De Lima pushes for Senate probe on use of gov’t funds to support ‘troll armies’
MANILA, Philippines — Senator Leila de Lima is pushing for a Senate probe into reports that public funds are being used to pay online “troll armies” to “distort and manipulate” public discourse in the Philippines.
De Lima called for the immediate investigation through Senate Resolution No. 401 which directed the appropriate Senate committees to verify the veracity of several studies abroad explaining how the Duterte government has allegedly organized and operated troll farms to “parrot political propaganda” using fake or misleading information.
“[There is a need] to conduct an inquiry into the reports of public funds being spent to pay and maintain online trolls to distort and manipulate online information in various social media platforms in order to influence public opinion and political outcomes,” the senator, one of the staunchest critics of President Rodrigo Duterte said.
“It is against the interests of our country to fund online trolls who manipulate online discussions on national issues for political ends. These funds are better spent on education, alleviating poverty and improving our healthcare system,” she added.
De Lima cited a 2020 World Press Freedom Index published by Belgium-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which said that supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte have been using “call center hubs” to disseminate “fake or maliciously edited content and fake memes” for targeted harassment campaigns.
The RSF report is only one among the many studies from think tanks that exposed the supposed existence of “covert online trolls that are funded by millions of pesos that are most likely sourced from public coffers.”
She pointed to another report from the University of Oxford in 2017 which claimed that a total of $200,000 has been used to hire “trolls” to spread propaganda and to target Duterte’s political opponents.
She further referred to a report from US-based human rights group Freedom House which also alleged that the government has been purportedly paying individual “trolls” at least P500 a day to operate fake social media accounts supporting Duterte or attacking his detractors.
Malacañang has since denied such allegations.
These “troll armies,” De Lima claimed in her resolution “are being led by bloggers and social media personalities that have been appointed in various government posts for their rabid support of Mr. Duterte.”
Some of them are still “admins” of blogs and social media pages that are known to propagate fake news, she added.
“With the seemingly consistent findings of various studies of state-backed ‘troll armies’ in the Philippines, it is imperative for Congress to verify the integrity of these reports and probe if any appropriated government funds are used to maintain and pay online trolls by various bloggers and social media personalities with their capacity as appointed officials in various government agencies or by the President himself under various discretionary budgets under his office,” the senator said.
“Manipulation of public opinion through misinformation diminishes the level and quality of our national conversation and is ultimately detrimental to our democracy,” she added.