A warning to candidates, Comelec and citizens

Published October 23, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Tonyo Cruz


Tonyo Cruz

There’s no doubt that social media would play a key role both as political arena and mass media for the 2022 elections. But candidates, parties, government, media and voters have to be warned about pernicious dangers that they have not been able to recognize or address.

Whether it is the administration or Congress, neither have taken action on Facebook reports on “coordinated inauthentic behavior” released in Oct. 2018, January 2019, March 2019 and Sept. 2020.

Media reports, studies and surveys on it since 2017 have also tried to educate policy-makers, political actors and the public on networks of disinformation, including the use of fake accounts to misrepresent who the authors of disinformation are and also the objective of affecting public opinion on domestic politics.

The Commission on Elections cannot ignore these reports. Left unchallenged, Pages, Groups and accounts funded or directed by foreign interests and government instrumentalities are freely interfering or meddling in our elections. They’re violating the law.

It is easy to claim that fake news is the problem. But the real problem is the unchecked rise of networks that use fake, poser and inauthentic accounts that pretend to be ordinary Filipinos or media networks and spread false information in a coordinated manner.

The problem is huge. Facebook’s four takedowns from 2018 to 2020 involved 424 Pages and 49 Groups. Small as the numbers may seem, their reach was at least 51,809,000 individuals on Facebook or about half of the Philippine population.

Facebook’s last report illustrates the danger they pose as we start the 2022 election season.

In September 2020, Facebook reported that it removed 155 accounts, 11 Pages, nine Groups and six Instagram accounts for violating its policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on behalf of foreign or government entity.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals in the Fujian province of China,” said Facebook in a statement.

About 133,000 accounts followed one or more of these Pages, around 59,000 people joined one or more of these Groups, and about 150 accounts followed one or more of these Instagram accounts.

The Facebook report said it found “several clusters of connected activity that relied on fake accounts to pose as locals in countries they targeted, post in Groups, amplify their own content, manage Pages, like and comment on other people’s posts”.

“They posted in Chinese, Filipino and English about global news and current events including Beijing’s interests in the South China Sea; Hong Kong; content supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte and Sara Duterte’s potential run in the 2022 presidential election; criticism of Rappler, an independent news organization in the Philippines; issues relevant to the overseas Filipino workers; and praise and some criticism of China. In the US, where this network focused the least and gained almost no following, they posted content both in support of and against presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Donald Trump.” Facebook describes coordinated inauthentic behavior as concerted efforts on its platform by individuals or networks to “mislead people about who they are and what they’re doing”. Foreign interference meanwhile refers to “foreign-led efforts to manipulate public debate in another country”.

In both, Facebook said that “fake accounts is central to the operation”.

In the same report, Facebook also bared that it took down a separate network, one managed by the Philippine police and the military.

Facebook swooped down on 64 Facebook accounts, 32 Pages and 33 Instagram accounts.

“About 209,000 accounts followed one or more of these Pages and about 5,500 people followed one of more of these Instagram accounts,” said Facebook.

Facebook explained that the network posted 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.” “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to Philippine military and Philippine police,” said Facebook.

Hopefully candidates, parties and responsible government officials would take notice and take action. Let’s make sure candidates know and they provide platforms addressing the issue of these networks of misrepresentation and disinformation.