12 senators seek probe of gov’t-funded trolls
MANILA, Philippines — Is the government sponsoring internet “troll farms” to sow disinformation online, target its critics and enemies and advance its political interests?
In an extraordinary move calling out the Duterte administration, 12 senators filed on Monday a bipartisan measure seeking an inquiry into reports that public funds were being used for so-called fake news operations by “state-backed and state-funded spreaders” of false information.
The senators, led by Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto and Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, plan to investigate claims that “troll farms and the misinformation and fake news that they propagate may be state-backed and state-funded.”
“Filipinos should know why government spends public funds on troll farm operators disguised as ‘public relations practitioners’ and ‘social media consultants’ who sow fake news rather than on COVID-19 assistance, health care, food security, jobs protection, education, among others,” the resolution read in part.
The others who signed proposed Senate Resolution No. 768 were Senators Nancy Binay, Leila de Lima, Richard Gordon, Risa Hontiveros, Panfilo Lacson, Manny Pacquiao, Francis Pangilinan, Grace Poe and Joel Villanueva.
The authors cited reports about contracts awarded by a number of agencies, including the Department of Finance (DOF) and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), to public relations practitioners with a history of spreading disinformation online.
They pointed to the DOF’s almost P1-million communications strategy consultancy contract that was reportedly awarded in June to a “public relations practitioner who was tagged by Facebook itself as the ‘operator behind a pro-Duterte fake account network, which Facebook took down in March 2019.’”
Troll farms across PH
The report was referring to publicist Nic Gabunada, who led President Duterte’s social media campaign in 2016.
The senators also noted that in 2017, the DFA signed a similar deal with a “known pro-administration blogger who has been accused of peddling fake news and spreading hateful comments against critics of the administration.”
The senators also raised an allegation by Lacson that “a government undersecretary has been organizing internet troll farms across the country to target political rivals or those not aligned with President Duterte’s administration.”
It noted the denial issued by presidential spokesperson Harry Roque who commented that, if the allegations were indeed true, perhaps “the official in question must be doing it in his personal capacity.”
In a statement, Pangilinan, who described himself as “the most trolled senator now,” noted the harm done by disinformation and fake news to a country that was still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We must not let pass the use of taxpayers’ money to malign and harass people who are critical to the government. This is dangerous for democracy, especially that elections are upcoming next year,” he said.
Sen. Joel Villanueva described organized trolls as “weapons of mass distraction.”
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