Maria Ressa, cofounder of the Philippines’ largest online news site, Rappler had invited five candidates for the 2016 Philippine presidential election to a forum called #TheLeaderIWant. Only Rodrigo Duterte showed up. For the next two hours, Ressa lobbed questions at Duterte that had been crowdsourced on Facebook, the co-sponsor of the forum.
While the event elevated Ressa and her company, it also gave the then-mayor of Davao City, known as ‘the Punisher’ for his brutal response to crime, an exceptional opportunity to showcase his views. It was broadcast on 200 television and radio stations, and was livestreamed to more than 40 colleges across the Philippines.
The Philippines is prime Facebook country — smartphones outnumber people and 97% of Filipinos who are online have Facebook accounts. Ressa’s forum introduced Duterte to Filipino millennials on the platform. Duterte, a quick social media study despite being 71at the time of the election, took it from there.
He hired strategists who helped him transform his modest online presence. Since being elected in May 2016, Duterte has turned Facebook into a weapon. The same Facebook personalities who fought dirty to see Duterte win were brought inside the Malacañang Palace. From there, they are methodically taking down opponents.
As the campaign for the 2016 Philippine presidential election got under way, Facebook began receiving inquiries from candidates on how they could best use the platform. In January, the company flew in three employees who spent a week holding training sessions with candidates. When it was Duterte’s turn, the Facebook team trained the campaign staff in everything from the basics of setting up a campaign page to how to use content to attract followers.
Armed with new knowledge, Duterte’s people constructed a social media which relied on hundreds of volunteers to distribute messages created by the campaign across networks that included real and fake Facebook accounts, some with hundreds of thousands of followers.
Facebook initially started receiving complaints about inauthentic pages. It seemed harmless enough — they supported a range of candidates, and most of them appeared to originate from zealous fans. Soon, however, there were complaints about Duterte’s Facebook army circulating aggressive messages, insults and threats of violence. Then the campaign itself began circulating false information.
Duterte ended up dominating the political conversation so thoroughly that in April, a month before the vote, aFacebook report called him the “undisputed king of Facebook conversations.” He was the subject of 64% of all Philippine election-related conversations on the site.
After Duterte won, Facebook began deepening its partnership with the new administration, offering whiteglove services to help it maximise the platform’s potential.
Authoritarian regimes are now embracing social media, shaping the platforms into a tool to wage war against a wide range of opponents—opposition parties, human-rights activists, minority populations, journalists. The phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “patriotic trolling,” involves the use of targeted harassment and propaganda meant to go viral and to give the impression that there is a groundswell of organic support for the government. Much of the trolling is carried out by true believers,but there is evidence that some governments, including Duterte’s, pay people to execute attacks against opponents.
The Rappler data team had spent months keeping track of the Facebook accounts that were going after critics of Duterte. Ressa found herself following the trail of her own critics as well. She identified 26 accounts that were particularly virulent. They were all fake and all followed one another. Ressa and her team put all these accounts into a database, which grew rapidly as they began automating the collection of information. Today, the database contains more than 12 million accounts that havecreated or distributed pro-Duterte messages or fake news.
Facebook is inherently conflicted. It promises advertisers it will deliver interested and engaged users—and often what is interesting and engaging is salacious, aggressive, or simply false. But, it’s been under increasing pressure to act. In the Philippines, it began conducting safety workshops in 2016 to educate journalists and non-governmental organisation workers.
To Ressa, Facebook looks like a company that will take on anything, except protecting people like her.Share: