October 02, 2020 at 01:00 am
"It’s not likely that the social media giant will budge on this."
It was unexpected to hear President Rodrigo Duterte, in his usual Monday night address, scold Facebook for taking down accounts said to be have been created by the Philippine police and military; it was unsurprising behavior, though, for a populist leader who expects things to go his way.
Facebook is very popular in the Philippines, with some 74 million users in the country as of 2019, according to Statista. The number is expected to rise to 88.1 million by 2025. This is a staggering number, considering that the country’s entire population in 2019 was about 108 million. It is the second-largest Facebook market in Southeast Asia.
So it is not unusual, in fact it is only logical, for the police and military to tap the formidable reach of Facebook to disseminate its messages.
Behavior, not content
However, when Facebook deleted the questionable accounts, it was not because of their content, but rather for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB).
In a 2018 video, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, explained that CIB is a “form of abuse” that occurs when “groups of Pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing…when we take down one of these networks, it’s because of their deceptive behavior. It’s not because of the content they’re sharing.”
This last sentence shoots down the administration’s claim of “censorship” on the part of Facebook. On Tuesday, Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, a lawyer, said: “The Philippine government submits it’s a form of censorship.”
Censorship is related to content. What was questioned here was the way the content was being distributed – through ‘fake’ accounts created by entities acting for a particular purpose, as differentiated from the Facebook accounts people open to communicate with friends and family.
In his Sept. 22 report, Gleicher wrote they took down two networks involved in CIB—one originated in the Philippines, the other in China. The first network “consisted of several clusters of connected activity that relied on fake accounts to evade enforcement, post content, comment, and manage Pages.”
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to Philippine military and Philippine police,” he added.
In short, the issue of “inauthenticity” was raised because these weren’t regular folks sharing their opinions, but agents acting anonymously amid dishonesty and deceit.
The other network
What was more telling about Duterte’s tirade against Facebook was what he didn’t say about the other network taken down—the one in China.
Gleicher wrote that this other network “posted in Chinese, Filipino and English about global news and current events including Beijing’s interests in the South China Sea, Hong Kong. They had content supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte and of Sarah Duterte’s potential run in the 2022 Presidential election,” among other issues.
Facebook’s investigation of this network “found links to individuals in the Fujian province of China.”
Why was Duterte silent on the propaganda being spread on his and his daughter’s behalf by the Chinese?
Isn’t it ironic
What many found ironic about Duterte’s veiled threats against Facebook was that his climb to the presidency was assisted by messages spread there.
Many perceive Duterte’s election campaign in 2016 to have been boosted on Facebook by Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), parent company of controversial firm Cambridge Analytica.
South China Morning Post in 2018 reported that SCL “helped put Philippines’ leader Rodrigo Duterte into office after already influencing voters in dozens of campaigns across the globe, according to media reports and information pulled from the firm’s website.”
Rappler reported two years ago that Cambridge Analytica segmented voters by personality and behavior after collecting their Facebook data. Content to influence voting behavior was then developed specifically targeting those people.
The same news item quoted Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix as having said, in 2016: “If you know the personality of the people you’re targeting, you can nuance your messaging to resonate more effectively with those key groups.”
(To learn how data harvested from social media accounts is used to create targeted messages, watch the documentary “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix.)
Having benefited from Facebook’s reach, Duterte now chides it for not supporting his administration’s messaging and communication, no matter how egregious its methods.
This looks like an attempt to effect a sort of “media capture.” The term has been defined by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, professor of democracy studies at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, as “a situation in which governments or vested interests networked with politics control the media.”
Duterte has realized, however, that he can’t control Facebook. It’s not likely that the social media giant will budge on this.
And if the President decides to stop Facebook’s operations in the country, its 74 million Filipino users won’t be happy. Not all those accounts are folks sharing cat memes and selfies; many are online sellers trying to eke out meager livelihoods during this pandemic, the response to which his administration has botched.
The lesson here is for the government to create and conduct honest and authentic communication campaigns. In the long run, it’ll be worth it to have behaved with honor.
*** Still wondering about the missing Philhealth billions. FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO