Troll farm pandemic

/ 05:12 AM June 07, 2020

A Facebook page that relied on troll farms for its content was uprooted from the social media platform last month for spreading disinformation. Facebook identified the medical news site Natural News as one of the most aggressive promoters of a viral conspiracy video falsely claiming COVID-19 was part of an elaborate plan to control the populace through vaccines, and took it down for “spammy and abusive behavior.” What else did Facebook find about the page? Natural News relied on content generated by troll farms in Macedonia—and the Philippines.

This was not the first time Facebook had taken down pages linked to Philippine troll farms for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” In January last year, it banned digital marketing group Twinmark Media Enterprises and some 220 Facebook pages associated with the group for their alleged use of fake accounts. A Twinmark website, Trending News Portal, was a favorite shared site by propagandist and Duterte administration official Mocha Uson.


Over on Twitter, per a Washington Post report in April, hundreds of accounts were taken down for violating the platform’s policies against manipulation and spamming. The common denominator among these fraudulent accounts? They were posting duplicate content across different usernames and tweeting under specific hashtags such as #IStandWithThePresident and #YesToABSCBNShutdown, apparently in retaliation for the hashtag #OustDuterteNow that had trended worldwide following public frustration in the Philippines over the Duterte administration’s glaring missteps in its COVID-19 response. Twitter saw through the ruse, and throttled the operation.

Not that the shadowy movers behind the pro-Duterte Twitter campaign would have flinched. The breadth and scale of troll farm work over the last four years have been such that taking down one operation seemingly translates to a mere blip before a new network emerges, well-funded as ever with a fresh arsenal of propaganda hooks to lob all over social media. In the early days of the pandemic, cut-and-paste scripts about the “poor Chinese neighbor in the condo” and “Chinese sitting alone in the bus” riddled everyone’s Facebook feed, as administration partisans sought to paint Malacañang’s dithering on the issue of banning flights from China as an issue of “compassion.”


More smokescreen narratives unfolded as social tensions increased with a harsh lockdown: Look at the President, he’s old and weary and should be pitied; the Philippines is afflicted not with the worst government but the worst citizens; stop complaining, trust the authorities, and just lend a hand; that line, eventually parroted by Mr. Duterte himself as official rebuttal to the flak his government was getting — ”Ano ba ang ambag mo (What’s your contribution)?”; and, in the wake of the ABS-CBN shutdown, “dura lex sed lex,” the blunt, compact Latin spat out with all the practice of a fervent cultist.

Welcome to the Philippines, “Patient Zero” of the disinformation age, as Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, put it in 2018 in describing the country’s head start in weaponizing social media for political ends, well ahead of Brexit in the United Kingdom and the Trump election victory in the United States. The production of fake news, memes, maliciously edited content, and targeted harassment online is now a massive industry in the Philippines, its services even coveted overseas as the Natural News case indicates.

Politicians are said to pay from $38,000 to $57,000 (P1.9 million to P2.8 million) per month for a retainer of up to eight months for a troll farm campaign on their behalf. Where are these companies? Many of them are based in “call center hubs,” according to the international watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which named the Philippines one of press freedom’s 20 worst digital predators in 2020. “It has come to a point where you can rely on the Philippines for all sorts of things: trolls, click farms, whatever you want,” warned UP journalism professor Yvonne Chua, quoted in a July 2019 Washington Post report.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, in a tweet, said: “It’s time troll armies were ‘annihilated’ and troll farms ‘erased from the surface of the earth.’” Their principals and financiers, he added, must be “exposed and punished with long prison terms.” If he were halfway serious with his proposal, he’d direct the antiterror bill he has authored toward prying the lid off the networks of hired guns and unaccountable operators in troll farms whose devious trade it is to concoct dangerous falsehoods, attack dissenting voices, promote distorted history, and rend society asunder with their incivility and lies. Think of 2022, and how such an unchecked pandemic of gaslighting and disinformation presents a clear and present danger to an already enfeebled Republic.

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