Jonathan Corpus Ong on Digital Labor in the Phillipines

photo of Jonathan Corpus Ong
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Jonathan Corpus Ong on Digital Labor in the Phillipines
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What do Facebook content moderators and Rodrigo Duterte’s troll armies often have in common? This week on Reimagining, Jonathan Corpus Ong lends us fascinating and surprising insights from his work interviewing members of the Phillipines’ burgeoning digital working class, and how we might expect the Filipino Internet to play into the country’s elections in May.

Jonathan Corpus Ong is an associate professor of Global Digital Media at the the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a Research Fellow at the Shorenstein Center. He helped found the Newton Tech4Dev Network.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hi, everybody. Welcome to Reimagining the Internet. I am Ethan Zuckerman and I’m really thrilled to be here today with my friend, Dr. Jonathan Corpus Ong. Jonathan is associate professor of Global Digital Media at UMass Amherst in the communication department, we’re colleagues there and he’s someone I’ve admired for a really long time. He’s done just groundbreaking work, particularly on scholarship, on online communities in the global south. In addition to his position at UMass Amherst, he’s a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center. He’s the founder of the Newton Tech4Dev Network. He is the author or editor of two books, and he’s someone who I really turn to again and again, for understanding of mis and disinformation, the relationship between the internet and politics in the global south, and particularly in the Philippines. Jonathan, thank you so much for being with us.

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Thank you so much for having me. That’s such a generous introduction and we haven’t really hung out in person as much. So I’m glad we have the next half hour to chat.

Ethan Zuckerman:

We definitely have some time and we do need to see each other more. We should say this, we’re in the same department at UMass, but of course I joined UMass during the pandemic, which means we haven’t had a chance to sit down and have a meal together. We haven’t been in many of the same rooms together. When we are, we tend to be masked, but I’ve been reading your work for quite some time. And you were one of the reasons why I wanted to come to UMass.

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

That is very sweet and we’re happy to have you. We’re lucky to have you.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It’s been wonderful so far. And I think it’s only going to get better when we can spend some time together. But Jonathan, you are such a busy guy. And part of that is that you are one of the very leading experts on internet in the Philippines. The Philippines is heading towards a really pivotal election in the near future. And the Philippines is really worth paying attention to for two reasons. One, it’s one of the most digitally literate and wired countries in the world. The internet is enormously influential, and second Filipinos are responsible for some of the hardest work in keeping the internet up and running. Introduce us a little bit to the Filipino internet and even people who aren’t paying attention to Asia, why everyone should have a close eye on the Philippines.

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Absolutely. Yeah. So you can roll out different statistics here in terms of what Philippines, in terms of our embrace of new technologies and new innovations. And it’s not just about social media or specific infrastructure, you can go back to texting as well. So we were texting capital of the world that was like a late ’90s, early 2000 statistics. In terms of social media use and time spent on social media, we top those global surveys and that’s explained the way in terms of also our property being very transnational. So the history of migration and particularly economic migration is very much prevalent and therefore we do need to use cheap technologies to keep in touch with families.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Sure.

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Yeah. And so, there is that story, but going into like the dark and shadowy kind of digital work we’re known for… Before we’re known to be the content moderation capital, we were also the business process outsourcing capital, and there’s been incredible work in terms of the Philippines being a call center capital, having to kind of a shift in terms of tone and accent to service clients around the world. My colleague, Emmanuel David talks about there’s one paper, I think Ethan, you should read about. So he talks about transgender people in the call center and how they’re so very fluent in terms of code switching. So when they would also generate a more masculine voice to talk against a very irate customer in the US complaining about their credit card bill. But if they’re trying to sell a product, they shift towards more feminine kind of performances. So that’s fascinating.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I would love to read that. One of the stories that I talk about in Rewire, my first book is the story about Arnel Pineda and how this remarkable Filipino singer goes on to become the lead singer of Journey and opens Journey to the global Filipino population. But a lot of it comes from this idea of plakado, this idea of being so accurate. You are exactly what it was on the platter, on the record and having a plakado voice so that you are able to sort of match that exact American California accent.

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

So we’re very assimilatory, we’re very chameleon like in terms of being able to do that. Of course, histories of colonization play into that, right? So having been colonized by Spain for 300 years, the United States for 40 years. So that plays into that role and anything that moved towards opening up the country towards these digital creative industries, it says place strategically in terms of our strengths, particularly our command of the English language and English proficiency. So I don’t think it’s a surprise to many that when it comes to outsourcing content moderation, which I’m sure that your listeners kind of know is the digital janitors of social media, having to scrub rude content heat speech, and very unsavory content, filth and gore of social media. The Philippines is one of those countries that do that.

And unlike the United States and India, which do a lot of content moderation work as well, the Philippines has more like transnational content moderation. So at least from what I know, we do content moderation for other regions and that kind of distance between the country’s content moderators and the culture of those that they would have to be having to learn and be more familiar with. So that’s obviously like an obstacle, right?

Ethan Zuckerman:

So let’s just pause here and kind of review some of these features because it really is just a fascinating situation. Since the end of World War II, at least and possibly before that. But I only really know the post World War II history, there have been enormous overseas Filipino populations around the world. The Philippines has always had this very strong tradition of families sticking together, remaining connected through low cost technologies. This had a lot to do with rapid adoption of SMS. Rapid adoption of SMS also had a lot to do with activism in the Philippines. It was a force very much used for political mobilization. There’s been enormous Filipino presence on social media as that’s become the dominant medium for people to stay in touch. Philippines first emerges as a business process outsourcing hub, particularly with a international call centers playing to Filipino’s language advantages.

The fact that you have people who speak perfect English, but in a very different time zone than either the UK or the US. And now we see in films like The Cleaners, which I generally teach in my classes, this very high volume, but very, very challenging content moderation that goes on. And I used to run content moderation teams. I know that it’s incredibly challenging work. It’s emotionally and almost physically difficult for the people who are doing that janitorial work. How does that play out in the Philippines? How does it play out particularly around what is sometimes a very conservative Catholic culture?

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Wow. Yeah. So in terms of writings on like emotional labor of content moderators, and getting into the human stories of this very difficult and challenging Quite traumatic work of having to like split second decision making in terms of being shown images of beheadings, killings or animal abuse. Right? And having to make those split second decisions. Was it Adrian Chan of Wired Magazine-

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah. That was excellent.

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

… who’s written beautifully about that? Of course, Sarah Roberts has a recent book about this. So you’re trying to bring in culture and why do people get into this kind of work? There’s definitely a cultural dimension in terms of one will have to justify like very difficult kind of work that they’re having to do good. That there’s like real value about having to do this kind of thing. And that’s one way in which one would derive like meaning out of very challenging and very toxic kind of work. But for many who do this, they’re in the aspirational middle class like lower middle class. And of course what we mean by middle class in the global south is quite different from middle class in the global north. Right?

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

So when we talk about middle class in the Philippines, it’s still given also the lack of social safety nets, also the frequency of natural disasters in the country. So middle class is actually a very unstable position. And so these kinds of firms that do outsourced content moderation work, and they’re also promoted by the government, right? Like these are industries that are experiencing a lot of growth. There’s also a reframing of some of the digital work by the government. So the spin goes something like, “Oh, you don’t have to go overseas to work in another country to be separated from your family often in quite degrading kind of positions. You can stay in the country now.” And these are some of those roles that are open up for younger people. Those who are trying to find a stable livelihood.

I don’t think people really enjoy it. Right? Of course, they’re also silenced and having to sign nondisclosure agreements. I try to get in touch and interview content moderators in my work for the Newton Tech4Dev project. And that proved very difficult. And we had to pivot to look at other kinds of shadowy digital labor. And that got me talking to so on one hand we were trying to get into the people who were taking off hate speech. And they’re also very proximal and very close to the people who are doing the hate speech. And who are being paid to do hate speech by politicians. So that’s another paradox.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Let’s pivot there because this is a part of the Filipino internet story that I think people are much less familiar with. You’ve really been a pioneer in bringing this work to light. And I think it’s enormously important. Help us understand this influence for higher business. How does it operate and how has it contributed to perhaps let’s call it the unique presidency of Duterte?

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Yeah. So the troll firm. So never far away from the digital janitors or the trolls whose content are being scrubbed of at least that’s the idea by the content moderators. Right? So paid troll armies, fake news operators. I think this became part of our vocabulary in the lead up to the 2016 elections, of course, in the US with Trump, in the UK with Brexit, in the Philippines we had Duterte, in like early 2016. So if you listen to journalists and activists, journalists also like Maria Ressa, right? Who’s been in the forefront against speaking out against Rodrigo Duterte and trying to also spotlight the role of social media in some of these. In the acceleration of authoritarianism and digital populisms, so the Philippines was first. We saw that production of fake news websites leading up to the election.

But in my work, I try to go into the more human dimension. I was really attracted to the question of who are these people who were recruited to become paid trolls? And what are their social backgrounds? How was this job even advertised to them? Right. Like what was their entry for point to this kind of job? And me from my background, I’m very much interested in inspired by traditions of media anthropology, it’s about also ethics and morality. Like how do they justify this work? How do they sleep at night?

Ethan Zuckerman:

Jonathan, are they the same sorts of people who are involved with the moderation work? Are they aspirational middle class? Is it the sort of thing where not only is it a job, but it’s a job in an air conditioned environment, sitting in a chair in front of a computer, which is better than a lot of other opportunities out there? Are people making that decision between moderation and trolling?

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Absolutely. I don’t think people are making that connection as closely enough. And that’s what I hope that my work tries to do. There’s a way of talking about paid trolls. There’s a way talking about Duterte’s supporters, whether paid or not paid as like complete other and like, oh, they’re far away in the provinces in a political stronghold. And they’re like indebted to this clan or being persuaded or brainwashed through some propaganda. And they’re completely different from you and me. But in my work, I was able to interview those who are doing fake accounts, who do fake account operations. They have like three fake accounts on Facebook, another three on Twitter. They produce memes to promote a candidate and then to smear a rival candidate. And some of them are college graduates and recent graduates of the top universities of the country.

Some of them have degrees in advertising. Some have degrees in law. And for some reason or another found themselves having to do this troll work. And that’s what my work has been trying to do. In the Architects of Networked Disinformation, I talk about the different… So I call them ethnographic portraits. So there’s three distinct people that I talk about how they got recruited into that. So one of the stories that I tell in that research is that for some of them, they were actually deceived into doing troll work. Right? So the job ad is not wanted paid trolls or like wanted influence operations, dark internet, that’s not a job ad. The job ad was we want a social media community manager. So it sounds like attractive. It sounds legit and respectable.

And then they, they realize, “Oh, we have to do it for a political client. Oh, this is how everyone else in the office, this is what everyone here is having to do. Oh, we’re going to get a bonus if we produce the most viral meme of the day. Like there’s a financial incentive. Oh, okay. Maybe I can stomach this kind of work maybe for three months.” And then they kind of extend their contract for another three months. And so that’s the story that they want to talk about. The story of proximity, stories of complicity and we’re more similar rather than completely different.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So what’s interesting about this is I think we’ve heard some stories about paid trolling coming out of the internet research agency in Russia, where the focus has really been international. We’ve certainly heard many stories. Many of them overblown about the 50 Cent party and the idea of a compliant army of trolls in China. Although, what I think people often get wrong with that story is that many of the people who are participating in that form of disinformation are believers. They firmly believe what they’re doing. What’s the relationship between what people are spreading and what they believe? Do you have a sense that there are Duterte’s supporters who are excited about the work that they’re doing? Do you have a sense that these are people who oppose Duterte, but are doing this work because they have to make the money? Am I wrong to put too much of this under Duterte? Is this just the landscape of Filipino politics online at the moment?

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Yeah. I think that’s such a very thoughtful way of phrasing that question and whether they also find meaning whether they see themselves in what they’re posting, where do they draw some of these references from? So I think to tease out the complexity of that question, maybe one aspect will be to explain a way that Duterte support and where that is coming from. Right. And I think for some people like with regard to Rodrigo Duterte, very anti elite kind of narrative, Very similar to Donald Trump kind of approach. Right? And in the Philippines, there’s a sense that what he’s saying reflects what people really feel are reluctant to express. So there’s that kind of authenticity that, “Oh, this guy is actually calling BS on some of these big prominent political families and clans that we kind of know have been really problematic over the years.”

So there’s that aspect to it. And the work of my colleagues, such as Nicole Corato, and Cleve Arguelles have tried to explain that support of behind Duterte. And I tried to add to that in terms of like, but what about those people? Not to explain just the low income Duterte supporter, but he has a lot of supporters who are wealthy, who are also in that aspirational, middle class range. And also those who see themselves as possibly kind of also entering into that elite group. And they see him as, “Okay, he’s going to reorganize the political hierarchies. And if I align and attach myself to him, then maybe I can dispose of some of those prominent families. And I can have like a bigger piece of the pie.” So there’s a lot of opportunism here. And I think that’s important to talk about.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Also a not inaccurate perception of corruption decay, misgovernment through some of the past Philippines history. So in the same way that there is certainly non elite receptivity towards Trump in the US, there is something to be said for shaking up those existing hierarchies in the Philippines, but it sounds like a lot of this is deeply personal. It’s either looking for political opportunity, looking for economic opportunity. Jonathan, what is it doing to the climate as you head into elections, which are this spring, correct?

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Yeah. So it’s coming up very soon and that’s first week of May. First week or second week of May.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And do people believe anything they’re reading online? Are they assuming that anything that they’re encountering online is mis or disinformation? How does the fact that there is documented phenomenon of paid influence? What does it do to politics in the Philippines? Do people believe what they read and believe what they see?

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Absolutely. So I think there’s a hardening of political lines. And so the person who’s leading the presidential post is Bongbong Marcos, the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. So the fact that he’s leading the polls again comes as a little bit of a surprise for some people. Certainly for an optimist like me. I was like, “Oh, maybe people would want like a change.” And often there is that history in the Philippines, like there’s always a cyclical nature. We end up voting for someone who repudiates the previous one. So this to me is very disturbing and very concerning that there’s a hardening towards an embrace of someone who’s possibly even more authoritarian. Right? So perhaps Duterte was like the country testing out, “Oh, let’s go for a strong man.” But they actually prefer the strongest strong man and like really going deeper down into Marcos era, literally voting for another Marco this time around. So that’s very concerning.

And the fact that there’s much more reflexivity about the business of campaigns, how influence operations work. I do hope that people have much greater awareness and careful this around what happens online. So I think people are always skeptical now as to when something trends on Twitter, they would often see that as possibly a paid and possibly artificially boosted and coordinated. So there is that, but now that kind of accusation happens from both sides. So when like a pro Marcos hashtag is prominently trending, then they would think, “Oh, that’s artificial.” But also for the opposition and their kinds of operations too. So it will be very interesting to see. I think civil society has many more interventions this time around. So there’s a lot more fact checkers doing the work. Younger people are mobilized and volunteering in various capacities. So I’m still hopeful.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Are there legislative proposals coming up to suggest how to deal with these questions of [inaudible 00:25:31] influence? Right. So in the US, we’ve seen a lot of proposed legislation, although not much action. We have seen platforms like Facebook yet at least marginally better at disclosing political advertising. So that it’s possible to understand when your intention is being paid for. What’s on the table, as far as solutions to the routinization of disinformation in the Philippines?

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Great question. And I like your advice, Ethan. So there’s a series of Senate hearings I’ve been called to attend the Senate, this committee hearing for several weeks now. I’ve attended one and skipped one. What’s on the table’s not exactly promising to be honest. There’s top down legislation of defining fake news and going after the fake news purveyors, which we know like from the region Singapore, Malaysia, our neighbors like actually silence is dissent and will be used against the opposition. And I hope that the political opposition reflects and compares our situation with our neighbors because this proposal is coming from them. And I’m trying to tell them, “Hey, just look at your neighbor, our neighbors, for us to learn from about the unintended harms and consequences of these kinds of top down approaches.”

There’s another set of approaches, which tends to be more about media literacy. And again, about should we be looking more at our teachers, maybe including curricula around information literacy, obviously their strengths and weaknesses around this approach with a more longer term kind of effects and benefits in mind. And I think that’s something that there’s potential, but of course it’s not immediately tangible in terms of their benefits and consequences. The influence for higher dimension and creating transparency and accountability around that. I’ve been trying to advocate for this for the past six years, Ethan. And unfortunately, even working with a legal advocacy group, LENTE. So they’re a very well known civil society organization that does a lot of voter literacy and also improving access to voters. We’ve hit a lot of resistance from within the industry themselves. So even from people who we think would be like allies and sympathetic to accountability initiatives, if there’s any possibility that it might hit their bottom line, their financial bottom line, there would be resistance.

So what we’re thinking about, Ethan is possibly creating spaces that gather creative workers and empower them to speak out. So the possibility of this is if we gather creative workers and we know like these private conversations about, “Oh, we’re not happy that our firm is actually consulting for these politicians.” What if we empower them to speak out exchange stories, exchange coping mechanisms, and possibly also provide opportunities for whistle blowing that might also protect anyone who might want to speak out. Maybe they want to talk to researchers, to activists, to journalists, but be protected as well. So that’s something that we’re thinking about in the next few months.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So, we should take a moment to actually talk about perhaps the uniqueness of the press situation in the Philippines. And I’ll tell a story to get us there. The most recent time I was in the Philippines was for the Global Voices Annual Summit, which took place in Cebu seven years ago. And the reason it took place in Cebu was it was time for us to do a meeting in Asia. But it’s very hard for us to meet in Asia because we will only meet in countries that don’t have substantial internet censorship. And when we have to ask the question of where in Asia can we meet that doesn’t have substantial internet censorship, we basically had the Philippines and Sri Lanka. There just aren’t a lot of options to choose from. There’s such a strong culture of press control, particularly in Southeast Asia.

The Philippines on the one hand deserves enormous credit for a history of open combative investigative journalism. On the flip side, Maria Ressa, whose project the Rappler has become a major thorn in the side of the Duterte administration has been facing politically motivated charges, has been subject to arrest multiple court hearings, so on and so forth. Can I get you to give some predictions about the openness of the speech environment in the Philippines more broadly? Do you think we’re heading towards a less open environment? And also feel free to tell me that I’m wrong in my analysis of the situation.

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

I think your analysis is very precise and I think, it does acknowledge that history of being the liveliest press, the noisiest press. If you read like television histories and journalism studies accounts, and comparing media systems perspective around Asia, the Philippines will always be talked about as having the liveliest free press. And also in terms of civil society and activism, at least, if you read those books in the ’90s to early 2000. So over the past years, especially under the Duterte regime, so there’s a lot of legal intimidation, which I think some of them is much more acutely experienced than in previous administrations. It’s not entirely new in the sense that in previous administrations, including the Estrada administration, there was often the kind of intimidation would come from advertiser boycotts. So like the president’s cronies of course will control large conglomerates and multiple firms. They’ll be pressured to boycott certain publications that are deemed as too critical of the administration.

So that’s been the traditional tactic rather than overt censorship or blocking of certain either publications or websites. However, under Duterte you have Rappler, and also ABS-CBN. And there’s an element also of like very personal kind of grudges playing out as a press freedom experience. So that’s how Duterte and Maria Ressa… Ressa has been a thorn on Durtete side. And she has really brought like international allies to understand what’s going on in the Philippines and the fact that we will need international support and legal assistance as well and advice. In the case of ABS-CBN, it was an issue around ads that should have run on the network. And they were seen as or they’re perceived as aligned with another political family.

And so that’s where that plays out. So my prediction here, I think everyone is waiting to see like who gets elected. So our political system is very personality oriented and whoever is the president and it’s not always like ideologically clear cut what they stand for. And therefore personal grudges family backing and clan dynamics would be playing out here. So depending on who gets elected, there could be like an acceleration of those kinds of attacks on journalists and the free press. One thing to add, and I think is always important to acknowledge as well as the community journalists, those who are in the provinces, outside of Metro Manila, those who are doing community journal and speaking on local issues, there’s a long history of attacking them and them experiencing killings. And so in terms of those experiences, their stories are often overlooked as well.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So Jonathan, that actually reminded me of something that I wanted to say about what I admire so much in your work, which is that it’s incredibly compassionate. Every time I’ve seen you look at an issue, you make this incredible effort to think about the humanity of people involved, whether or not you agree with them and to understand their motivations instead of where they’re coming from. And I just want to thank you for the work that you do, and thank you for talking with us.

Jonathan Corpus Ong:

Yeah. Thank you so much. It’s been a delight to speak with you.

Ethan Zuckerman:

This is Jonathan Corpus Ong from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, my colleague and friend. This is Ethan Zuckerman with Reimagining the Internet. Jonathan, thanks for being with us.