I thought they were kidding at first. With the rise of the President rose, too, an army of trolls: sycophantic, illogical, antagonistic and instrumental in spreading fake news and misinformation. When news began to circulate that these trolls, with their unprecedented rein on social media, were organized and paid — and paid well — it blew my mind. How could so much expense be devoted to the war on the keyboard? Was Facebook, a venue for joy and connection and media sharing, really so important?
But the proof is in the pudding, and for a while there the comments, replies, private messages and death threats sent out on behalf of this army escalated and ruled our social media feeds. They fueled everything from support for the bloody drug war, to a relentless campaign against any of the President’s critics: I remember elders talking as though LeniLeaks were 100 percent fact, because “it was on the internet, so it must be true.” Sen. Leila de Lima took one of the worst blows as the subject of innumerable, reputation-destroying fake news reports before and after her arrest. The fact that so much of that news was fabricated is irrelevant, lost in the sea of ignorant bile, and has barely made it to the public consciousness. For many, the sex tape is still a matter of fact.
And where was the Facebook admin in all of this? A 2018 report by BuzzFeed News compares the admin to an “absentee landlord” who checks in occasionally to address minor concerns, but fails to shoulder accountability for larger, more important problems. Facebook, a platform utilized by two-thirds of the global population and popular in the Philippines as entertainment and news source, has held us captive, and has been perfectly weaponized by the President’s PR men. Do we blame free Facebook? It is for many the only way to access news without spending on precious mobile data, and thus it has made it possible for a population to be more susceptible to believing the bits of news in uncritical headlines and memes. Do we blame it for spreading false, clickbait headlines within a population that can often not afford to click through and read more thoroughly?
Promises that Facebook made last year that it would do damage control have recently borne fruit, with the takedown of 200 Facebook pages for “coordinated” and “inauthentic” behavior, choice words to describe activities of the troll army to promote some candidates and politicians and lay waste to others. The news only confirms what we already know, and while it’s a relief that Facebook is doing something, it’s also frustrating that so little of the machinery has been dismantled. It’s also no comfort to know that the people behind the machinery might never be charged with libel or the thousands of crimes that their fear-mongering and fake news-spreading have accomplished.
It’s election time again, and one can only expect the vitriol and fake news to escalate once more. The fabricated memes are spreading anew: photos of crowds taken in other countries have been photoshopped to depict thousands supposedly supporting the ruling political party.
But hope springs eternal. The youth and other social-media savvy are doing the work of the opposition for them, in a way, because while politically conscious youth can’t quite match the rabid fanaticism of paid trolls, they are capable of campaigning in other platforms, and campaigning effectively.
Youth favorites Samira Gutoc and Chel Diokno lead discussions on political threads on Twitter, a format less tolerant of the paid and nonsensical troll, to the point that unpaid endorsements of earnest celebrities are trending as well. The arrests of Maria Ressa, seen by many as an attack on press freedom, have earned the administration more enemies than supporters, and it shows: #HoldtheLine and #DefendPressFreedom trended quickly after the first arrest and, again, on the second. If the violent, unthinking weaponization of social media was the tipping point that carried Mr. Duterte to the presidency, it might be the media savvy youth who can help achieve the opposite. One can only hope.
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