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VERA FILES YEARENDER: ‘No joke’: Satire increasingly used to spread disinformation in 2021

Humor is ingrained in the psyche of many Filipinos. It helps defuse tension when discussing controversial topics such as politics or social issues. But others see it as an opportunity to sublimely ridicule a person or a group for a matter involving them; taking offense is unwise because “talo ang pikon (sore loser),” so they say.

In 2021, VERA Files Fact Check observed a significant increase in satirical posts that were used to spread disinformation online, mainly to discredit public personalities. From Jan. 1 to Dec. 15, nine satire content out of 336 posts were fact-checked under VERA Files’ third-party fact-checking partnership with Facebook (FB), as opposed to two in 2020, one in 2019, and three in 2018.

This year’s top source of satire-turned-misinformation was Cebu Dairy News, a five-month-old spoof FB page of the Cebu-based digital news portal Cebu Daily News (CDN), with four absurd posts that confused or misinformed netizens.

Under FB’s third-party fact-checking program, satire is a type of content that “uses irony, exaggeration, or absurdity for criticism or awareness, particularly in the context of political, religious, or social issues, but that a reasonable user would not immediately understand to be satirical.” This includes articles or posts “not clearly labelled” or those from sites not widely known as satire.

Such content is also on the radar of fact-checkers since most netizens are unable to distinguish satire from legitimate news reports or real information. And worse, people share the satirical posts thinking they are true.

VERA Files Fact Check analyzed the satirical posts flagged this year and found the following patterns:

1. Main target of satire are government officials, administration allies

Six out of nine subjects targeted in the satire posts involved current and former government officials such as President Rodrigo Duterte, Vice President Leni Robredo, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and his children (Sen. Imee Marcos and presidential aspirant Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.). The others were actress and host Toni Gonzaga, a group of Catholic altar servers from Spain, and the Cebu-Cordova Link Expressway (CCLEX) bridge.

Creators of satire ridicule their subjects based on issues or events they are associated with, mostly about politics. Accounts flagged on FB and Twitter instigate criticism toward their targets by attributing nonsensical statements or providing inaccurate information that often contradict their usual tone or manner in communicating messages to the public.

For example, the Twitter account Duterte Watchdog aka Pretty in Pink presents satirized Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III after he and other senators questioned in January the government’s decision to buy 25 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from Chinese manufacturer Sinovac despite the absence of emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, and its relatively low efficacy rate. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Tweet about Tito Sotto computing COVID-19 vaccine efficacy a SATIRE)

Duterte Watchdog, which describes itself as an account that “(pours) ridicule in large amounts,” claimed that Sotto came up with an idea while in the shower that combining two doses of the Sinovac jabs with 50% efficacy rate each would sum up to 100%, better than Pfizer’s 96%. Sotto reposted a copy of the satire and labeled it as “fake news” after at least seven netizens circulated a screengrab of the tweet, raising a question on his intellect. Sotto lamented that amid a pandemic, many still spread “fake news” and disinformation to confuse the public.

All of the nine flagged satirical content were published and circulated online following an issue or event that transpired involving their subjects.

An example is the fabricated quote card of Imee Marcos defending her brother Bongbong from insinuations that he was a cocaine-user. It circulated on social media a day after Duterte claimed in a Nov. 18 speech that a certain aspirant, who belongs to a wealthy family and is popular because of his father, is a cocaine user. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Post with Imee Marcos’ comments on cocaine issue a SATIRE)

2. Only two social media pages are satire-oriented

Only the Cebu Dairy News and the Philippine Char FB pages disclosed in their profiles that they are satirical pages. Ten other FB accounts — four pages, three groups, three personal profiles — did not identify themselves as satirical accounts. The Duterte Watchdog Twitter account also did not have a “satire” label but it did introduce itself as a page that pours ridicule and that it was the “nemesis” of Duterte.

None of the flagged posts included satire labels, with many netizens who were unfamiliar or unsuspecting with such type of content having been confused about the posts’ veracity.

One example was when two pro-Duterte FB users shared on Feb. 13 a screenshot of an article by Adobo Chronicles, which publishes satirical content, claiming that Robredo declined an interview with journalist Stephen Sackur of the United Kingdom-based British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC). Citing the article, netizens questioned Robredo’s intelligence, saying the vice president must have been used to “scripted interviews,” that is why she feared facing Sackur. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Story of Robredo declining BBC interview is SATIRE)

There have been recurring calls, including an online petition, from as early as June 2017 from anti-Robredo netizens for her to appear in Sackur’s HARDtalk program, in which famous personalities are asked “hard-hitting questions and sensitive topics.” The petitions came after her opposition ally, former senator Antonio Trillanes IV, guested in the June 24, 2017 episode of the program, but some netizens claimed he didn’t fare well in the interview.

Another was a spoof by Cebu Dairy News on Aug. 31 regarding the CCLEX. Many netizens believed its satirical report claiming that contractors needed to extend the construction because the two segments of the bridge were misaligned. Some blamed the builders for “miscalculating” the bridge dimensions. Others insisted that engineers overseeing the project could not be mistaken while a few criticized the page for misleading the public. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Netizens believe SATIRE about tollway bridge in Cebu)

Cebu Dairy News refused to take responsibility for misleading readers, saying it “shouldn’t be [held] accountable” if netizens are unable to verify the authenticity of their content.

It warned in another post that it would be “banning people from different sides of [the] political spectrum,” whom it enumerated as the “DDS/Apologists,” referring to supporters of Duterte and the Marcos family, for fact-checking its posts even when they were following vloggers who often post “fake news;” and the “Pinkie” or supporters of Robredo who are “too intelligent to be on a satire page.”

3. Pro-Duterte, Marcos Jr. accounts amplified satire-turned-disinformation content

Majority of the FB and Twitter accounts that were flagged by VERA Files Fact Check are hyperpartisan, posting content critical to either the opposition or pro-administration personalities, particularly those who are running in the May 2022 elections.

Accounts that amplified or shared the flagged satirical posts are mostly pro-Duterte and anti-opposition groups, pages and netizens.

For example, the top amplifiers of Cebu Dairy New’ Nov. 3 post about a “new” P500 commemorative bill featuring Marcos Sr. were five FB pages that posted content favorable to Duterte, Marcos Jr. and his family, and were critics of Robredo and other personalities affiliated with the opposition. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas issued on Nov. 9 a statement denying that it was issuing a new P500 bill. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Post on P500 banknote to commemorate Marcos is a SATIRE)

Two pro-Duterte and anti-opposition pages were also amplifiers of the satirical post on Robredo declining an interview with the BBC.

Pro-opposition accounts have their share of disinformation in spreading satirical posts that particularly targeted Sotto and the Marcos siblings Imee and Ferdinand Jr.

A pro-Robredo FB user, the public FB group President Leni Robredo @ VP Kiko Pangilinan Tayo 2022!, and FB page Free Senator Leila De Lima, Kaisa Mo Kami were the top amplifiers of the satirical fake quote card of Imee with insinuations on drug use of her brother. Seven anti-Duterte netizens and the FB pages Bantay Nakaw Coalition and Kaya Di Umuunlad Pilipinas were the top sharers of the satirical tweet about Sotto’s supposed computation of the efficacy rate of Sinovac.

However, not all satirical posts flagged this year were amplified by political accounts. Presko Life, an FB page that posts content related to “illegal drugs,” is the only non-political account among the top amplifiers of satire this year.

The page is among the accounts that revived the two-year-old inaccurate report of Camanava News about altar servers in Spain who supposedly placed marijuana in an incense burner used during mass. This was a recycled satirical article from the Spanish-language website Hay Noticia. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Satire on altar servers putting weed in incense burner FALSELY claimed as fact)

4. Photo with text is the most used format

Among the nine satirical content, only one used a quote card and eight others were combinations of photo and text. Many readers were fooled because of the absence of labels that could help them identify the posts as satire.

Only the satirical post regarding Imee Marcos’ fabricated comment on Marcos Jr.’s alleged cocaine use was packaged as a fake quote card. It bore a photo of Imee, the fabricated statement, logos of several social media sites, and the text “Satire MemesHor,” which cannot be verified for its meaning. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Post with Imee Marcos’ comments on cocaine issue a SATIRE)

The posts of Cebu Dairy News, Philippine Char and Camanava News gained huge traction because their contents were disguised as legitimate news. Their tactic was to use an edited or file photo of the target, with overlaid text about the gist or headline of the fabricated report. Then, the photo is published with a caption, providing inaccurate information that could fool unsuspecting readers.

Unlike Camanava News, the format of the posts of Cebu Dairy News and Philippine Char could easily deceive unwary netizens because they imitate the design of social media content of legitimate media outlets that they spoof: the Cebu Daily News and the Philippine Star.

Two days after the Cebu Dairy News posted a satire that Duterte won an anti-corruption award from the United States government, Inquirer.net, a partner organization of Cebu Daily News under the Inquirer Group of Companies, issued a statement on Oct. 13 denying any affiliation with the spoof page.

Cebu Daily News asked followers on Aug. 2 to report the Cebu Dairy News to FB for using its templates and “making fun of important issues and personalities here in our community.” VERA Files has reached out to Cebu Daily News regarding the outcome of its complaint to FB regarding the spoof page, but it has yet to respond as of publication.

Tips to avoid falling for satire

One of the basic rules on social media is to always fact check before sharing a post. If the source is not provided in the post, you may ask for it or verify it on your own by checking news reports and official data from the government, among other sources. You may also visit the websites of fact-checking organizations, such as VERA Files, to see if they have already done a related fact check, or ask for their help to verify it. (See VERA, the truth bot: VERA Files Misinformation Tip Line and Does VERA Files accept fact check requests)

But if you’ve already shared a satirical post without properly identifying it as such, you need to inform your friends or followers by posting a correction in the caption or comment thread and explaining the nature of the original post.

To familiarize yourself with the red flags of satire, here is a list of fact checks produced by VERA Files Fact Check in 2021:

  1. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Tweet about Tito Sotto computing COVID-19 vaccine efficacy a SATIRE
  2. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Story of Robredo declining BBC interview is SATIRE
  3. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Satire on altar servers putting weed in incense burner FALSELY claimed as fact
  4. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Netizens believe SATIRE about tollway bridge in Cebu
  5. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Toni Gonzaga signing on as ‘PTV4 talent’ is SATIRE
  6. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Post on US award for Duterte a SATIRE
  7. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Post on P500 banknote to commemorate Marcos is a SATIRE
  8. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Post with Imee Marcos’ comments on cocaine issue a SATIRE
  9. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: SATIRE post on Bongbong-Sara caravan misleads


Have you seen any dubious claims, photos, memes, or online posts that you want us to verify? Fill out this reader request form.


Sources

VERA Files, database of fact-check articles from Jan. 1 to Dec. 15, 2021

Facebook.com, Rating Options for Fact-Checkers | Facebook Business Help Center, Accessed Dec. 13, 2021

Facebook.com, About Fact-Checking on Facebook | Facebook Business Help Center, Accessed Dec. 13, 2021

Cebu Daily News, Official Facebook page, Accessed Dec. 17, 2021

Senate of the Philippines, Committee of the Whole (January 11, 2021), Jan. 11, 2021

Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III official Facebook page, Sa kalagitnaan ng pandemiya…, Jan. 14, 2021

BBC, China bans BBC World News from broadcasting, Feb. 12, 2021

Cebu-Cordova Link Expressway official Facebook page, 14 METERS Good news! There… , Aug. 30, 2021

Toni Gonzaga official YouTube channel, The Greatest Lesson Bongbong Marcos Learned From His Father, Sept. 13, 2021

Adobo Chronicles, (satire article about Robredo declining an interview), Feb. 12, 2021

Twitter, (tweet of a netizen calling for Robredo’s guesting on BBC’s HARDtalk), Archived Dec. 18, 2021

Change.org, (petition to have Robredo on BBC’s HARDtalk), Archived Dec. 18, 2021

Get Real Philippines, Leni Robredo should redeem Trillanes’s dignity after it was crushed by the BBC’s #HARDtalk, Archived Dec. 18, 2021

BBC, HARDtalk – BBC World News, Accessed Dec. 18, 2021

BBC, HARDtalk with Philippines Senator – Antonio Trillanes, June 24, 2017

Twitter, (tweets about Trillanes on HARDtalk), Archived Dec. 18, 2021

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, BSP: No New Banknote Designs, Series, Nov. 9, 2021

Inquirer.net, INQUIRER.net disowns parody website, Oct. 13, 2021

Cebu Daily News, Tabangi mig report, Siloys!, Aug. 2, 2021

Sources from satirical social media pages

  • FB page Cebu Dairy News, About page, Archived Dec. 17, 2021
  • Twitter account Duterte Watchdog aka Pretty in Pink presents, profile, Archived Dec. 19, 2021
  • FB page Philippine Char, About page, Archived Dec. 17, 2021
  • FB page Cebu Dairy News, (satire on CCLEX), Archived Dec. 15, 2021
  • FB page Cebu Dairy News, (satire on Duterte award), Archived Dec. 15, 2021


(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)