“Facebook, listen to me. If [the] government cannot espouse or advocate something which is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose here in my country. What would be the point of allowing you to continue if you cannot help us?”
This was President Duterte’s reaction to Facebook’s announcement that it removed pages and accounts that violated its policies against “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
Based on the President’s statement, one would think Facebook took down the pages of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police.
The military and police said that all their official pages and accounts were still up. Officials also categorically denied engaging in the acts pinned on them by Facebook.
So what was the President angry about?
Between the time they denied any wrongdoing, and prior to the President’s remarks, the same military and police officials also defended the pages and accounts removed by Facebook. They said they were “advocacy groups” helping or are being helped by the state security agencies.
To be clear, Facebook did not specifically identify any of the removed pages and accounts. The military and police did. NTF-ELCAC strategic communications chief Lorraine Badoy did, too, and quite hysterically at that.
Oddly, the administrators and owners themselves of the removed pages and accounts have been quiet. Could their reactions indicate that the generals and Badoy are really the ones behind the pages and accounts?
Facebook security policy chief Nathaniel Gleicher was clear and categorical in his statement:
First: “We removed 57 Facebook accounts, 31 Pages, and 20 Instagram accounts for violating our policy against government interference which is coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a government entity.”
The Facebook official added that “about 276,000 accounts followed one or more of these Pages and about 5,500 people followed one of more of these Instagram accounts.”
Second: “This network consisted of several clusters of connected activity that relied on fake accounts to evade enforcement, post content, comment and manage Pages. This operation appeared to have accelerated between 2019 and 2020. They posted in Filipino and English about local news and events including domestic politics, military activities against terrorism, pending anti-terrorism bill, criticism of communism, youth activists and opposition, the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.”
Third: “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to Philippine military and Philippine police.”
The President’s angry reaction is by far the highest-level indirect admission that the government engages in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” He was not angry that the investigation found that the military and police were alleged to be behind committing online manipulation, using fake accounts, and attempting to conceal their activities. He was angry that the so-called “advocacy” pages and accounts were taken down, period.
For a President loved by ardent supporters for “authenticity,” the Facebook findings are a humiliation, and also casts doubts on claims that the regime enjoys widespread online support. If the administration, including the military and police, are confident in their true level of public support, why resort to online manipulation, fake accounts, and other forms of coordinated inauthentic behavior?
It is important to note that just last year, Facebook actually made a similar move, and identified Duterte’s 2016 digital director Nic Gabunada as the brains behind a network of pro-Duterte pages and accounts committing “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Gabunada is said to be the only person so far mentioned in such takedowns by Facebook, as most of its reports only mention state or non-state entities, not persons.
It is thus doubtful that the President and his closest advisers don’t know a thing about Facebook and social media. The administration has used social media to the hilt since Day One. The military and police have also been recruiting social media staff, and has conducted social media summits. In the aftermath of the enactment of the terror law, the new military chief also announced that steps would be taken to “regulate” social media.
Lawmakers should seriously consider investigating the findings of Facebook, not Facebook. Are the military, police, and Badoy administering these pages and accounts? Are public officials moonlighting as troll army commanders? Are precious public funds being used for this purpose? Are lives of innocent people put at risk by the red-baiting and red-tagging done through online manipulation — by fake accounts and through widely shared page posts masquerading as “advocacy”?
If they have nothing to hide, then the military, the police, and Badoy should not be afraid of any such inquiry by the House or the Senate. Facebook and independent, third-party digital security experts could be called in to present their investigation results, as well as digital logs and digital fingerprints of those behind online manipulation.
Actually Badoy could help clear the administration by voluntarily and unconditionally opening her Facebook account to scrutiny by Congress. As PCOO undersecretary for social media and as NTF-ELCAC strategic communications chief, she would most probably be the administrator of many government pages. She could also voluntarily submit to Congress the official email accounts she used for logging into these pages, and for official communications. If she and her staff have nothing to hide. This is also in accordance with jurisprudence on state officials’ communications forming part of public record.
Trust is important in the political space. Coordinated inauthentic behavior erodes trust among the public, and between the government and the public. As we quickly approach the elections, it is important for politicians and the public alike to take steps to restore or build trust in the arenas of public discourse and debate, and to demand authenticity.
Public officials and public offices found to have engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior should be held accountable for their abuse of power, misuse of public funds, possible plunder, and for putting their subjects at risk of serious harm.
This fight against online manipulation, which will benefit the country by restoring trust, is one genuine advocacy that the President should angrily pursue.