No intent to shut down Facebook, Duterte only wants to talk – Palace
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte is seeking a meeting with representatives of Facebook after he questioned the social networking platform’s decision to take down progovernment and promilitary “advocacy” pages and accounts, saying he does not see any use for it if it does not help the government in the “fight of ideas.”
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque on Tuesday explained that Duterte did not intend to shut down Facebook’s operation in the country, but slammed its takedowns as a form of censorship and suppression of free expression.
“The President only said there is a need to talk,” Roque said. “It won’t be good for Facebook and the Philippines [if the social network is banned], because we are No. 1 in Facebook after all. So it will be a huge loss to Facebook. But at the same time, since we are number one, many Filipinos using it will be affected.”
Facebook last week said it took down two clusters of fake accounts, one in the Philippines and another in Fujian, China, that were involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” in violation of its community standards.
The local group linked to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police was engaged in attacks against activists and dissidents. The Chinese network attacked Rappler and supported the potential presidential run of Mr. Duterte’s daughter Sara in 2022.
On Monday night, during his weekly television appearance, Duterte said the social media giant’s reasons for taking down the “advocacy” pages were “so convoluted” that he couldn’t understand them.
“Facebook, listen to me. We allow you to operate here, hoping that you could help us also. Now, if [the] government cannot espouse or advocate something [that] is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose here in my country?” the President said.
“What would be the point of allowing you to continue if you cannot help us?” he said. “We are not advocating mass destruction, we are not advocating mass massacre. It’s a fight of ideas. And apparently from the drift of your statement or your position is that it cannot be used as a platform.”
Duterte said Facebook “cannot lay down a policy” for his government and prevent him from “espousing the objectives of [the] government.”
“If you cannot help me protect government interest, then let us talk. We may or we may not find the solution. If we cannot, then I’m sorry,” he said.
The President “does not tolerate censorship of progovernment advocacies, such as advocacies to protect children against enlistment as combatants,” according to Roque.
One page taken down by Facebook was the Hands Off Our Children, which was put up and managed by an Army captain as a platform for parents whose children had allegedly been recruited by the communist New People’s Army.
“We believe in freedom of speech. They may use as justification the ‘inauthentic behavior’ but the effect is censorship, because the contents of the page were deleted,” Roque said.
Such “content-based restriction” is unconstitutional, said the former human rights lawyer.
“The issue here is the effect of the takedown, and the Philippine government submits, it’s a form of censorship,” he said.
Roque said the page and those who owned pages that were taken down should go to court “because the entire planet is waiting for jurisprudence in this regard.”
He also criticized Facebook for choosing groups that were “against the Duterte administration” as fact-checkers, pointing to Rappler and Vera Files, which are independent media outfits.
AFP, PNP requests
Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, the AFP spokesperson, supported the President’s call for a meeting with Facebook officials, with whom the military’s top brass last week held talks to request that the HOOC page and other advocacy pages be restored.
Col. Ysmael Yu, spokesperson for the PNP, told the Inquirer they had asked Facebook to provide a list of the accounts allegedly linked to the police.
Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said Facebook’s “unilateral act, without prior consultation or due process with affected individuals” was a cause for concern for the Department of the Interior and Local Government.
He said “the least” that the social media giant could have done was to give those concerned the opportunity to refute the allegations against them.
“We are open to dialogue with FB even as we appeal to them to be more transparent and accountable to their members in their regulation of member accounts,” he added.
Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite said the President’s statements were an admission that the government had a hand in using fake Facebook accounts for propaganda and “massive disinformation,” which largely targeted critics and the opposition such as the Makabayan bloc in the House.
He called on Facebook not to be intimidated by the President’s threats.
“They (Facebook) must reveal these pages and accounts. The people and the victims of these trolls’ online attacks deserve to know at least that much,” he said, adding that whether public funds were being used should be probed.
“This is not merely an issue of fake accounts; this is about fake accounts spreading lies, vilification and hatred that has been used to justify human rights violations,” Gaite said.
A university professor said banning Facebook would only entrench and strengthen, rather than dismantle, disinformation networks or troll farms.
“Any state regulation of social media would be for the best interest not of the people, but of the powers that be,” Danilo Arao, a mass communications professor at the University of the Philippines, told the Inquirer.
Social media campaign
One of the propaganda networks Facebook had taken down was found to have links to Nic Gabunada, Duterte’s most effective online election campaign manager.
Duterte had admitted that a social media team was hired to defend and promote him online during his campaign. An Oxford study showed that his camp spent P10 million for his social media campaign.
His statements of contributions and expenditures for the 2016 elections indicated that he spent P343.7 million for advertising, including on the internet, but these were not detailed.
Human Rights Watch researcher Carlos Conde said “Duterte is nothing without Facebook.”
“Duterte and his army of propagandists used Facebook to prop up his popularity even while thousands were being killed. Facebook was Duterte’s most effective weapon to threaten, harass and intimidate critics. It’s also the main media to promote the violence that we continue to see,” he added.
—With reports from Melvin Gascon, Nestor Corrales, Krixia Subingsubing and Inquirer Research
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