Harvard Study Examines the Social and Human Costs of Targeted Harassment to Human Rights Workers in the Philippines

Harvard Study Examines the Social and Human Costs of Targeted Harassment to Human Rights Workers in the Philippines

Cambridge, Massachusetts – A new study published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center discusses the social and human costs of disinformation and targeted harassment to the human rights sector in the Philippines. 

According to co-author Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong, Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, the aim of the report is to shed light on the challenges of being a human rights worker under President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent regime, where over 6000 have died from the government’s anti-drug war and over 100 human rights workers have been killed. Historically, human rights activists have been targets of enforced disappearances and imprisonment, but many have felt exceptionally destabilized by new information warfare, troll attacks, and conspiratorial narratives that have tagged them as unpatriotic or communist and criminal sympathizers. 

“Our study relates human stories of human rights workers doubly burdened with having to advocate for the many victims of abuses while evading targeted harassment and smear campaigns on social media,” Ong says. “Through interviews with workers and case studies of recent campaigns, we wanted to show how organizations and society at large can support these frontliners.”  

Ong and co-authors Jeremy Tingtiangko and Rossine Fallorina write in the report, “Human rights organizations adopted different survival strategies: some became frontliners by bravely calling out government abuses, while others we call backchannelers distanced themselves from ‘human rights’ as a label and focused on [delivering] essential services.”

Ong adds, “There is no one ‘best’ survival strategy or ‘best’ narrative that will magically win back public trust for the human rights sector. Moving forward, we propose creative collaborations with journalists and academics, investment in communication and tech infrastructure that can help correct false news and launch inspiring campaigns, and resources to support workers’ mental health and wellbeing”.  

In their research the authors identified what they call is a “disconnect”: While human rights workers admit that smear campaigns have undermined public trust in the sector, they have nevertheless failed to invest in hiring and supporting communication and technology workers that can actually help mitigate digital harassment and disinformation. 

In light of this, they enumerate different policy recommendations with how organizational leaders, donor agencies, and international allies can lend support to embattled yet persistent and inspiring human rights workers on the frontlines in the fight to uphold democratic principles. 

Recently the human rights sector has been inspired by positive developments in the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) call for a full investigation into suspected crimes against humanity by the Duterte government’s deadly drugs crackdown. Amnesty International described the investigation as a “landmark step”, which could provide “a moment of hope for thousands of families'” grieving loved ones in the country.

The Harvard study is entitled “Human rights in survival mode: Rebuilding trust and supporting digital workers in the Philippines.” This is supported by the “True Costs of Disinformation” initiative by the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard Kennedy School and by The Asia Foundation. Download for free at: https://mediamanipulation.org/research/human-rights-survival-mode-rebuilding-trust-and-supporting-digital-workers-philippines

Contact: Jonathan Corpus Ong, jcong@umass.edu