is also a Politics and Communication graduate (class of 2007) at the London School of Economics and Social Science.

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