MANILA – Similar to right-wing populists around the world, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been among the greatest beneficiaries of social media platforms, where his propagandists command huge followings at the expense of broadly liberal mainstream media.

But now the Filipino strongman is turning on Facebook following the California-based social media giant’s crackdown on networks of disinformation ahead of crucial elections in the US and around the world.

He accused the social media giant of engaging in biased censorship, warning “[y]ou cannot bar or prevent me from espousing the objectives of government.”

The ongoing crackdown on fake accounts has also exposed China’s expanding “sharp power” operations to disrupt democracies, including the Philippines, which is heading towards its own presidential elections in 2022.

Last week, Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook’s Security Policy, announced the shutting down of various accounts in the Philippines as well as China which have been allegedly been engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

The Facebook executive warned of clusters of online activities, which adopt “deceptive methods” to sow disinformation and hide their real identity and agenda.

“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,” Gleicher added.

The targeted Filipino network reportedly consisted of 57 Facebook and 20 Instagram accounts and as many as 31 Facebook public pages which have been traced to the country’s security services. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in campaign mode in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

“This network consisted of several clusters of connected activity that relied on fake accounts to evade enforcement, post content, comment and manage Pages. This operation appeared to have accelerated between 2019 and 2020… Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to Philippine military and Philippine police,” warned Facebook in a statement.

The suspicious activities allegedly involved special social media units within the Philippine National Police (PNP) and military, which have been engaged in psychological warfare against communist rebel outfits and progressive, left-leaning groups.

Special security services units reportedly hijacked public advocacy groups such as “Hands Off Our Children” (HOOC) page, which is ostensibly a support group for aggrieved parents of students that have been recruited by the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

The coordinated disinformation campaign targeted major educational institutions such as the University of the Philippines branch in Clark and Bulacan State University as a “recruitment basin” for communist rebels.

Both the PNP and Armed Forces of the Philippines have rejected the accusations, maintaining that there is no institutional involvement in any of the alleged disinformation campaigns on Facebook.

“Facebook, listen to me. We allow you to operate here hoping that you could help us also. Now, if government cannot espouse or advocate something which is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose here in my country?” warned Duterte in a national address this week, accusing the social media company of  “encouraging” communists by blocking the security services’ online campaign.

“If government cannot use it for the good of the people, then we have to talk. We have to talk sense. If you are promoting the cause of the rebellion which was already here before you came, and so many thousands of my soldiers and civilians dying, then if you cannot reconcile the idea of what your purpose is or was, then we have to talk.

“I don’t know what I will do, but we have to talk,” he added, emphasizing the importance of anti-communist online campaigns to national security.

A man wears a mask with the name of President Duterte and his election campaign slogan on April 5, 2020, in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines. Photo: Ezra Acayan / Getty Images via AFP

Duterte’s public spat with Facebook, which has sparked calls for a boycott of the social media giant by his legions of supporters, has shocked many observers.

After all, Facebook has served as one of the primary platforms for the former provincial mayor to bypass what he sees as a hostile mainstream media, reach out to tens of millions of supporters, and charm millions of overseas Filipino workers who rely primarily on social media for their daily news.

“Facebook was his main vector for disinformation as early as 2015, using mainly a massive overseas Filipino community which used Facebook as it’s main – often only – network with people back home,” observed Carlos Conde, a leading human rights advocate in the Philippines.

No less than Cambridge Analytica, the notorious company behind systematic disinformation and microtargeting campaigns in the 2016 US elections and elsewhere, reportedly leveraged social media to boost Duterte’s “strong, no-nonsense man of action” image during the 2016 elections he won.

Using social media analytics, the controversial company research supposedly discovered a significant demographic “within the electorate [which] were more likely to be swayed by qualities such as toughness and decisiveness,” thus its emphasis on “the cross-cutting issue of crime to rebrand the client as a strong, no-nonsense man of action, who would appeal to the true values of the voters.”

While Duterte has not been explicitly named by the company, the Filipino leader’s signature anti-crime campaign neatly fits into Cambridge Analytica’s client description.

A 2017 University of Oxford study also found that Duterte’s campaign spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for a troll army, which helped create “an artificial sense of popularity, momentum or relevance” for the populist leader.

Back in 2018, Facebook shut down as many as 95 pages and 39 accounts in the Philippines for sowing disinformation as part of an elaborate political campaign. A great number of those accounts were explicitly pro-Duterte as well as the Marcoses, a key ally.

Another growing source of concern is China’s “sharp power” infiltration into the Philippines, part of what the Facebook described as “foreign or government interference, which is coordinated inauthentic behavior conducted on behalf of a foreign or government actor.”

During its latest crackdown, Facebook removed a network of fake accounts and pages which originated in China with the aim of sowing discord and disinformation in the US and other democratic countries.

Facebook has come under fire for disseminating hate speech. Photo: Twitter

The US chief counterintelligence official, William Evanina, recently warned that China, along with Russia, is expanding its influence operations to  “shape the policy environment in the United States.”

Facebook closed over 150 suspicious accounts based in China, which supported the country’s stance on Hong Kong, the South China Sea, as well as the pro-Beijing President Duterte and his daughter Sara, who may run for president at the 2022 elections.

“[There are] foreign-led efforts to manipulate public debate in another country, and operations run by a government to target its own citizens. These can be particularly concerning when they combine deceptive techniques with the real-world power of a state,” warned Facebook in a general policy update last year.