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PH social media in the age of digital disinformation

President Rodrigo Duterte, in his weekly late-night address last September 28, launched into a sudden tirade against Facebook. “Facebook, listen to me. We allow you to operate here hoping that you could help us also. Now, 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?” he said.

A few days before the address, two large networks originating in China and in the Philippines were taken down due to coordinated inauthentic behavior, which the social media giant described as when users use “deceptive behaviors to conceal the identity of the organization behind a campaign.”

The report said that the network spanned across hundreds of Facebook accounts, pages, and groups, publishing content that was supportive of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte’s supposed 2022 presidential bid and hostile toward youth activists and opposition groups.

Most notably, “links to Philippine military and Philippine police” were uncovered, the report noted, though both the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police had denied any association with the removed accounts.

Political campaigns behind social media

The Philippines remains as one of the top countries in terms of social media usage—particularly Facebook—making it fertile ground for strengthening and promoting political campaigns. And fertile ground it was: the Philippines made headlines last year when Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed how the country was used as a “petri dish” for the company’s propaganda machine.

Dr. Jason Cabañes, an associate professor from the Department of Communication who has done research on digital disinformation production, explains that the goal of these campaigns is not necessarily to persuade others to accept an alternative worldview but rather to give a voice to those who already believe in it, admitting that it is “very, very difficult” to change people’s opinions. 

“But what they can do is in the long term, they can work to shift the narratives around particular politicians or around particular political issues,” he notes. “They’re not making you change your mind now, but they’re setting the ground rules for their politicians to win…for political issues, political policies that they’re trying to push for to be supported later on.”

He cites how in the past few years, disinformation producers have presented authoritarianism as a “viable way forward,” especially when juxtaposed against the supposed oligarch rule in the country. “It is true in some ways that our democracy is elite and oligarchy and many people don’t like that,” he continues, “but the problem is that they proposed that instead of strengthening democracy, maybe we should experiment [with] authoritarianism again.”

Meanwhile, Atty. Jenny Domino, an associate legal adviser from the International Commission of Jurists whose work focuses on human rights and technology, imparts that the problem is also with platforms as they can let dangerous ideas go viral. “I think the problem is…when you have [a] government that makes statements that encourage violence in our society, [and] when you have social media platforms that don’t limit the distribution of misinformation and hate speech on the platform,” she elaborates.

Is regulation needed?

While Duterte’s remarks hinted at potentially regulating social media in the future, it would not be without precedent. Countries such as Germany have already adopted laws that compel social media platforms to impose stricter measures in removing illegal content and fake news, a move that some groups like Human Rights Watch argued might lead to excessive censorship.

Cabañes warns, however, that the Philippines should not tread a similar path. “Freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution and in particular political speech, so I understand that people are concerned about digital disinformation,” he says, “but the answer to that is not censorship.” 

On the other hand, Domino reasons that though government regulation is intrinsically not bad, it can be if the government “does not uphold and observe the human rights of people.” 

Rather than curtail freedom of speech, Cabañes suggests that policies should instead focus on stemming the growing disinformation industry. One way is to push for campaign finance regulation, which would hold politicians and campaign professionals accountable for the projects they undertake.

In 2018, lawmakers filed a bill that would have amended the Fair Elections Act, Cabañes recalls, but it failed to prosper in Congress. Domino proposes instead to draft policies that center around having social media companies be more transparent of their approved ad campaigns and moderate posts that come from state actors.

Aside from politicians, the digital influencer industry should also regulate itself “so that they don’t get tempted into supporting very problematic kinds of politicians and campaigns,” Cabañes notes.

But perhaps the group that is often overlooked but is nevertheless part of the industry is that of digital workers. Described by Cabañes as the “people that we get angry at” for flooding comments on social media, these individuals are often drawn into doing disinformation work out of financial necessity.

“If they get enough of a salary for doing legitimate kinds of work, [then] they [won’t be] tempted to go into the digital underground,” he further stresses.

Predictions for the future

Threats from the government, troll armies, and other online networking problems persistently advance throughout social media platforms in the Philippines, with national and local politicians allegedly contributing to the spread of digital disinformation. Political issues on various social media platforms continue to concern netizens for their safety and democracy. The future of social media remains in question.

Cabañes expects what lies ahead to be negative, though he remains hopeful. “It’s going to get worse if we’re not addressing the structural issues, and we are not,” he remarks. As a result, the digital disinformation industry is “growing evermore.”

On the other hand, Domino expresses fear for what lies ahead for social media, in terms of “what governments can do, especially if they’re not rights-respecting.” Moreover, she shares that states could potentially isolate themselves from the rest of the world through legislation of their own regulation laws. National regulation would divide the internet into geographic regions. 

However, social media platforms should also be held accountable and should be transparent with users once problems arise. “I think it’s also in the platform’s interest to follow global standards on freedom of expression and human rights,” she explains. “That’s something that they could legitimately use to counter government requests for takedown.”

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