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Civil society vs online trolls: Reclaiming social media

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Social media has been weaponized against civil society. In the Philippines, the pro-government troll army continues its online attacks on citizens even in the midst of the novel coronavirus crisis.

Most recently, these online supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte have attacked two government officials that have earned praise for their efforts in helping citizens cope with the enhanced community quarantine in the main island of Luzon.

Fighting the troll army

Civil society vs online trolls
Photo credit: Ryan McGuire of

On March 18, Vice President Leni Robredo slammed social media users who were spreading fake news about the free shuttle service that her office was providing to frontline health workers. Meanwhile, #ProtectVico became the No. 1 Twitter Trending Topic in the Philippines on March 19 as online users defended Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto against troll army attacks.

Adding insult to injury, it’s our taxes that are funding this keyboard army that keeps attacking civil society and spreading disinformation on social media.

In fact, the Vice President, who belongs to the opposition, called on government officials to use the funds allocated to trolls for protective gear for COVID-19 frontliners. Robredo has also urged journalists to continue to have a stronger voice than online trolls.

“‘History has shown that Philippine media has never bowed down to any strongman, and in fact grows stronger when democracy is threatened. On the other hand, heartless trolls for hire sit in cubicles spreading lies and disinformation, hide behind false identities, and enjoy absolutely no accountability. Your voice must be stronger than theirs,’ Robredo told reporters at the yearly Prospects forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines held in Makati City on Thursday, January 30.”

Cyber troops and black propaganda

According to a Philippine Star report in 2017, the Duterte camp spent US$200,000 (around Php10 million) to hire online trolls. Their mission? To spread pro-Duterte propaganda while attacking the opposition.

This report cited the Oxford study “Troops, trolls and troublemakers: A global inventory of organized social media manipulation“.

The study explained the strategies, tools, and techniques that cyber troops employ to manipulate social media.

“Generally speaking, teams have an overarching communications strategy that involves creating official government applications, websites or platforms for disseminating content; using accounts—either real, fake or automated—to interact with users on social media; or creating substantive content such as images, videos or blog posts. Teams also differ in the valence of their messages and interactions with users online. Valence is a term that is used to define the attractiveness (goodness) or averseness (badness) of a message, event or thing. Some teams use pro‐government, positive or nationalistic language when engaging with the public online. Other teams will harass, troll or threaten users who express dissenting positions.”

Duterte and social media

From the start, the Duterte camp mastered the use of social media. Unfortunately, this turned Facebook into a weapon against Filipinos.

“The Philippines is prime Facebook country—smartphones outnumber people, and 97 percent of Filipinos who are online have Facebook accounts. Ressa’s forum introduced Duterte to Filipino millennials on the platform where they live. Duterte, a quick social media study despite being 71 at the time of the election, took it from there. He hired strategists who helped him transform his modest online presence, creating an army of Facebook personalities and bloggers worldwide. His large base of followers—enthusiastic and often vicious—was sometimes called the Duterte Die-Hard Supporters, or simply DDS. No one missed the reference to another DDS: Duterte’s infamous Davao Death Squad, widely thought to have killed hundreds of people.”

“’At the beginning I actually loved it because I felt like this was untapped potential,’ Ressa says. ‘Duterte’s campaign on social media was groundbreaking.'”

Stop using Facebook as a weapon

The Duterte camp, however, weaponized social media. After Duterte became president, the troll army continued carrying out missions against the opposition and citizens who dared criticize his administration.

“Duterte’s controversial statements often go viral on Facebook. He has said the Philippines ‘needs’ China and that he ‘loves’ Xi Jinping (Duterte’s autocratic rule has made him lean more on China, despite the public’s concerns about Philippine sovereignty). He said human rights groups were ‘obstructing justice’ and activists should be shot. A network of pro-Duterte Facebook pages defend his positions—aggressively. They once ‘swarmed’ the International Criminal Court’s Facebook page after it said it would begin to investigate Duterte’s controversial drug war.”

Not all online supporters of Duterte are paid trolls. Their actions, however, complement the troll army’s attacks.

“Indeed, many of these supporters are also using the Internet to defend Duterte. Their blind loyalty to Duterte and their aggressive online behavior against government critics are derided as symptoms of being a ‘Dutertard’ (not to be confused with Dotard).”

Paid trolls undermining democracy

The Philippines has become notorious around the world for its troll army. In fact, American officials are concerned that politicians might hire these paid trolls to manipulate the US election.

“And it could soon be coming to the U.S., according to election officials and disinformation scholars who are watching closely. They warn that the Philippine epidemic probably will spread here, given Filipinos’ proficiency in English, facility with social media and the lure of money from campaigns looking for a new way to get an edge over the competition.”

How we can reclaim social media

In the face of this well-funded and highly-organized troll army, what can civil society do?

As individuals, we can do our share by verifying sources of information and not helping spread fake news. We should also avoid feeding the trolls. Don’t let them goad you into sharing, reacting, or commenting on their posts. This just increases engagement on their posts, makes them visible on your newsfeed, and earns them more money. Instead, report their pages and posts to Facebook, or whichever social network they are using.

It is clear, however, that we also need to band together to have a well-coordinated defense against these online attacks. It’s great to see online users rallying around the government officials and other individuals that these trolls are attacking. More of us are now pushing back against the troll army.

I believe media organizations, advocacy groups, brands, and ordinary citizens should demand more from platforms such as Facebook. We Filipinos are among the world’s most loyal and prolific Facebook users. And yet Facebook is allowing trolls to use its platform against us.

At the end of the day, it’s in Facebook’s best interest to help civil society, and avoid becoming known as the “platform of choice” of authoritarians. By working hand-in-hand, we can reclaim social media and build a real Facebook community.


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