A newly published study by a group of Filipino researchers estimated that presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the 2022 elections spent P600 million to 1.5 billion on social media influencers.

The research report “Political Economy of Covert Influence Operations in the 2022 Philippine Elections” investigated clandestine political campaigning in the 2022 elections, specifically, the involvement of influencers in promoting the campaigns of presidential and vice-presidential candidates. 

The study used an interdisciplinary, multi-method approach of qualitative field work, computational methods, and economic modeling to approximate the scale and scope of employing influencers in political influence operations.

Interviews with influencers, campaign managers and political consultants revealed that influencers did not have a standard rate for their services, which could range from several thousands to millions of pesos depending on their social capital, political notoriety, and ability to promote their clients’ agenda. 

Most influencers were hired on an ad-hoc basis, while prominent influencers were  employed under politicians’ payrolls.  Those who switched camps or doubled down during the peak of the campaign season were offered better deals.

Using a conservative model that accounted for influencers both on pay-per-post and retainer contracts, and a normative model that exclusively assumed a pay-per-post scheme, the study estimated that top candidates spent up to P1.5 billion on influencers. The estimation did not include platform monetization, which was another revenue stream for influencers engaged in covert political campaigning.

The researchers approximated that 1,425 influencer accounts on YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter participated in covert political campaigning, based on multiple indicators of deceptive and manipulative strategies such as degree of coordination and antagonistic and conspiratorial content. 

Most of these influencers were in video-based, creator-friendly platforms like YouTube and TikTok, where there is little to no regulation of extreme political speech and covert influence campaigns.

The researchers said their study presented a work-in-progress estimation of the undisclosed political spending on obscure campaign strategies such as the deployment of influencers. The researchers recommended the expansion of the focus from disinformation to influence operations and called for measures of transparency and accountability from the government, public relations industry, and other key stakeholders.

The study was led by Fatima Gaw (Northwestern University), together with Jon Benedik Bunquin (University of Oregon and UP Diliman), Samuel Cabbuag (Hong Kong Baptist University and UP Diliman), Jose Mari Lanuza (University of Massachusetts at Amherst and UP Manila), Noreen Sapalo (UP Diliman), and Al-Habbel Yusoph (Bocconi University), in partnership with Internews under the Six-Track Engagement Against Disinformation Initiative (STEAD-i). 

The full report can be downloaded from this link. Rommel F. Lopez