On August 21 last year, Philippine police gunned down Kian delos Santos, making the 17-year-old student another casualty in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
Though thousands had already been killed in the brutal crackdown, a centerpiece of the year-old government’s policies, the teenager’s death in the city of Caloocan sparked protests after police accounts of the shooting diverged from those of witnesses and CCTV footage.
Amid a rising backlash, presidential communications assistant secretary Margaux “Mocha” Uson, who before her appointment was a prominent pro-Duterte social media personality and blogger, posted on Twitter a report about a model police officer killed in a drug operation, challenging the president’s critics to attend the funeral.
The report, however, was published a year earlier.
In the Philippines, there is nothing new about government officials playing loose with the facts for political gain.
“Fake news and propaganda have long been employed in politics,” says Lisa Garcia, executive director of the Foundation for Media Alternatives, a nonprofit that uses information and communications technologies to promote democratization.
“But with the current social media technologies, these spread quickly, and that’s what’s different,” she adds.
There are many examples of the often problematic interactions between public policy and the current online ecosystem of heightened and persistent mis- and disinformation.
Duterte’s online supporters, most notably bloggers such as Mocha, have been able to make their way from the margins to the government mainstream, in the process shaping public discourse and policy.
Bringing fringe bloggers into the political fold and allegedly recruiting an army of 'keyboard trolls' have paid dividends in the Philippines. By @jakecsoriano
Cynical communications strategy
The use of social media has been integral to the Duterte government and can be traced back to his unorthodox road to the presidency.
“You know what, we used social media because we do not have the money,” says Nic Gabunada, who led the Duterte camp’s social media team during the 2016 election campaign.
The campaign sought, and won, engagement among social media users. But such engagement, not present in traditional media, has also led to extreme behavior from Duterte supporters, including the bullying of critics.
“I know that there are shortcomings,” Gabunada concedes. “Since this is a movement, you cannot control everybody.”
Reports of a “keyboard army” supposedly paid up to Php 3,000 ($60) a day to operate social media accounts to amplify support for the president or attack his critics, during the elections and even after, hound the administration.
A 2017 Oxford University study found evidence that the Duterte camp spent around $200,000 on funding some 400 to 500 “keyboard trolls”, which the president has denied.
The recent publication by the U.S. nonprofit Freedom House of its global internet freedom report revived discussion of the issue but a presidential spokesperson has also denied the charge.
Nonetheless, the social media strategy bolstered Duterte, and he won the presidency by a landslide.
Bloggers take government posts
Thus began the assimilation into key government posts, including in the palace communications office and the foreign affairs department, of several of the president’s staunch online supporters.
Defending his appointment of Uson earlier last year, Duterte said he owed her a debt of gratitude after she worked for free during the elections.
Currently, Uson heads the presidential communications social media office, which among other functions, handles an interim policy on the accreditation of bloggers who wish to cover the activities of the president.
Badoy, previously also an undersecretary at the social welfare department, came under fire in March 2017 for hurling accusations of child pornography at Duterte critics.
“And when they are criticized, they say they made their statements in their personal capacity,” Garcia said.
Indeed, in early October, during a legislative inquiry on fake news, Uson fell back on the same excuse after she was accused of spreading disinformation, prompting Sen. Nancy Binay to declare, “It might be high time for you to decide if you want to be a blogger or an assistant secretary.”
"We used social media because we do not have the money.” -- Nic Gabunada, who led the Duterte camp’s social media team during the 2016 election campaign
Despite pushback, misinformation persists
With the growing penetration of social media throughout in the Philippines, it is easy to see why misinformation persists.
Sixty percent of the country’s 103 million people are internet users, and 60 percent of those online are active social media users. Mobile subscriptions outnumber the population count, at 129.4 million.
Many users access social media, notably Facebook, through free basic services, which becomes problematic when experience becomes limited by what is only made available for free.
“You can see the headline, but if you want to see the content, you have to pay,” says Garcia. “What if you don’t have the means? What if the headline is a bit misleading?”
A disquieting detail in the killing of delos Santos demonstrates the dangers of disinformation in the age of social media: the police officers implicated in the case told a legislative inquiry the boy was a drug courier, citing social media posts that alleged drug links.
Uson, when flagged by social media users on her misleading post about the police officer killed in a drug bust, quickly deleted her post and faced few repercussions. A few months later, however, she posted on her Facebook page allegations of corruption and ill-gotten wealth, supposedly sourced from fake websites, against an opposition senator, for which she now faces libel charges.
“I can understand the president appointing people whom he trusts,” Garcia says, but adds that government officials should be held to a higher standard when it comes to disseminating information.
“When you have so many followers on social media, what you say, even if untrue, might be believed,” she said.