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Editorial

Ground zero for online hate

/ 05:12 AM October 20, 2018

“Weaponizing the internet” has become a most contentious issue, not just in this country but all over the world. Most recently, Facebook, the social media behemoth, was forced to admit that some 30 million user accounts had been accessed by an unnamed hacker. This, on the heels of another admission by Facebook that around 50 million users’ data had been exposed “when hackers stole login keys that allowed them to access profiles,” said the UK newspaper The Independent.

That Filipino social media users would be among the millions rendered vulnerable in the Facebook attacks is no surprise. Maria Ressa, editor in chief of the online news outlet Rappler, who with her team has been tracking the “weaponization” of social media since even before the 2016 elections, cited a global study carried out last January showing that, of all nationalities, Filipinos spent the most time on social media. The study found “about 63 million FB accounts in the Philippines” (in a population of 103 million), with a significant number of fake accounts among them. This has made the Philippines “ground zero in the war on disinformation,” according to Ressa.

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Technology reporter Davey Alba summed it up another way in a September article for Buzzfeed News: “If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines. What happened there—what continues to happen there—is both an origin story for the weaponization of social media and a peek at its dystopian future. It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result—half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world.”

The mass of fake Facebook accounts in the country are run by trolls who use their sites to attack, demean and try to silence their targets by resorting to three common tactics.

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First is “to attack (a person’s) credibility,” and to do so repeatedly until the public begins to think the deception is the truth. Second, especially if the target is a woman, is to use or advocate sexual violence “fueling misogyny and inflaming biases,” and ultimately degrading the target as a sexual object. Research done by international bodies shows that “women are targeted three times more than men,” said Ressa. The last common tactic is to enforce a “scorched earth policy,” leaving no room for sympathy or doubt, and immediately retaliating with scathing attacks on anyone offering a counteropinion.

In the face of “this miasma of inflammatory rhetoric, propaganda, and real and fake news [that] has made a mess of the Filipino political discourse and the Philippines itself,” as Alba put it, is repression the answer? Should the government step in and seek the power to shut down or shackle the “Wild, Wild West” that social media has become?

A common opinion among Ressa and other discussants at a recent forum organized by The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service Foundation was that “reasonable regulation” may be desirable—finding a way to make the purveyors of lies or abuse accountable, if not to state authorities or through libel suits, then to the public, or at least to the individuals whose privacy they have violated.

But to give the government license to patrol the posts of ordinary citizens is an unacceptable recourse. As it is, much of the “fake news” being peddled out there is what’s been described as “patriotic trolling”—state-sponsored online hate and harassment meant to silence or intimidate. Why should the public give the fox access to the hen house?

The hens, it bears reminding, are not all that helpless. One of the earliest uses of social media, long before Facebook entered the scene, was the use of mass text messaging to urge family, friends and the greater public to mass at the Edsa Shrine near midnight, and there launch “Edsa 2,” which overthrew the venal administration of Joseph Estrada.

Facebook will certainly be harnessed again in the 2019 midterm elections. But now that the public has become aware of how social media has been manipulated in a systematic, well-funded way to advance propaganda, incite hate and even whitewash history, Filipinos need to be more savvy social media consumers, taking time to read beyond the click-bait headline, thinking before clicking, and unfollowing so-called “influencers” whose greatest inspiration is malice, the peso sign and adherence to forces that subvert the democratic space.

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