Dark Web connects PH to mass shootings in US, Filipino pols’ vanities
MANILA, Philippines – The dark corners of the Web are turning the Philippines into an international hub for internet trolling and operators of sites that make their life-changing impacts, like the massacre of 22 people in Texas, felt in as far as the United States, according to various reports gathered and studied by INQUIRER.net.
From a pig farm in an undisclosed location in the Philippines to popular coffee shops in the country’s urban business districts, the dark side of the Web is churning out material ranging from seemingly harmless but eyebrow-raising claims of popularity by Philippine politicians to lethal creeds of racism posted by the gunman in the El Paso, Texas mass killing on a supposedly free speech online forum called 8chan which is being run by an American expat in the Philippines.
While the Philippines is becoming an international hub for internet trolling that caters mainly to political clients, according to a Washington Post investigative report, other reports painted a blacker, deadlier picture of some web site operations originating from the country.
These included a site called 8chan on which a 21-year-old white supremacist posted what has been described as a creed against Latinos and “invasion” by immigrants before opening fire with an assault rifle at shoppers in a mall in El Paso, where eight out of every 10 residents are Latino, killing 22 people, including children, and wounding dozens of others.
The mass shooting was followed almost half-a-day later by another that claimed nine lives in Dayton, Ohio but the El Paso carnage offered clues to how the Philippines is becoming like a war room for internet operators that provide services akin to call centers but work in hard-to-detect anonymity which allows them to flaunt laws and shields them from accountability.
Haven in the Philippines
According to reports from Inquirer.net, Time.com, NY Times and Buzzfeed, the site 8chan is being operated by a retired American serviceman, identified as Jim Watkins and his son, Ronald, from an undisclosed location in the Philippines where Watkins chose to settle starting in 2007 after retiring from the US Army.
In February 2017, in an interview with Buzzfeed, Watkins gave out his location simply as a pig farm in the Philippines from where he runs 8chan and another site, Goldwater, which featured materials promoting now US President Donald Trump and bashing his critics.
Goldwater, according to the Buzzfeed report, also maintains a YouTube channel which greets visitors with a video clip featuring two “attractive” Filipino women, presumably Watkins’ employees, who recite reports “in accented English” that heap praises on Trump. Watkins appears in the video under a fictitious name, the Buzzfeed report said.
The former casino investor now US President is now being taken to task by anti-gun violence and anti-racism advocates in the US for fueling hatred against colored immigrants through his vitriolic rhetoric which was believed to have inspired the El Paso gunman. Such vitriol, coming from white supremacists ignited by Trump, has found a home in the Philippines through the web site 8chan.
Reports by INQUIRER.net, TIME.com and Buzzfeed identified the creator of 8chan as another American, who has also found a retirement haven in the Philippines, born-again Christian Fredrick Brennan who is now calling for the shutdown of the web site following the El Paso bloodshed. Brennan had passed on ownership of 8chan to Watkins in 2015.
The site was kept alive by Watkins, who also owns the web hosting company N.T. Technologies, according to TIME.com, and made money through a now-defunct Japanese porn site. “It doesn’t make money, but it’s a lot of fun,” Buzzfeed quoted Watkins as saying in the February 2017 interview, describing 8chan.
There was no mistaking who Watkins’ web sites—Goldwater and 8chan—were created for, if the Buzzfeed reports were to be read closely.
Goldwater appeared as a news page that carried headlines like “Anti-Trump Liberals Throw Tantrums by Refusing to Pay Taxes,” according to Buzzfeed. Its YouTube channel carried a video with the warning “The Shadow Government is Rumored To Be Conspiring Against President Trump.”
It’s not known how Watkins divided his time between maintaining the two web sites and his pig farm in the Philippines, but he posed for a photo for Buzzfeed carrying one of his piglets in his Philippine location. One of his videos showed him letting out smoke from vape as he sat in the middle of two Filipino women appearing to be busy with their laptops. The video was also presumably taken at the base of his operations in the Philippines.
The Buzzfeed report said 8chan also played a major role in the US elections that saw Trump become President. The report said the site became home to memes and conspiracy theories that grew out of a ‘fever swamp” of 8chan’s message boards. One of these online forums was named Bureau of Memetic Warfare where Buzzfeed said: “White supremacists and internet trolls join in their disdain of social justice warriors and mainstream media.”
Ron, Watkins’ son, was quoted in the Buzzfeed report as saying popular topics at 8chan during the US presidential elections were Hillary Clinton, Trump’s main election rival, Trump’s rallies, US Vice President Mike Pence. Some users, Ron said in the Buzzfeed report, were against Trump, though.
Freedom to hate
8chan, Ron said in the Buzzfeed report, was where people have the freedom to say what they want.
“If you want to say nigger, of course, you should be able to say that,” Ron was quoted by Buzzfeed as saying.
He said he believed 8chan “helped get Trump elected,” according to Buzzfeed, but there’s no way to verify this. 8chan’s audience, however, was huge, Ron told Buzfeed. “You’ve got a million people a day looking at 8chan, on a good day. It’s huge,” Ron was quoted as saying.
According to Watkins in the Buzzfeed report, a Trump ad ran on 8chan for “most of the election.”
8chan is now being investigated for other hate crimes in the United States, according to CNN, although it’s not clear if the investigation would carry over to the Philippines, where 8chan is being operated.
PNP takes notice
The Philippine National Police (PNP), however, has taken notice and PNP Chief Oscar Albayalde ordered the PNP Anti-Cybercrime Group (ACG) to verify reports on 8chan.
The New York Times had described 8chan as a “megaphone for gunmen” and has been a “go-to resource for violent extremists,” saying at least three mass shootings this year — including the shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, and mosque killings in Christchurch, New Zealand — have been announced on the website’s messaging board before the killings were carried out.
Albayalde said shutting down 8chan, however, would follow a process of investigation and would depend on “what we will see.” The PNP, he said, has to write a formal complaint that would lead to the site’s closure.
“It depends on its connections, on what we see, especially if there are locals involved,” said the Philippines’ highest-ranking police official.
He noted, though, that mass shootings in the United States were not likely to happen in the Philippines because of “very strict” laws on gun ownership which require applicants to pass neuropsychiatric tests before being given permits to own or carry a gun.
Such gun regulations, like those in the Philippines, are being called for by Democrats and anti-gun violence groups in the United States but are being thwarted by the powerful lobby of the US’ National Rifle Association.
Trolls coming your way
The controversial web site, however, is just but one of dozens of internet operations in the Philippines that is turning the country into what could be the nucleus of a much broader, a worldwide phenomenon now known as trolling.
Other operations, seemingly benign but as impactful as providing an online home to racists, had taken the Philippine political world by its horns and appeared to have grown into a global industry threatening to extend its influence thousands of kilometers from the Philippines, according to Washington Post’s (Wapo) investigative report.
Such operations, using the internet as both battleground and tool, could be described simply as “political manipulation,” the Wapo report said. It feeds mainly on falsehoods and embellished facts, the report said.
Although run by mainly Filipino internet brains, the troll operations were already showing signs of going global especially during these times when the United States and other countries “move into another election cycle in the troll age,” said the Wapo report.
“This is what disinformation will look like in the U.S. in 2020,” the report cited Camille Francois, chief innovation officer of the New York-based social network analysis firm Graphika.
“The Philippines shows us trends that are headed this way,” Francois said in the Wapo report.
The trolling operations may appear to be simple. Troll brains would hire internet habitues in the Philippines, where internet use is among the highest in the world, to create false accounts. According to the Wapo report, such an operation may require thousands of SIM cards which would be used to open fake accounts if real phone numbers were required by social network sites like Facebook or Twitter.
These troll operators, according to Wapo, “are dramatically altering the political landscape in the Philippines with almost complete impunity—shielded by politicians who are so deep into this practice that they will not legislate against it and using the cover of established PR firms that quietly offer these services.”
One trolling mission followed by Wapo in its report involved a candidate for the Philippine Senate for which the mission was to “cook up fake social media accounts to make it appear as if the candidate had a vast and fervent base of supporters.”
“Another goal was to smear any critics,” the Wapo report said. “Across the Philippines, it’s a virtual free-for-all. Trolls for companies, Trolls for celebrities. Trolls for liberal opposition politicians and the government. Trolls trolling trolls,” it said.
One troll mission observed by Wapo and cited in its report involved a candidate for a senator who hired 24-hour trolls to launch a barrage of messages of support for the candidate and bashing to his critics on Twitter and Facebook.
“Fans leaped to his defense, debated his critics and sang praises for his leadership style,” said the Wapo report. “Except it is all an illusion, manufactured by hundreds of fake accounts all meticulously tracked on a spreadsheet,” the report said.
The candidate lost but came close. The debacle, however, did not prove to be disheartening for the troll operators.
“Several paid troll farm operations and one self-described influencer say they have been approached and contracted by international clients, including from Britain, to do political work,’ said the Wapo report. “Others are planning to expand overseas, hoping to start regionally.”
Wapo also reported on another side of the operations, called “positive trolling,” with one operator telling the newspaper that positive trolling is being used to counter online attacks on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose operators also relied heavily on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Duterte supporters, according to the Wapo report, had “turned online intimidation into an art.”
The troll operator interviewed by Wapo for its report said he watched from the sidelines in 2016 “when Duterte and his allies harnessed the power of self-declared patriots online and turned them into an organized cyber mob—the Diehard Duterte Supporters, or DDS.”
Some Philippine trolls, the Wapo report said, operate unnoticed in coffee shops, like Starbucks which offer wi-fi connection for coffee, where online battles between rival trolls sometimes take place.
So the next time you see someone intensely focused on his or her laptop, mobile phone or tablet at your favorite coffee shop, don’t be surprised if he or she is a troll. With a report by Cathrine Gonzales
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