AFP, PNP disown pro-Duterte accounts shut down by Facebook
MANILA, Philippines — Facebook has taken down more than 100 fake domestic accounts and pages linked to the Philippine military and police that target activists and dissidents, and over 150 others based in China that support President Rodrigo Duterte and the possible presidential bid by his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.
In separate statements on Wednesday, the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines disowned the alleged fake social media accounts linked to them.
Malacañang said the social media giant should be prudent in removing accounts to ensure it was not biased.
In an online press conference on Tuesday night, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s cybersecurity policy chief, said the fake accounts had engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB), which violated its community standards.
Facebook said the first cluster of fake accounts, which it traced to China’s southeastern coastal province of Fujian, was focused more on Southeast Asia, with posts written in Chinese, Filipino and English.
It said it removed 155 accounts, 11 pages, nine groups and six Instagram accounts dealing with criticisms of the news site Rappler, support for the President and his daughter’s potential run in the 2022 presidential election, and Beijing’s interests in the West Philippine Sea and Hong Kong.
Gleicher said these individuals in Fujian had evidently been active since at least 2018 and recently “focused the least and gained almost no following” when they posted content both in support of and against US presidential candidate Joe Biden and President Donald Trump.
Facebook was not able to pinpoint the links of this China-based cluster to specific groups or individuals.
Such CIB actors engage in, or claim to engage in, “foreign or government interference, which is coordinated inauthentic behavior conducted on behalf of a foreign or government actor,” Gleicher said.
Gleicher said the Philippine and China clusters also used “deceptive methods.”
“So we regularly see these networks using pages that don’t fully disclose who’s behind them. The patterns of engagements that they may have with these accounts aren’t just the fact that they’re fake, but it’s how they use the accounts to boost their contents,” he added.
The account holders would have had to circumvent China’s “Great Firewall,” which bans the US social network. Gleicher said the people running the pages posed as locals in places they targeted and tried to hide their locations using virtual private network software.
He said the bogus Philippine accounts consisted of 57 Facebook accounts, 31 pages and 20 Instagram accounts. The sites had over 276,000 followers on Facebook and 55,000 on Instagram. Around $1,100 had been spent on ads on Facebook, he said.
Terror law, ABS-CBN
The Philippine accounts appear to have been part of systematic propaganda against “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,” Facebook said.
The operation appears to have ratcheted up between 2019 and 2020, coinciding with the debate on, among other things, a then-pending antiterrorism law, increased Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea, and the closure of the ABS-CBN network, it said.
“We are attributing this network to the Philippine military and the Philippine police. In particular, we found links between, behind this network connected to both of these organizations and individuals associated with those organizations,” Gleicher said.
He added that “people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities,” but Facebook was still able to establish their connections.
Facebook said these accounts were uncovered during its regular investigations of CIB, which it broadly defines as using fake accounts to, among other reasons, “artificially boost the popularity of content.”
In a statement, the rights group Karapatan — one of the organizations often linked to communist insurgents and vilified by the military and the police — said the takedown was “damning evidence of state-sponsored online attacks, Red-tagging and mass deception in the social media platform.”
Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said the group had written Facebook and the Commission on Human Rights in June, urging them to investigate the online red-tagging, when duplicate accounts also emerged.
“These forms of online disinformation and lies have put the rights, lives and security of human rights defenders — and even ordinary individuals — at grave risk for voicing out dissent against the government’s antipeople policies. However, the more pressing question before us now is: Was taxpayer money used to fund these Facebook accounts?” she said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate, another red-tagging victim, said the House should also investigate these accounts as public funds could have been used to bankroll these operations.
He pointed out that the operations of these accounts intensified when the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) was “in full swing.”
In a statement, Gen. Camilo Cascolan, the PNP chief, said all official Facebook pages of the PNP and its units “remain compliant with standards and continue to serve its purpose along these objectives.”
“All comments and opinions of individual personnel, associations and sectoral groups on matters that are not related to the organization’s activities are hereby disowned by the PNP as unofficial and unauthorized,” Cascolan said.
In a separate statement, Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, spokesperson for the military, said all the social media accounts of the military were still “up and running,” and none had been shut down by Facebook.
Gen. Gilbert Gapay, the AFP chief of staff, said Facebook’s action “prompted us to review the personal accounts of our personnel and remind them of the policies and the etiquette, do’s and dont’s of what to post on social media.”
Gapay and other military officials met with executives of Facebook Philippines on Wednesday afternoon, but details of the meeting were not immediately available.
Reacting to the clampdown, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Malacañang was leaving the removal of the fake accounts to Facebook’s “sound judgment and discretion.”
“We hope the social media giant would exercise prudence in all its actions to remove any doubt of bias given its power, influence and reach,” Roque said.
—With reports from Leila B. Salaverria, Nestor Corrales, Melvin Gascon and AFP
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