AFP wants ‘advocacy’ accounts back on Facebook
The Armed Forces of the Philippines wants Facebook to restore the accounts of private promilitary “advocacy” groups which were taken down by the social media giant for violating its standards, military spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said on Thursday.
Arevalo said Gen. Gilbert Gapay, the chief of staff, asked Facebook head of public policy in the Philippines Clare Amador in a meeting on Wednesday whether they could restore specifically the Hands Off Our Children (HOOC) page.
He did not identify the other groups, saying only that they were “of similar advocacies like preventing child exploitation and trafficking of minors, and combating terrorism.”
Arevalo said Gapay urged Amador and her team “to look into the process they observe in unilaterally removing accounts and for them to give due regard to the cause the account owner espouse to remove doubts of FB being partisan.”
Facebook on Tuesday announced that it had taken down more than 100 fake accounts and pages linked to the Philippine military and police that targeted activists and dissidents, and over 150 others based in China that supported President Duterte and the possible presidential bid by his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.
Facebook said these accounts, whose true owners were not fully disclosed, had engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which violated its community standards. That is broadly defined as using fake accounts to, among other purposes, “artificially boost the popularity of content.”
The promilitary accounts appear to have been part of a 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. Their operation intensified between 2019 and 2020, coinciding with the debate on, among other things, the then pending antiterrorism law, increased Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea and the closure of the ABS-CBN network, it said.
The HOOC page was found to have been administered by Army Capt. Alexandre Cabales, chief of the Army Social Media Center.
The Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) of the US-based Atlantic Council found that Cabales was also the operator of a network of fake accounts that had been “demonizing leftists and youth organizations” and “Red-tagging the President’s critics.”
Army defends captain
Speaking to the Inquirer by phone, Philippine Army spokesperson Col. Ramon Zagala decried the DFRLab’s “sweeping” statement against Cabales and asked for its basis in making accusations against the officer.
“We will not tolerate any wrongdoing or inaccurate information and we are confident that Captain Cabales is not doing that. That is why we’re alarmed. If they have evidence, I think they should present or Facebook should tell us,” he said.
Zagala said Cabales told him he had not posted “anything inaccurate” and that HOOC was a group of “parents looking for their children who were recruited by the New People’s Army.”
“This is a legitimate advocacy,” he said, adding that it was the parents who asked Cabales to be the page administrator.
Zabala said the HOOC was not an official page of the AFP but the group’s advocacy “is okay for us.”
“We are making an inquiry if there’s any wrongdoing,” Zagala said. “In the past we have punished people who have done wrongdoings in the Army when it comes to social media, so this is something we take seriously.”
‘Admission’ of troll army
Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas said Gapay’s request to restore HOOC page was a “clear admission” of the AFP’s hand in maintaining a “troll army.”
Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite said the “’Duterte Troll Army,’ some of whom are literally soldiers of the Armed Forces” were used to “spread lies, disinformation, and life-threatening slanders and terrorist-tagging.”
“General Gapay should also stop misrepresenting their sponsored pages and fake accounts as belonging to advocacy groups, because clearly, spreading malicious lies, deception, and life-threatening terrorist-tagging are not advocacies,” he said.
Brosas backed calls for Congress to scrutinize the payrolls and intelligence expenses of the AFP and the Philippine National Police to determine how much funding was “wasted for so-called communications specialists who are in essence, trolls.”
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque defended government officials and employees who may have Facebook or other social media accounts, saying “even government officials do have freedom of expression.”
“What is prohibited is if this is done in official mediums maintained by the Republic of the Philippines,” he said.
Wary of FB ‘impunity’
Amid the current furor, a social media observer said Facebook must also be held accountable for any disinformation on its platform that threatens democracies.
“While most criticism will be focused on those responsible for this coordinated disinformation campaign, we’re also concerned that Facebook will once again get away with impunity,” said Red Tani, communications and advocacy director of EngageMedia, a non-profit media/technology Asia-Pacific organization focusing on digital rights.
“[We] also need to demand more responsibility and proactivity from Facebook and other social media platforms, and when they fail, we need to demand accountability, too,” he said.
Tani cited a 2018 report where Facebook admitted that its platform was used to incite the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
But two years later, groups that incite violence against activists and try to silence critics of the government were allowed to use the platform until their attention was called by independent analysts like DFRLab and Oxford University.
‘Artificial’ Duterte popularity
“Until Facebook and other corporate social media platforms take responsibility, we need to continue to demand transparency and accountability when they fail to act,” he added.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), one of the main targets of the promilitary Facebook accounts, said the takedowns showed that Mr. Duterte’s popularity was artificially created using the people’s money, which, it said also was used in “promoting fascism and blind Duterte idolatry.”
“It is now becoming exposed that the so-called Duterte Diehard Supporters is a manufactured trend generated by a state-funded troll-farm of hundreds of networked government-controlled Facebook and other social media accounts,” it said in a statement on Thursday.
WITH REPORTS FROM MELVIN GASCON, JULIE M. AURELIO, KRIXIA SUBINGSUBING AND JIGGER J. JERUSALEM
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