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Guarding our vote from trolls

If we are to vote wisely and earnestly in 2022, we have one more thing to do that’s just as important as seeking out candidates’ platforms and examining their credentials: We have to protect our votes, too, from the influence of political trolls and bots.

The year 2016 was when the power of Philippine social media armies truly came to light. The way they swayed the national elections—and are still shaping public thought afterwards—is well-documented and vividly obvious.

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Even before investigative reports confirmed what was happening, we could clearly see on our social media feeds that online personas were being mobilized among us. These were political trolls—paid or unpaid persons who deliberately engaged with people online to manipulate their perception. Troll accounts would religiously support and defend certain politicians, discredit dissenting opinions, harass challengers, and spread disinformation.

Their activities were everywhere: reposting fake news, engaging in name-calling, mudslinging, and petty comment wars, copy-pasting messages into our newsfeeds and forums. These were intended to influence public opinion, user by user.

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And it’s been working. A behind-the-scenes investigation revealed that troll accounts “create a bandwagon effect… and encourage real, unpaid grassroots supporters and political fans to openly express their support for a particular politician.”

As the 2022 elections draw near, these keyboard armies are expected to launch another blitz, if they haven’t already. Sen. Panfilo Lacson recently warned that troll farms are being organized in provinces using taxpayers’ money, in preparation for the upcoming presidential polls.

Alongside trolls, bot accounts can potentially be weaponized to manipulate our voter decisions. Bots are fake social media accounts with automated posts, masquerading as real people that generate targeted buzz. A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that in the Philippines, bot accounts were previously monopolized by one political side, but are now being utilized by both camps.

We can’t be caught unaware again. By now, we must be more conscious and prudent with our social media consumption, pausing for a moment before giving credence to the things we see on Facebook or Twitter.

One advice that even millennials like me need to remember is to lessen our reliance on social media for news. It’s common notion that millennials and Gen Z-ers are the tech-savvy generations, sharper than baby boomers at detecting disinformation on the internet. But anyone of any generation can fall into the trap of social echo chambers.

Social media feeds are designed so that we see more of what we’re interested in. When we click on a post about a politician, it triggers more posts to appear with related content. This subtle but constant filtering of our newsfeeds limits the diversity of information we passively receive.

We may feel well-informed with the stream of headlines and images we see as we scroll, but it’s a narrow view that merely validates what we already think. Political trolls, with their misleading headlines, manufactured memes, and forced viral posts, are ready to fill this echo chamber with their messaging.

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It’s valuable to get out of social media regularly and inform ourselves through a variety of reputable sources. And note, just because an article went viral doesn’t mean it’s credible. Fact-checking any story is just one Google search away.

When we do log on to social media, it’s also worth checking the people and groups we engage with. A seemingly non-partisan page could turn out to be a propaganda machine, and conversely, an innocent-looking personal account might just be a troll whose purpose is to provoke reactions. (Two common signs of a troll account: Their profile is practically empty, or was created only recently.)

The more we react or respond to them, the bigger chance they get to reinforce our political leaning or fan the flames of our agitation. They also become more visible to other users. Hence the age-old internet rule: “Don’t feed the trolls.”

Most importantly, though political campaigns have gone online and turned our personal corners of the cyberspace into minefields, the traditional requisites for wise voting remain: critical thinking, attention to significant issues, and logical decision-making. These values are now even more crucial to guard our vote from trolls.—————[email protected]

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TAGS: Elections, trolls, vote
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