Finally this week, the social media giant Facebook has started to get rid of pages targeting audiences in the Philippines which it deemed were engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior. I have been writing on issues surrounding online social networks and information technology, and the opportunity presented itself again this week.
I applaud Facebook for its recent actions. I hope it continues to invest in both technology and human resource to fully apply its community standards against so many bad elements who are taking advantage of its platform. The company can afford to invest more on this campaign. I call it an investment because a company that cares for its future growth and survival should focus on long-term value creation. And long-term value creation is based not just on expertise and innovation but also, in a larger part, based on corporate social values and business ethics.
Forbes magazine reported on Tuesday that Facebook shut down 155 fake accounts it determined were run from China, including accounts posting about the US presidential election. In Southeast Asia, Facebook identified over a hundred accounts and pages with content supportive of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, who is considered a potential candidate in the 2022 presidential election. Many of these fake accounts and pages were traced to individuals and troll farms in China’s Fujian province.
Following its crackdown on these social media accounts and pages, Facebook clarified that it is not after the suppression of free speech in its platform. It, in fact, has a specific definition of “bad elements” in social media. According to Facebook, in the case of accounts and pages targeting Philippine audiences, these are connected to two separate networks, one originating in China and the other one in the Philippines.
“In each case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts as a central part of their operations to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing, and that was the basis for our action,” said Facebook’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, “when we investigate and remove these operations, we focus on behavior rather than content, no matter who’s behind them, what they post, or whether they’re foreign or domestic.”
These “several clusters of connected activity” relied on fake accounts to pose as locals in countries they targeted, post in groups, amplify their own content, manage pages, like and comment on other people’s posts, said Gleicher.
Shamefully, a number of these clusters are linked to the Philippine military and police establishment. The AFP and PNP have denied any direct involvement, but they also defended the existence of these pages. Armed Forces chief of staff Gilbert Gapay asked Facebook last Wednesday to restore one of the pages that were taken down, the Hands Off Our Children page which, according to General Gapay in a Rappler report, is an “advocacy group of parents whose children were missing or had been recruited by the communist terrorist groups.”
No one is trying to stop anyone for expressing their views or advocacies using online social networks. Facebook itself stressed that it supports free speech. What it bans is inauthentic behavior by “people who misrepresent themselves on Facebook, use fake accounts, artificially boost the popularity of content, or engage in behaviors designed to enable other violations under its Community Standards.”
This policy, according to Facebook, is intended “to create a space where people can trust the people and communities they interact with.”
Some of the behaviors or schemes which were observed in the now-banned pro-Duterte and pro-China accounts and pages are: use of multiple Facebook accounts or shared accounts between multiple people; concealing a page’s purpose by misleading users about the ownership or control of that page; misleading people or Facebook about the identity, purpose, or origin of the entity that they represent; working in concert to engage in inauthentic behavior, where the use of fake accounts is central to the operation; and engaging in foreign or government interference conducted on behalf of a foreign or government actor.
We have been so focused on fake news, hoaxes, and false content posted by errant individuals on social media these past few years. We forgot that there could be an organized network of actors who as early as 2015 have been exploiting our vulnerability to coordinated disinformation and manipulation. Our society must now urgently examine the strategies available to counter these forces. Media literacy education is one.