, June 24, 2024

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Welcome to the Algorithm Nation


  •   5 min reads
Welcome to the Algorithm Nation
by Katrina Stuart Santiago

Been meaning to get this series off the ground, a way to keep track, make sense, maybe just take note of a Tiktok feed that is not mine, but which has been nurtured since November 2021.

When I say this feed is not mine, it is to say that its basis is not my personal taste nor my political leaning. Instead it is to say that this feed has been deliberately kept and consumed, which to an extent is to encourage and enable it, regardless of whether I agree with the content it cradles or not. My agreement is extraneous to this Tiktok feed; all it knows is my behaviour on the platform, which tells the internal logic of the app that this is the content that I want to see, that this is what interests me, that this is what I want more of.

This is not to say that I know completely how this algorithm works (I don’t think anyone does at this point—it is made in China after all and is devoid of any kind of transparency), but what I know for sure is this: this Tiktok algorithm is one that I have in common with Marcos-Duterte supporters—manufactured and otherwise. They are the ones creating content for it, spreading propaganda through it, and engaging in debates and discussions on it.

The other thing I know for sure: that another nation altogether unfolds here, on this algorithm that is not mine, that I would otherwise be removed from, that I would otherwise not see. What it carries are communities unimaginable to us, who live on other algorithms altogether, across the different platforms we inhabit.

**

What does this nation look like? What community does it build, and nourish, and nurture?

As expected, this Marcos-Duterte algorithm nurtures the Marcos myths, the ones that brought BBM into power. But two years into his Presidency, it cradles these myths to push BBM (and arguably, Manang Imee) propaganda, which takes pages if not whole chapters from the father’s playbook.

But even the old Marcos could not have imagined platform-based propaganda like this one, fuelled as it is by algorithms, maintained as it is by both organic and manufactured content. It takes so much less to keep an algorithm alive with positive content on your chosen subject. For BBM, all it takes is about one or two major events, usually early into the week (a Monday or Tuesday), that will then be uploaded by official accounts (RTVM, his own account), but which will be edited, re-edited, spliced, put on duets, reconfigured, reimagined, re-created ad infinitum into various content pushed across various accounts. Repetitive creativity is the name of the game; taking over the algo demands it. 

But nation isn’t just about the President here. This algorithm cradles the opposition to this government, too, and for over a year there was nothing and no one. The criticism that would get through were few and far between, and usually not done at scale, and so would be drowned out in the positive content. In recent months though what has surfaced as “the opposition” here are the Dutertes and their supporters—which is really no surprise given content coming from anti-BBM/FLAM vloggers, the Maisug rallies, and the Quiboloy broadcasting empire. The framing of Sara Duterte as a “victim” of Romualdez-FLAM, the notion that Duterte is the “better” President, the pro China propaganda—they all live here quite comfortably, and more and more, also at scale.

For the first time since 2022, the pro-Marcos content is up against an opposition in this virtual nation. It might not be an opposition we agree with, it might not even be a “real” opposition to us, but in this community that this algorithm builds, it is what nation looks like.

**

In this community, facts and truth hold no water.  In this nation, we are beyond the question of whether or not something is true or false; instead we are made to see the truthfulness in each kind of content, the honesty that is in propaganda. There is fact, after all, in showing BBM delivering ayuda to, say, Davao Oriental; that content recreates that into a celebration of him as “the best President ever!” who “cares for the Filipino” or “who takes from his father and mother” is literally beside the point. Not the main point, but just as important.

Content creation makes information malleable. How it is reworded, reimagined, re-written as content that can take both from fact and fiction is all about making it “real” to its target audience. When content says: “Ngayon lang tayo nagkaroon ng Presidenteng nirerespeto sa mundo! #BBM” with video of him looking dignified, shaking the hands of various world leaders, paralleled as these might be with Duterte looking silly at the APEC Summit, you know there is an audience for that. And it isn’t you or me, but this community, this specific audience, that will not be able to help but agree.

That this is also an audience that might even be encouraged to create their own content, to join in the Tiktok fray, get on the Marcos algo, find themselves in the same community of supporters, and who knows, earn some cash out of it, is of course also a function of Tiktok as platform.

Which is to say there is no one team that is generating this content: one senses that at the very least there has to be different teams doing different things given the variety of perspectives and the ways in which these are championed. There is even a sense that some accounts are doing this on their own, maybe because they truly do support the Marcoses, or are trying to get on the good side of those funding support content creation. Either way, there always seems to be clear guidelines for the kind of content that must be created, and at what point, towards responding to which criticism, or simply towards taking over the algorithm at any given time.

**

The Duterte years taught me that it did no one any good to be delusional about the algorithms we inhabit, believing that “ours” is more valuable than “theirs”, that one algorithm is more truthful than the other. At this point, where algorithmic divides have so deepened, these algorithms all carry their own truths; at this point, I am more interested in the truths these different spaces carry about nation, and how these affect policy, if not win elections.

Post-2022, here’s another thing I know for sure: the middle-class educated algorithms I inhabit on my usual accounts, those don’t win elections. At least not yet. And maybe the only way those algorithms will, is if I stop believing that it is more important than what is on this Marcos-Duterte Tiktok algorithm. In this community otherwise unseen, this nation otherwise unimagined, a part of who we are unfolds. How silly to think it doesn’t matter.


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