Chapter 8 - From 'likes' to leaders: The impact of social networks in the Philippines

Social news network Rappler.com has documented the latest presidential campaign in the Philippines. A highly-targeted social media campaign was instrumentalised to support the election of Rodrigo Duterte, then was turned against the president’s critics, opposition leaders and the traditional media. The government has thus succeeded in suppressing independent voices in favour of government messages.

Patriotic trolling, which an international research coalitionFootnote 40 defines as “the use of targeted, State-sponsored online hate and harassment campaigns leveraged to silence and intimidate individuals” is operating in the PhilippinesFootnote 41. With nearly 97 per cent of the Filipino population on the Internet using Facebook, the vulnerability of the Philippines to such campaigns has been identified and openly exploited.

Rappler journalists and data scientists have documented hundreds of web sites and millions of social media accounts and groups that methodically and consistently spread disinformation in the Philippines—culminating in a database of more than 11 million personal profiles and 250 million public comments (as of March 2017). This work has uncovered the emergence and evolution of a complex patriotic trolling network aimed at electing and supporting Rodrigo Duterte, the winner of the 2016 presidential elections.

To get a sense of the network’s reach and power, Rappler spent three months manually tracing a sample ‘sock puppet network’ of 26 fake Facebook accounts. These accounts were found to have influenced up to three million Facebook users. In addition, in November 2016, Rappler documented more than 50,000 accounts on Facebook that were under the direct control of the propaganda network, including fake accounts (some clearly centrally managed), paid trolls, and real supporters working to convince their families and friends. By April 2017, clear links with the state began to appear, most notably the office in charge of state media under Secretary Martin Andanar, the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO).

By mid-2017, patriotic trolling formed the foundation of the Philippine government’s information ecosystem, discrediting institutions, politicians and journalists who questioned or criticised its actions. This ecosystem’s priority is to defend President Duterte, now the most powerful Filipino leader in the last three decades, and his high popularity ratings. He controls a supermajority in the legislature, will appoint 13 of 15 Supreme Court justices, and has essentially dismantled any effective opposition.

Evolution of the machine and its targets

The first social media campaign to successfully elect a president in the Philippines tapped into collective and justifiable anger between economic classes. This campaign network was instrumental in electing the nation’s leader, Rodrigo Duterte. Broken into four different geographical groups, the distribution network on Facebook received daily messages from a central messaging group that worked with psychologists to design messages that would appeal emotionally for viral spread. Ironically, the social media networks created during the campaign were weaponised only after Duterte was inaugurated on 30 June 2016. The President then decided to boycott traditional media for approximately one month, triggering the second phase. In this phase, the network evolved, using more targeted and virulent strategies, which transformed existing campaign-based social media accounts to accounts meant to attack opposition leaders and traditional media. Harnessing its massive base, it acted to successfully stifle dissent and shape public opinion about controversial policies like President Duterte’s drug war, conspiracy theories, foreign policy, martial law and other government initiatives.

President Duterte’s goal was clear and effective: tear down the credibility of anyone questioning or critical of the government. By making an example of one citizen, one politician, one journalist, all brutally attacked online, it created a chilling effect that made many others afraid to speak out. One of the first targets was Senator Leila de Lima, former justice secretary and former head of the Philippines Commission on Human Rights. The attack on the senator was followed, in January 2017, by the targeting of other female politicians, including Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Risa Hontiveros.

ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television network, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the largest newspaper, were the first media targets in an effective campaign that pushed to tone down critical reporting. The Inquirer was targeted for its ‘Kill List’, its roster of people killed during the drug war. Shortly after the concerted attacks, the Inquirer abandoned maintaining the list, and both news groups backtracked on the number of people killed. Rappler maintains that, based on figures released by the police, about 7,000 people were killed in the drug war from 1 July 2016 to 31 January 2017. This amounts to approximately 1,000 people killed per month. After growing international condemnation, the Philippine government began to blur the actual numbers, changing its definitions and including deaths under investigation (DUI) as a new category created by the police.

This was followed by one of the most publicised outreach programs by the Presidential Palace or PCOO. Dubbed #RealNumbersPH, the government actively worked with bloggers from the social media propaganda machine to pressure traditional media to change their numbers to the new “official numbers”. During these months, any time anyone on Facebook brought up the rising death toll in the drug war, that person would be viciously attacked. The end goal was to silence criticism, effectively creating what mass communications theory calls a “spiral of silenceFootnote 42”.

Journalists and news groups, which once held the highest credibility ratings among public and private institutions in the Philippines, were systematically attacked and degraded, first on social media, then by government officials (including President Duterte). Many of the same themes that first appeared in the election campaigns were carried over and amplified: that journalists are corrupt; that news organisations are owned by oligarchs with vested interests; that clickbait headlines brought their own economic gains, etc. In 2016, President Duterte publicly and repeatedly threatened ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Patriotic trolling first focused on Rappler and its CEO after the company published a three-part social media propaganda series in early October 2016. Backed by data, it was the first time the full scope of the propaganda machine was unveiled publicly. The machine immediately retaliated, calling for attacks against the Rappler CEO that reached as many as 90 hate messages per hourFootnote 43 and a #UnfollowRappler campaign on social media that exposed the extent of its power in the virtual world.

By November 2016, online behaviour and data showed that the machine could command and influence a little more than 52,000 accounts, a significant number when compared to the 30,000 accounts that Facebook shut down in the lead up to the French electionsFootnote 44. Incidentally, Facebook later noted that its work during the French elections was shaped partly by the data Rappler had provided them as early as AugustFootnote 45.

Breaking down trust

The third wave of attacks began in early January 2017, first targeting Vice President Leni Robredo and other women leaders using half-truths, outright lies, sexism and misogyny.
Women are favoured and effective targets attacked, derided and ridiculed, often with demeaning sexual slurs and curses. This near-constant onslaught further polarised Filipino society and deepened the spiral of silence.

Social media accounts supporting and allegedly funded by the government actively worked to cripple trust in what was then a virtually non-existent opposition, and in journalism and other credible sources of information, working to replace them with the government’s voice amplified through social media. Fake news sites grew from 15 to more than 300 in a few months, spread by fake accounts, bots and ‘keyboard warriors’ sowing confusion and distrust, and leaving government with the loudest megaphone.

By February 2017, the propaganda machine focused on Rappler in near-daily attacks attempting to paint the start-up as foreign-owned or controlled by foreign interests in order to influence events in the Philippines. Despite repeated denials, many Duterte supporters believed the narrative repeatedly pushed by pro-Duterte bloggers, and a claim would be repeated several months later by President Duterte himself in his annual State of the Nation Address.

By mid-year, attacks on the media intensified. President Duterte again publicly attacked ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer while the propaganda machine attempted to trend #ArrestMariaRessa and paint Rappler as a tool for foreign intervention on social media.

State-sponsored attacks

By this time it was clear that the online propaganda machine was the harbinger and test site for government messages and attacks against its perceived critics. Rappler identified three key content creators of the propaganda machine, which segmented Filipino society by economic demographics: Sass Sassot for the pseudo-intellectual posts for the top one per cent; Thinking Pinoy (RJ Nieto) for the middle class; and Mocha Uson for the mass base.

The government closed the loop by bestowing Mocha Uson and RJ Nieto with government positions. Mocha Uson was appointed assistant secretary in charge of social media under PCOO; RJ Nieto is employed with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Transportation (DOTR). Their networks are also the government’s first line of alert and defence in crisis management. On 23 May 2017, the Philippine government declared martial law in Mindanao, changing the landscape significantly. The announcement was made from Moscow during a state visit to Russia, which included both Mocha Uson and RJ Nieto, and helped set the stage for the fourth wave of attacks, combining online and real world government actions to limit press freedom.

On 17 July, the Philippine Daily Inquirer called a general assembly and informed its staff that it would be selling the newspaper to Ramon Ang, a businessman with close ties to President Duterte. This development came after cases were filed against the family that owned the Inquirer, board members were threatened with tax cases, and an informal advertising boycott plunged its revenues by at least 40 per cent.

One week later, at the annual State of the Nation Address, President Duterte attacked RapplerFootnote 46, along with ABS-CBN and the UN, Barack Obama, the ICC and others. He would repeat the attacks against Rappler on three more occasions in the following three weeks. Incidents of harassment began that same week, with one of the pro-Duterte bloggers releasing all of Rappler’s financial statements on Facebook. This was followed by unprecedented requests and calls from the Security and Exchange Commission, which began a special panel investigation.

Role of US technology giants and the road ahead

The irony, of course, is that the greatest threat to democracy in the Philippines is enabled by US companies: FacebookFootnote 47, Google and Twitter. YouTube, the world’s second largest search engine operated by Google, is also a favourite and an effective platform for video attacks. The explosion of information and the black box of algorithms has demolished journalism’s role as gatekeeper, shifting the collective narrative from human editors to machines and algorithms.

The latest reports and analyses show that this rollback of democracy is occurring in at least 30 countries around the world, according to a November report by Freedom HouseFootnote 48. In the short-term, the solution to protect democracy is in the hands of these US companies as they learn to deal with the impact of the complex systems they have created. The medium-term solution is in greater media literacy and an acknowledgement of this world of exponential information lumping together truth and lies. In the long-term, it is education.

Tech giants need to build democracy into their algorithms and prevent autocratic governments from successfully building online armies. A difficult proposition when the platforms’ competing economic interests and mandates for growth are considered.

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