Social media influencers and modern politics
In between posts of playful pranks and stand-up content, a TikTok user shared several videos about who he was voting for in the 2022 presidential election. Presented in Tagalog and seasoned with humor, each post gathered over 90,000 views and 2,000 comments among his 130,000 followers. The question is: Were these posts sponsored by the candidate or something the content creator did voluntarily? The answer remains unclear.
Social media influencers, once confined to discussing lifestyle and entertainment topics, have now risen as opinion-makers on sociopolitical matters. Thanks to their unique connection with their audience, their voices often carry more weight among their followers than traditional experts. Campaign strategists worldwide have taken notice— wisely tapping influencers to reach and sway voters. However, this approach is largely unregulated, making it susceptible to manipulation and the spread of misinformation. And some influencers, whether they know it or not, are playing a part in the erosion of fact-based democratic discourse.
A recent study, “Political Economy of Covert Influence Operations in the 2022 Philippine Elections,” estimated the involvement of 1,425 influencer accounts across platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter in political campaigns during the 2022 elections. These “covert influence operations” go beyond promoting a candidate positively. They involve sophisticated campaigns aimed at manipulating public opinion through a coordinated spread of biased messages, attacks on opponents, and false information. Apart from commissioned influencers, this includes fake social media accounts as well as online groups or celebrity fan pages that had been repurposed to push political agendas.
The Philippines is not alone in grappling with this issue. Weak political institutions and growing distrust in traditional media are a global trend, creating fertile ground for disinformation. But the most significant driver in the country, the study asserted, is a thriving industry dedicated to propaganda dissemination. In the last elections, top candidates reportedly spent between P600 million to P1.5 billion to enlist influencers for their campaigns. Not only do they receive generous financial compensation, but they also gain access to privileges once reserved for traditional media, further cementing their status in the political information landscape. Some even secure positions within the national government as part of their reward.
As influencers usher in a new era of campaigning, there is a pressing need for greater transparency from the government, the public relations and advertising industry, and other stakeholders. The study proposed expanding the scope of statements of contributions and expenditures to cover a broader range of non-advertising expenses, including discreet influencer support. Equally important is the need for stronger mechanisms compelling political influencers to register as independent contractors and pay taxes, revealing their identities and activities.
Social media platforms serve as the frontline in the battle against disinformation. Apart from enforcing regular audits and the consistent removal of fake accounts, stricter penalties should be imposed on influencers who spread falsehoods. Online political endorsements should be mandated to disclose their sponsors.
While educating the public about media literacy is crucial, greater attention must be directed toward educating influencers, PR agencies, and advertising firms about their ethical responsibilities, especially during election season. Their actions can either strengthen or undermine democracy, and they must be held accountable. There should also be greater investments in research aimed at refining frameworks and developing measures to uncover the intricate workings of covert influence operations.
One inspiring initiative, “Disinformation and the Role of Social Media Influencers in Times of Crises, Conflicts, and Wars,” by Aspen Germany, brings together content creators and stakeholders to discuss their role in democratic societies. For a year, they engage with academics, experts, and decision-makers, tackling disinformation mechanisms and their dissemination via social media, and jointly identify necessary countermeasures. It’s worth exploring how we can replicate such efforts in our country and region.
As we look ahead to future elections, we need to confront the ethical complexities posed by covert influence operations, recognize the significant role they will continue to play in shaping outcomes and implement comprehensive measures to keep influencers and the broader industry in check. In a time when truths can be bent by anyone with a substantial follower base, these actions are both urgent and necessary to protect electoral integrity—the cornerstone of democracy.