Decades ago, the terms were “payola” and “attack-collect, defend-collect.” Now, there are new, more powerful players in the shaping of public opinion who researchers say use the terms “retainer” and “pay per post.”
Hats off to researchers Fatima Gaw, Jon Benedik A. Bunquin, Samuel I. Cabbuag, Jose Mari H. Lanuza, Noreen H. Sapalo, and Al-Habbyel B. Yusoph, for their report titled “Political Economy of Covert Influence Operations in the 2022 Philippine Elections” which was released this week.
It is “the first to estimate the economic ‘cost’ of commissioned influencers for electoral influence operations in the Philippines.”
As per the report, “thousands of political influencers are presumed to be commissioned to perform covert political campaigning in the 2022 Philippine Elections for top national positions, funded by massive financing by political intermediaries in a largely unstructured and unregulated economic market characterized by asymmetrical political relations.”
Among others, the report said “Our findings reveal that the estimated political spending on presumed commissioned political influencers ranges from ₱600 million to ₱1.5 billion, depending on the pricing models of retainer or pay-per-post.”
The report was able to find 1,425 influencer accounts across social media platforms who authors said “engaged in covert political campaigning.”
With video as the medium of choice, most of the studied influencers were found on YouTube (587) and TikTok (544), and also on Facebook (207) and Twitter (87).
The report is by no means an anti-Marcos hatchet job, as authors also reported while “[Ferdinand] Marcos Jr. spent the largest amount on covert political influencers for his campaign at ₱351 million,” the report found that other candidates were also involved and spent considerable amounts: “Leni Robredo at ₱135 million, Isko Moreno at ₱42 million, and Manny Pacquiao at ₱1 million.”
The report, funded by global organization Internews, is a fascinating read, as the research attempts to make sense of the changed or changing information landscape and the intersections of politics, social media, and the industries of public relations, marketing and advertising.
You may find and read the report here: https://bit.ly/PECIOPH202223
We would be too naive not to accept or even attempt to understand the bold changes that have happened, but even more so if we would underestimate exactly how the changes are happening, the new and old players involved, how they play out their roles, and just how much money change hands in the process.
The report pushes forward the academe’s attempts to study and understand the changes and their impact on our politics. There have been reports and researches in the past, but this latest one puts a price tag, based on conservative calculations, on the cost of so-called covert political influencing and campaigning.
More attempts are needed, especially from outside the academe, if we would seek to regulate matters for the public good.
The Commission on Elections and Congress should seriously look into enacting a modern campaign finance reform law, and study how there could be stricter rules on the reporting of Statements of Contributions and Expenses.
There should be attempts to follow the money trail from the sources to the beneficiaries, and everyone in between. Where did the ₱1.5 billion influencer budget come from? How did it reach the influencers? Were taxes correctly paid in the sale and availment of services, or as part of incomes earned?
Elsewhere, the industry associations have been quiet about the practice of influencer hiring and management for political clients.
The Pandora’s box opened by this latest study should not frighten us. Neither should the numbers and complex technologies discombobulate us. An insight is that others (or a few) already understand and master this to their own advantage and to our disadvantage. What’s stopping us from doing the same and bringing some much-needed, positive change next time?
Follow me on Twitter and Threads: @tonyocruz