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The Philippines, Disinformation and Facebook


By Kate Begley, BSc Politics & International Relations at The University of Bristol


The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is a populist strongman who deals with the disinformation we have gotten used to in modern politics. Facebook’s prominence in the Philippines has considerably aided Duterte’s weaponisation of disinformation since his rise to power. We have learnt in recent years, Facebook’s growing role in national politics and elections, and the Philippines shows just how detrimental this can be. Duterte is now beginning to push back as the platform attempts to respond to activists and grapple with its ‘fake news’ problem.


Free Basics

For Facebook, the Philippines represents the successful uptake of its ‘Free Basics’ program; bringing free internet access to people who might otherwise be without it. The Philippines was particularly susceptible to the program because of a previous lack of investment in its Information Communication Technology Infrastructure (1). Signing up to Facebook in the Philippines means the company will provide free data to mobile users. However, when visiting other sites such as mainstream media outlets users will face costs (2). Thus, for many, Facebook is the internet, pushing much of the country’s political and social discourse onto the platform.


Duterte and Facebook

In September of this year Duterte turned on Facebook after it took down pages for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” (3). Facebook has done this before, in March 2019, over 200 accounts were taken down for the same reason with links found to Duterte’s campaign manager Nic Gabunada (4). After Facebook’s most recent action against the administration, Duterte questioned what the “purpose” of the platform was and called into question whether the company would be able to operate in the Philippines anymore (5). Whether anything will come from this is unclear as the reality is, Facebook has worked very well in Duterte’s favour for the past four years.


Duterte’s Campaign advisor La Viña describes the online strategy as to play off anger, building on what he calls Duterte’s “emotional self” which was “perfect for Facebook” (6). During the 2016 election, the platform was inundated with support of Duterte, and attacks on his opponents. Mostly made up of false claims and abusive attacks, it resonated throughout national politics and helped him gain 40 per cent of the vote and win the presidency (7). After Duterte’s victory, his spokesperson thanked what he called the ‘volunteers’ posting on social media in support of the candidate (8).


One of the methods used by these ‘Keyboard warriors’ is ‘individual targeting’; abusive and threatening language, as well as false claims directed at anyone opposing the administration (9) (10). Victims include activists such as Jover Laurio, who was forced to reside in a safe house with bodyguards after many threats were made towards her online (11). A political opponent of the president, Senator Leila De Lima, faced major disinformation campaigns spurred on by misogynistic comments made by Duterte himself. Lima was arrested on “trumped-up” drug charges and has been in jail since February 2017 despite calls from Amnesty International for her release (12). Duterte has also tried to discredit mainstream media. Attacking the likes of Maria Ressa, the founder of investigative journalism outlet Rappler, with the help of groups online. Ressa, whose news website has been banned from the presidential palace is currently on bail for a series of charges issued in June 2020, all of which she denies (13). These social media campaigns supplement the president’s ability to silence critics through more traditional authoritarian methods.


While the online activity might appear like grassroots activism, the reality is far more organised and far less democratic. For instance, in 2016 Nic Gabunada, Duterte’s campaign manager paid a total of 200,000 USD towards the promotion of Duterte through famous online figures (14). However, it’s the fake accounts that Facebook has taken action against, describing them as organised groups “misleading others about who they are and what they are doing” (15). Reporting has shown that these groups run multiple accounts each with coordinated messaging (16) (17). Topics included elections, allegations directed at opponents and attacks towards media outlet Rappler (18) (19). The prevalence of online support for the president has helped cement his incredibly high approval rating now at around 92 percent (20).


Facebook’s Responsibility

Activists have outlined how vital Facebook’s algorithm is in the proliferation of disinformation and abuse. As David Runciman describes “the opportunity to make money from fake news arises out of the business model of the internet, which is advertising” (21). Meanwhile,‘sensational’ and emotional content will be promoted, regardless of its truth or origins, to hold your attention (22). Given the extent to which Facebook has created the problem, activists are now calling for the platform to take more responsibility. Journalists from Rappler helped make Facebook aware of the most recent set of fake accounts as it continues to act as a fact-checking partner for the company (23) (24). For many, this isn’t enough, urging Facebook to consider the moral duty they have, given the power of the technology they have created (25). Maria Ressa herself experience Facebook’s lack of action as she faced trolls online, attempting to silence her; she believes they must do more (26).


Conclusion

In the Philippines, Facebook has become a powerful tool for the administration and its supporters to embolden themselves and shut down their opponents. Duterte’s administration has harnessed Facebook to empower themselves at the expense of truth and of civility online and in the public sphere. Recently Duterte asked of Facebook “What would be the point of allowing you to continue if you cannot help us?” (27). Facebook must consider who it is ‘helping’, as without a more substantial crackdown on disinformation, bots, and online abuse, it is as much a tool for the oppressor as it is for the freedom fighter.



References:

1. Teehankee, Julio C. and Calimbahin, Cleo Anne A. (2020) ‘Mapping the Philippines’ Defective Democracy’, Asian Affairs: An American Review, 47(2), pp. 97–125. doi: 10.1080/00927678.2019.1702801.

2. Williams, Sean. (2017) ‘Rodrigo Duterte’s Army of Online Trolls’, The New Republic, 4 January. Available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/138952/rodrigo-dutertes-army-online-trolls (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

3. ‘Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior’ (2020) About Facebook, 22 September. Available at: https://about.fb.com/news/2020/09/removing-coordinated-inauthentic-behavior-china-philippines/ (Accessed: 7 November 2020).

4. ‘Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior From the Philippines’ (2019) About Facebook, 29 March. Available at: https://about.fb.com/news/2019/03/cib-from-the-philippines/ (Accessed: 7 November 2020).

5. Gutierrez, Jason. and Mozur, Paul. (2020) ‘Duterte Lashes Out at Facebook After It Takes Down Fake Accounts’, The New York Times, 29 September. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/business/rodrigo-duterte-facebook-philippines.html (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

6. Alba, Davey. (2019) Duterte’s Drug War And The Human Cost Of Facebook’s Rise In The Philippines, BuzzFeed News. Available at: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/daveyalba/facebook-philippines-dutertes-drug-war (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

7. Gutierrez, Jason. and Mozur, Paul. (2020) ‘Duterte Lashes Out at Facebook After It Takes Down Fake Accounts’, The New York Times, 29 September. Available at:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/business/rodrigo-duterte-facebook-philippines.html (Accessed: 30 October 2020)

8. Williams, Sean. (2017) ‘Rodrigo Duterte’s Army of Online Trolls’, The New Republic, 4 January. Available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/138952/rodrigo-dutertes-army-online-trolls (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

9. Bradshaw, Samantha. and Howard, Philip. N. (2017) ‘Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation’, p.37.

10. Alba, Davey. (2019) Duterte’s Drug War And The Human Cost Of Facebook’s Rise In The Philippines, BuzzFeed News. Available at:

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/daveyalba/facebook-philippines-dutertes-drug-war (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

11. Alba, Davey. (2019) Duterte’s Drug War And The Human Cost Of Facebook’s Rise In The Philippines, BuzzFeed News. Available at: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/daveyalba/facebook-philippines-dutertes-drug-war (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

12. Jones, Huw (2019) CURRENT CAMPAIGN: Human rights in the Philippines- Leila de Lima.

Available at: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/groups/mid-warwickshire/current-campaign-human-rights-philippines-leila-de-lima (Accessed: 7 November 2020).

13. Gutierrez, Jason. and Mozur, Paul. (2020) ‘Duterte Lashes Out at Facebook After It Takes Down Fake Accounts’, The New York Times, 29 September. Available at:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/business/rodrigo-duterte-facebook-philippines.html (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

14. Williams, Sean. (2017) ‘Rodrigo Duterte’s Army of Online Trolls’, The New Republic, 4 January. Available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/138952/rodrigo-dutertes-army-online-trolls (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

15. ‘Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior From the Philippines’ (2019) About Facebook, 29 March. Available at: https://about.fb.com/news/2019/03/cib-from-the-philippines/ (Accessed: 7 November 2020).

16. Gavilan, Jodesz. (2016) Duterte’s P10M social media campaign: Organic, volunteer-driven, Rappler. Available at: https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/podcasts-videos/rodrigo-duterte-social-media-campaign-nic-gabunada (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

17. Bradshaw, Samantha. and Howard, Philip. N. (2017) ‘Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation’, p. 37.

18. ‘Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior From the Philippines’ (2019) About Facebook, 29 March. Available at: https://about.fb.com/news/2019/03/cib-from-the-philippines/ (Accessed: 7 November 2020).

19. ‘Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior’ (2020) About Facebook, 22 September. Available at: https://about.fb.com/news/2020/09/removing-coordinated-inauthentic-behavior-china-philippines/ (Accessed: 7 November 2020).

20. ‘Pulse Asia Research Inc. – Opinion Polling’ (2020). Available at: http://www.pulseasia.ph/ (Accessed: 7 November 2020).

21. Runciman, David. (2018) How Democracy Ends. Main edition. Profile Books.

22. (The Center for Humane Technology).

23. ‘Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior’ (2020) About Facebook, 22 September. Available at: https://about.fb.com/news/2020/09/removing-coordinated-inauthentic-behavior-china-philippines/ (Accessed: 7 November 2020).

24. Alba, Davey. (2019) Duterte’s Drug War And The Human Cost Of Facebook’s Rise In The Philippines, BuzzFeed News. Available at: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/daveyalba/facebook-philippines-dutertes-drug-war (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

25. Social Good Summit 2016: Panel discussion on technology and public debate (2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZfnhUJMcRA (Accessed: 7 November 2020).

26. Alba, Davey. (2019) Duterte’s Drug War And The Human Cost Of Facebook’s Rise In The Philippines, BuzzFeed News. Available at:

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/daveyalba/facebook-philippines-dutertes-drug-war (Accessed: 30 October 2020).

27. Gutierrez, Jason. and Mozur, Paul. (2020) ‘Duterte Lashes Out at Facebook After It Takes Down Fake Accounts’, The New York Times, 29 September. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/business/rodrigo-duterte-facebook-philippines.html (Accessed: 30 October 2020).


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