University of Massachusetts Amherst: Communication’s Jonathan Corpus Ong’s ‘Catch Me If You Can’ Podcast Returns for Second Season

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“Catch Me If You Can,” an original podcast exposing shadowy digital influence operations in the Philippines co-hosted by Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of communication, returns for a second season Sept. 23.

The first season of the podcast invited listeners to hear directly from paid political trolls, influencers, and top-level strategists blowing the whistle on campaign strategies and “troll farm” operations in the Philippines, widely known as “patient zero” in the global fight against disinformation.

Released two weeks before the May 2022 Philippine elections, the first season of the show rocketed to the 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.

In six new episodes of the second season of “Catch Me If You Can,” Ong and co-host Katrina Ventura, an investigative journalist, interview meme factory operators, pseudonymous influencers and even those behind X-rated “alt accounts” who mix sexual posts with political commentary.

“Our show is about challenging easy stereotypes of who we think ‘trolls’ are,” Ong says. “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 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.’”

A community-engaged researcher, Ong was recently named one of 28 Andrew Carnegie Fellows, which recognizes his pioneering and influential ethnographic work on the identities and moral justifications of workers in disinformation-for-hire operations in Southeast Asia. His $200,000 fellowship grant supports research translated into public communication and policy advocacy.

For Ong, the podcast format is a powerful educational resource that translates academic work for lay and even expert audiences.

“As an educator, I’m encouraged by the popularity of the podcast among college students, young professionals and even fellow disinformation investigators,” he says. “My research papers have been out for over four years, but the podcast format attracted more people to my ethnographic work. Here’s their chance to actually listen to these perpetrators in the digital shadows.”

While the podcast dives deep into the shadowy corners of the Filipino internet, it also makes space for hope and humor. For example, Ong says that season two will discuss the “attention-hacking” achievements of queer influencers who mainstreamed LGBTQ advocacies in the last election cycle.

“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,” says Carl Javier, CEO of PumaPodcast, who oversees the production of the show. “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.”

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