MANILA, PHILIPPINES — The popularity of the true crime genre is undeniable, with a plethora of television shows and podcasts falling under this umbrella of content. In the Philippines’ tense political environment, no crime is more compelling than the shadowy digital operations that aim to influence voters during elections.
Released two weeks before the May 2022 Philippine elections, the premiere season of Catch Me If You Can invited Filipino listeners to hear directly from paid political trolls, influencers, and top-level strategists blowing the whistle on campaign strategies. Co-hosted by pioneering disinformation researcher Jonathan Corpus Ong and journalist Kat Ventura, the show rocketed to Top 6 of Philippines podcast charts for its compelling commentary on how the digital economy spawns online trolls as insidious, complicit, yet sometimes exploited and sympathetic, workers.
The second season of Catch Me If You Can dropped on September 23. In six new episodes, Jonathan and Kat interview Kakampink “trolls,” beki campaign organizers, a meme factory operator, and even a sexy “alter” personality.
Jonathan said, “Our show is about challenging easy stereotypes of who we think ‘trolls’ are. For us to fight disinformation properly, we first need to understand in-depth who the enemy is. The trolls we meet in the show are not what you imagine as unthinking copy-paste operators stuck in a Davao call center; they’re college degree holders from good universities recruited for well-paying side gigs. Each episode has been a story of easy complicity with a powerful takeaway: ‘this could have been you!’”
For journalist Kat Ventura, the show’s long-term aim is to shift the public conversation. She said, “We want our podcast to discuss ethics – or the lack of it – in creative industries, media, and politics. We are very mindful about protecting our sources and we never want to name-and-shame any one individual. What we’re aiming for is more workers to blow the whistle on industries and organizations that make disinformation their profitable business.”
While the podcast dives deep into the shadowy corners of the Pinoy internet, it also makes space for hope and humor. For example, this season discusses the “attention-hacking” achievements of beki influencers who mainstreamed LGBTQ advocacies in the last election cycle. One episode features beki organizers and thirst trap Instagrammers who used satire and sexuality in their election messaging.
“We believe [the podcast] can reach listeners in a different way, deepen the discourse, and hopefully provide a space for people to listen to each other,” said PumaPodcast CEO Carl Javier. “Its first three episodes shot up the charts, and that tells us that this pod is important to people. It’s providing them with information and insight that’s helping them navigate the challenges of the disinformation landscape. I couldn’t be more excited to hear what Jonathan and Kat have in store in the coming episodes.”
For Jonathan, who is a full-time professor at the University of Massachusetts and Harvard University, the podcast is also a great educational resource for those interested in digital literacy and political communication. “As an educator, I’m encouraged by the popularity of the podcast among college students and young professionals. This is a show that educates young Pinoys, ‘Watch out, these are the steps how you yourself will be recruited to troll operations!’”