In August 2016, a handful of crude images began circulating widely throughout Facebook’s Filipino community: a middle-aged man and woman having clumsy sex atop a tacky floral bedspread. The man’s face, obscured by shadows, was impossible to make out. The woman’s was not. She appeared to be Sen. Leila de Lima — a fierce critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his bloody war on drugs.
But the woman was not de Lima.
The senator issued a strong public denial (“That’s not me. I don’t understand”) and internet sleuths subsequently tracked the provenance of the images to a porn site. Still, the doctored photos very quickly became part of a narrative propagated by Duterte, who had accused de Lima of accepting bribes from drug pushers. Duterte, who’d previously threatened to “destroy” de Lima in public, touted the pictures as stills from a sex tape featuring the senator and her chauffeur — the person she'd allegedly ordered to collect illicit payments on her behalf. “De Lima is not only screwing her driver, she is also screwing the nation,” Duterte said in September. If he were de Lima, the president added, he would hang himself. (“We believe the president was referring to another video,” Martin Andanar, communications secretary of the Duterte administration, told BuzzFeed News.)
De Lima was soon beset by disparaging fake news reports that spread quickly across Facebook: She had pole-danced for a convict; she’d used government funds to buy a $6 million mansion in New York; the Queen of England had congratulated the Philippine Senate for ousting her. Six months later, her reputation fouled, de Lima was arrested and detained on drug charges, though she vehemently disputes them. She has now been in jail for over a year, despite outcry from international human rights groups over what they consider a politically motivated detention.
For all the recent hand-wringing in the United States over Facebook’s monopolistic power, the mega-platform’s grip on the Philippines is something else entirely. Thanks to a social media–hungry populace and heavy subsidies that keep Facebook free to use on mobile phones, Facebook has completely saturated the country. And because using other data, like accessing a news website via a mobile web browser, is precious and expensive, for most Filipinos the only way online is through Facebook. The platform is a leading provider of news and information, and it was a key engine behind the wave of populist anger that carried Duterte all the way to the presidency.
Yet some Filipinos say Facebook treats the Philippines as an absentee landlord might, occasionally dropping by to address minor issues but often shrugging off responsibility for the larger, more problematic stuff: the conspiracies that helped land de Lima in jail, the misinformation that has clouded the public’s understanding of a brutal drug war, and the propaganda that continues to damage the democratic process in the Philippines.
“Until we find an effective way to counter” the misinformation problem in the Philippines, de Lima wrote to BuzzFeed News from Camp Crame, where she is imprisoned, “we cannot hope to repair the damage [it’s] already caused and to ensure it can never hijack our democratic way of life again.”
Facebook told BuzzFeed News the images violated its policies and were removed. The company also noted that it eventually prevented links to bogus reports about de Lima from being shared on its platform — but only after de Lima had been arrested.
Yet it is the photos, more than the links to fake news, that show what Facebook and the Philippines are up against. Unlike the fake news scandals in the US, which often sought to drive readers to third-party sites, misinformation campaigns in the Philippines live largely on Facebook itself. It is images, Facebook Live videos, and posts written directly on the platform; a never-ending meme-driven propaganda campaign that’s easier to share and harder to police.
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.
A year after it went public, Facebook zeroed in on growing its business in the Philippines. In it, the company saw a developing country that paired a deep love of the social web with poor physical and internet-related infrastructure. It was a perfect proving ground for Facebook’s ambitions. The country quickly became a prime example of how the for-profit company could work to improve connectivity in service of the public good — and its own business.
Facebook launched “Free Facebook” in the Philippines in 2013. The idea was to partner with a local carrier to offer a portal of free, basic internet services (Free Basics) that would fuel Facebook’s aggressive global expansion. To Zuckerberg, at least, the experiment was successful. “What we’ve seen in the Philippines is ... a home run,” he said in a speech at a 2014 conference in Barcelona. Last November, Facebook partnered with the Duterte government to build an undersea cable system that would connect Philippine internet systems to the rest of Asia and the US.
In 2012, 29 million Filipinos used Facebook. Today, 69 million people — two-thirds of the population — are on Facebook. The remaining one-third does not have access to the internet. In other words, virtually every Filipino citizen with an internet connection has a Facebook account. For many in one of the most persistently poor nations in the world, Facebook is the only way to access the internet.
Which is pretty much how Facebook wants it. Maria Ressa, the CEO of the news website Rappler, told BuzzFeed News that during an April 2017 meeting with Facebook, she mentioned to Mark Zuckerberg that 97% of Filipinos who had access to the internet also had Facebook accounts (which was true at the time). Zuckerberg frowned, Ressa recalled. Then he asked: “What about the other 3%?”
Facebook’s Internet.org effort has floundered embarrassingly in more than half a dozen nations and territories. But in the Philippines, the social media capital of the world according to global media agency We Are Social, Facebook rushed into a culture that unquestioningly assimilated it.
“We were seduced, we were lured, we were hooked, and then, when we became captive audiences, we were manipulated to see what other people — people with vested interests and evil motives of power and domination — wanted us to see,” de Lima wrote to BuzzFeed News. “It was a slow takeover of our attention. We didn’t notice it until it was already too late.”
Neither did Facebook.
“Facebook has made the world more connected than ever before, resulting in unprecedented ways for people to organize themselves in society,” a Facebook spokesperson said in response to a list of detailed questions sent by BuzzFeed News. “We know we were too idealistic about the nature of these connections and didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse or thinking through all the ways people could use the tools on the platform to do harm.”
“That’s why we have invested in people and technology to build better safeguards,” the spokesperson continued. “In the Philippines, this includes the roll-out of third-party fact-checking, better detection of bad content, improved enforcement of our policies, and deeper support for the country’s digital literacy efforts. There is always more to do, and that’s why we have a dedicated team of product, policy and partnerships experts who are focused on helping keep our community in the Philippines safe.”
In November 2015, Rodrigo Duterte announced his bid for the Philippine presidency. He positioned himself as a champion of the people — a tough-talking “law and order” candidate and an alternative to out-of-touch politicians who traditionally served the interests of upper- and middle-class Filipinos in Manila. Then-president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III had anchored his tenure on a catchy promise: “No corruption, no poverty” (Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap). But Aquino was considered “elite.”
Duterte, who ran for the presidency after Aquino’s tenure, was the former president’s polar opposite. For three decades, he had been the mayor of Davao City in the south, far removed from Manila politics. He promised Filipinos action and a swift end to drugs, crime, and the status quo, and he turned to Facebook to get his message out. Duterte’s campaign directed a network of volunteers to promote the candidate’s authoritarian image; they pushed nicknames like “the Punisher” and “Duterte Harry” into the vernacular.
Duterte utterly dominated Facebook during the country’s presidential election. In an April 2016 report, the company itself proclaimed Duterte the “undisputed king of Facebook conversations.” Two months later, he was elected president.
“During the campaign period, Facebook was quite a valuable tool for the President’s base of supporters in organizing gatherings and spreading news about campaign activities,” said Andanar, Duterte’s communications secretary, adding the platform was “comparable to having instant-access live radio and television facilities.”
Facebook influencers hitched themselves to Duterte’s rising star; transgender rights activist Sass Sasot (more than 650,000 followers), blogger RJ Nieto (1.2 million followers), and former pop singer Mocha Uson (5.7 million followers) all positioned themselves as Duterte propaganda clearinghouses. Together, they created an ecosystem not dissimilar from the pro-Trump internet world.
In the years since his election, Duterte’s administration has shaken the foundations of Philippine democracy. It has been accused of threatening the Philippine justice system by ousting the chief justice of the Supreme Court; attacking press freedom; upending international relations by cozying up to China; cleansing a former Philippine dictator of his crimes; and sanctioning the extrajudicial executions of more than 12,000 Filipinos suspected of selling or using drugs in the country. In 2017, Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group, lambasted Duterte’s government as “a human rights calamity.” (“They are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” Andanar said of the organization, which conducts on-the-ground investigations of the drug war in conjunction with Amnesty International, Filipino journalists, and foreign correspondents, and works closely with the International Criminal Court and the United Nations.*)
Throughout, Facebook has been used as a key amplifier of pro-administration narratives and sentiment. Nearly two dozen pro-Duterte Facebook pages and websites shared the fake news that Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno tried to leave the country to escape the impeachment complaint filed against her. Ellen Tordesillas, president of Vera Files, a Facebook fact-checking partner in the Philippines, said the “majority” of false posts that her organization checks “definitely” come from pro-administration Facebook pages or were inspired by the president’s remarks.
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.
Alongside all this, Duterte and his administration have railed against the mainstream media in the Philippines. Duterte has repeatedly called local news outlets “fake news.” He’s suggested murdered journalists must have “done something” to deserve their fate. Such statements are chilling in a country where as many as 177 media workers have been killed since 1986, according to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
This miasma of inflammatory rhetoric, propaganda, and real and fake news has made a mess of the Filipino political discourse and the Philippines itself. And it’s a mess we’ve seen before.
“The parallels between the US and the Philippines are striking ... We are a small country to Facebook. When Filipinos were being bullied and threatened systematically on their platform, there was nothing to be done,” Clarissa David, a professor at the University of the Philippines who studies political communication and public opinion, told BuzzFeed News. “It was not until the same machinery was exposed in the US, linked directly to election-related activities, that the company was forced to face what it had enabled and answer for it.”
With the Philippine 2019 midterms approaching, Vera Files’ Tordesillas is bracing for a renewed influx of propaganda and misinformation. “During the campaign, we expect more lies,” she said.
Just as the Trump presidency has been defined by Twitter, so too has the Duterte presidency been defined by Facebook. But where Trump uses Twitter as a megaphone, Duterte doesn’t personally use Facebook at all. He doesn’t need to — his supporters do it for him. There are two men who take credit for Duterte’s pervasive presence on Facebook: Pompee La Viña and Nic Gabunada. Both claim the title of social media director for Duterte’s presidential campaign.
La Viña is tall, with small, squarish glasses and bushy eyebrows. Sitting in his home office, by a desk piled with books like The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s former campaign manager, and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, La Viña recounted how he had managed to build an unassailable pro-Duterte network on Facebook. He said he was a big fan of Alexander Nix, former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, the collapsed political consultancy at the center of an international controversy over the misuse of Facebook data (“he’s brilliant!”).
Duterte’s message and tone translated perfectly to Facebook, La Viña told BuzzFeed News. The future president was highly memeable. He was photoshopped as various pop culture heroes; he was made into memes when he cursed out Pope Francis over stalled traffic in Manila and when he claimed he would ride a Jet Ski to a contested island and plant the Philippine flag. “Duterte is 71. He doesn’t really understand social media,” La Viña said. “But he gave us the message by being who he was, his emotional self. He was perfect for Facebook.”
A Duterte campaign strategy document La Viña shared with BuzzFeed News charts a path to presidential victory built on stoking emotions. Top among them was anger (the other two were hope and pride). "When Mayor Duterte threatens to execute criminals, he speaks our minds," La Viña wrote. "When he warns the corrupt they will be rounded up to rot in jail, he lifts our spirits. ... When the mayor lashes out at De Lima ... he expresses our own disgust and frustration with the current state of affairs. The campaign must take every opportunity to stir this anger and direct it against our opponents and their surrogates."
“To fight with limited funds, the campaign must organize a series of dramatic events that stoke these emotions in escalating fashion,” he added.
And Duterte’s position on the Philippine drug trade was dramatic indeed. During one 2016 campaign rally, Duterte said he would dump the bodies of slain drug dealers “into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.” That remark immediately went “viral viral viral — no boosting, nothing,” La Viña bragged. “He would talk about the economy for one week, but then he would go back to drugs. Always, he would go back to drugs. He’s a politician. He saw it was the thing people reacted to.”
“It became obvious,” La Viña said, after Facebook started to emerge as the best tool of the Duterte campaign, that “the content and community management would be crowd-initiated and crowdsourced.” That was the way the campaign could work with millions of volunteers across several Facebook pages. “We couldn’t really tell them what to post or share, but we were able to herd them in the strategic direction we wanted,” La Viña said.
Facebook did the rest. Designed to promote engagement, the platform’s algorithms often favored Duterte-related content simply because it prompted conversation and shares. (Facebook disputed this characterization, saying everyone’s News Feed is unique to them.) Better still, that engagement — according to both Gabunada and La Viña — was largely “organic” and “volunteer-driven.” Both men insist Duterte’s campaign purchased no Facebook ads, and only occasionally boosted posts.
Gabunada said the realization that Duterte fans would freely spread coordinated messages on Facebook because there were no data charges to do so was a light bulb moment for the campaign. It wouldn’t cost a single peso. “We started engaging people, talking about the possible presidency on Facebook and on text,” Gabunada told BuzzFeed News in a sit-down interview in Manila. Soon enough, through this mix of volunteer work and the campaign’s alleged paid social media workers, Duterte’s candidacy was catching fire on the platform.
Duterte’s team kept it burning hot with a steady supply of stories. We “gave them something to talk about,” said Gabunada.
Outrage over Duterte’s many vulgar and sexist comments about women was parried with Facebook posts noting the president’s backing of women-friendly policies, including a reproductive health law and a bill to lengthen maternity leave. Pro-Duterte Facebook pages rallied around the hashtag #WomenForDuterte. “The material could be a picture, or video,” Gabunada told BuzzFeed News. “If you were a member of the group and you saw everybody doing it, you might be motivated to create something too.”
As it did in the United States, Facebook provided advice to the candidates of the 2016 presidential election in the Philippines. "Early in 2016 we sent a team over there to work with the Duterte [campaign] and the other candidates," a former Facebook employee who declined to be named, for fear of professional retribution, told BuzzFeed News. "Same stuff we do in the US — hand-holding, basically. Obviously we were unprepared for what happened. I don’t think anyone had the foresight to ask, ‘What happens to a place when a lot of people only get their news and information from Facebook?’” Facebook said it offered the Philippine campaigns training on how to keep their accounts secure and to outline its policies, and added that the company does not offer preferential treatment to any administration or political party over another.
On election night, about 20 people from Duterte's online campaign operation gathered in a conference room in northern Metro Manila to better coordinate with each other on content, said a source who was there. “By 8 p.m., we knew we had won,” they said. Already Duterte had taken what appeared to be an insurmountable lead over his opponents. Five hours later, it was official: Duterte had won 38% of the vote, 15 percentage points more than his closest rival.
“The realizations that unfolded in the US about polarization throughout the election — deliberate disinformation targeted toward specific populations and the large role that Facebook played in that strategy, it all happened here in our 2016 election,” said the University of the Philippines’ David.
“And once Duterte won, that machinery of opinion formation went from a campaign strategy to a state-sponsored one.”
RJ Nieto is better known to millions of Filipinos as the Thinking Pinoy. He is a nationalist and a promoter of conspiracy theories. He’s a Mike Cernovich for the Philippines and, like Cernovich — who helped promote the false Pizzagate conspiracy theory — Nieto rose to fame by popularizing a misleading claim that one of Duterte’s opponents had padded his résumé with an unearned degree. Duterte seized on the claim. Soon, Nieto’s fame was on the rise and his provocative, pro-Duterte posts were regularly going viral on Facebook.
In July 2017, Duterte tapped Nieto to be a social media consultant to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), though he quit the position in October after being called to a Philippine Senate hearing on fake news. By the end of the year, Nieto was hosting Karambola (“collision”), a popular political radio show.
This patronage system is not uncommon. Perhaps the strangest case of an outspoken supporter moving into the inner ranks of government is pop singer Mocha Uson, a kind of Tila Tequila of the Philippines, who traveled with the Duterte camp during the campaign and performed the energetic “Duterte Dance” at rallies.
Today, Uson is the assistant secretary of the Presidential Communications Operations Office, making a salary of between 87,000 pesos to 106,000 pesos a month ($1,740 to $2,120). Uson and her manager did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Duterte administration told BuzzFeed News that Uson is “doing a good job of enlivening public discourse on a number of issues vital to the Presidency.”
Uson had a formidable social media presence well before Duterte’s ascension — about 2 million followers from her days as a pop singer and sex guru. Her championing of Duterte during and after the election more than doubled it. Uson is perhaps the most broadly watched and read of all the pro-Duterte influencers, a relatable figure for the Filipino masa — the general public — in large part because she posts in the Tagalog language. Like Duterte, she is a critic of the news media. She often refers to journalists as “presstitutes.”
Nieto, Uson, and a third Facebook influencer, Sass Sasot, provide an information gateway between official government messaging and popular online culture. Sasot, who rose to prominence as a transgender rights activist, has made a similar play to parlay her social media capital into broad media influence (“Facebook cuts across classes,” she enthused during our interview). She now writes a regular opinion column in the Manila Times, the oldest English-language newspaper in the Philippines — which, like other traditional Filipino media sources (and many in the US), has tried to bring irreverent and attention-grabbing online voices onto its platform.
“They are now what hardcore Duterte supporters consider ‘real news,’” said David, the UP professor.
The three pro-Duterte influencers with massive followings often coordinate with each other, Sasot told BuzzFeed News. “TP [Thinking Pinoy], Mocha, and I have a chat group,” she said. “We talk about, for example, if there’s an issue that we would like people to pay attention to.”
“Mocha is already in the government, right?” she continued. “So we offer our help to announce a government project, something related to a project by the president, or a campaign that’s going on.”
Sasot insisted that the three are “largely independent from each other” and added that when Uson asks them for help, “there’s no automatic obligation that we’re going to post.” Still, all three have happened to post about the same controversial news at the same time in the past.
In January 2017, before Mocha had a formal role in Duterte’s communications department, the trio played a part in disseminating misleading information on Facebook involving “leaked” emails that they claimed proved the existence of an international anti-Duterte propaganda machine run by the vice president of the Philippines, Leni Robredo. (In the Philippines, the president and vice president are separately elected, and Robredo’s politics oppose Duterte’s.)
They used the hashtag #LeniLeaks, and the story was picked up by Duterte’s own communications secretary, and by TV stations and newspapers. But the allegations held no water; the emails were from a public Yahoo group in which the group members, who lived abroad, discussed their support of Robredo and dislike for Duterte’s politics. Robredo was forced to repeatedly deny being part of any group seeking Duterte’s ouster.
Another example: When pictures of a drug war victim wrapped in brown packaging tape began circulating on Facebook, Sasot and Nieto suggested that Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel must be responsible — even though the corpse was accompanied by a handwritten note naming Duterte (via his nickname “DU30”). Brad Adams, Asia director of the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, said he could not comment on that specific incident, but told BuzzFeed News, “If Duterte sympathizers find that some murders have been committed by criminal gangs, that has no bearing on the thousands killed by the authorities.”
Predictably, the Sinaloa narrative became one of the many popular excuses for the drug war among Duterte supporters, racking up thousands of comments from Filipinos on Facebook who praised the theory. “You’re right Miss Sass, idol,” wrote one in a mix of Tagalog and English. “I hope you never tire of posting updates to waken up the mind of Filipinos.”
The Media Story
With Duterte in office and his influencers guiding the Filipino news cycle, his government began cracking down on traditional media sources.
Consider the popular online news website Rappler, published by veteran Filipino journalist Maria Ressa since 2012. Today, Ressa claims, a number of Duterte’s government agencies have either cut off Rappler’s access or filed legal cases against the media company. In January, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked the website’s license to operate and tried to shut it down, though the site continues to publish as its appeal winds through the courts. (Andanar denied that the Duterte administration filed legal cases against Rappler; Ressa disputed this, and sent BuzzFeed News a document with information on seven government cases filed against Rappler.) In February, the government banned all Rappler journalists from reporting at Malacañang, the presidential palace. Ressa, who previously served as CNN’s bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta, told BuzzFeed News she now takes personal precautions in case she gets arrested.
In July 2016, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a national newspaper that has existed since 1985, published a “kill list,” an “attempt to document the names and other particulars of the casualties” in Duterte’s war on drugs. In July 2017, after Duterte had repeatedly disparaged and threatened the newspaper, the Inquirer’s owners decided to sell a majority stake to Ramon Ang, the billionaire president of Filipino consumer goods company San Miguel Corporation — and a close ally of the president’s. “We had a number of meetings where we were told to be brave, to soldier on. Never did we think we’d be sold off, [and] to a Duterte campaign donor at that,” an anonymous Inquirer employee told Rappler after the buyout was announced. Andanar told BuzzFeed News that the administration “had nothing to do with the business decisions of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and San Miguel Corporation.”
“Filipinos [have a] weak relationship with news — the brands, the industry, the practice,” David said. Not only is the news market in the country relatively young, Filipino newspapers are expensive and mostly written in English, David explained. “There was no strong loyalty or support for news in the first place. False news did not have to supplant the legacy brands. People went from no access to news to gaining access only through Facebook’s algorithm-driven news feed.”
For Ressa, who’s long viewed Facebook as a close partner, Rappler’s current circumstances are a conundrum. “We have a love-hate relationship,” she said during a meeting at the media company’s headquarters in Manila. “Facebook empowered us, it empowered our communities.”
When the Philippine presidential election rolled around in 2016, the readership Facebook sent Rappler was unparalleled — so much so that Rappler did everything Facebook recommended: Instant Articles, videos, Facebook Live. And it worked. “I gave it all to Facebook,” Ressa said. Covering Duterte was particularly rewarding, since that tended to bring in traffic from Facebook in droves. But once Duterte was in office, things went south quickly. Whether it came to helping to police the harassment experienced by Rappler reporters on Facebook or stopping the spread of false facts about the news outlet on the platform — including Duterte’s own claim that the CIA funds Rappler — Facebook wasn’t much help.
Ressa is frustrated by Facebook’s lack of attention to her concerns. “They really need to understand the rest of the world,” she said. “I [always tell them]: ‘You cannot be so American- or European-centric, because you will build and kill people in other parts of the world.’ This is not theoretical. This is real.”
And yet she continues to look, confidently, to Facebook for solutions. “These,” Ressa said, referring to Facebook’s propaganda and false news problems, “are growth pains for a startup that’s running the world. I empathize. And I want them to fix it, quickly.”
In April, the Philippines became one of the first countries in Asia where Facebook launched third-party fact-checking, partnering with Rappler and Vera Files as its certified fact-checking partners. (In June, Facebook added AFP as a fact-checker.) Vera Files’ Tordesillas told BuzzFeed News the partnership included “a payment scheme” to submit an agreed-upon number of fact-checked items to Facebook per month, but declined to disclose the specific payment or the terms of the agreement. David, the UP professor, criticized Facebook’s initiatives in the Philippines.
“Facebook comes here and gives assurances, meets groups, and starts initiatives, which essentially pushes the work back to us — media and academics,” she told BuzzFeed News. “It is taxing our journalists and researchers. We have some of our most seasoned and experienced journalists and educators spending inordinate amounts of time developing fact-checking protocols, training students, and catching false reports floating around on Facebook, when they could be using that time actually reporting and investigating important political stories.”
“We have been screaming that to the high heavens over here for at least two years,” David added. “Facebook needs to take responsibility. There is no fact-checking our way out of this. The solutions have to come from the platform.”
On a bright and oppressively hot morning in Manila, RJ Nieto recounted a string of conspiracy theories over a meal of beef tapa and rice in OK Café in Pasig, a smoggy city on the eastern border of Metro Manila: A Filipino photojournalist livestreamed military activities during a conflict in the southern Philippines and put soldiers at risk, he told me (not true); the former administration was in such a “rush to plunder public funds” that it botched a nationwide vaccine program and endangered young lives (unproven); all media outlets are irreparably biased by their owners (antithetical to the fundamental principles of journalism). He paused only for a moment, when a young woman in her twenties approached our table. “I’m your fan,” she gushed, asking Nieto for a selfie (he obliged).
Nieto presents himself as “a grassroots activist” who “suddenly gained a gigantic voice.” He claims his work has been unfairly criticized. “They targeted me, calling me fake news,” he said of being called to testify at recent Senate hearings on fake news. “Which is weird, because what I write is opinion.”
But Nieto does publish news as well, both to his blog and directly on Facebook, where he posts “10 to 20 times a day,” he told BuzzFeed News. That news is typically unverified; sometimes it's demonstrably inaccurate. Beyond the conspiracies noted above, Nieto has misquoted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a way that made it appear Trudeau supported a massive garbage dump in the Philippines. He’s promoted a falsified 1979 psychiatric report on the former Philippine president Noynoy Aquino, which claimed that the reason Aquino wanted to become president was “to heap a measure of revenge” on those who imprisoned his father, Benigno Aquino Jr., the rival of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and a national hero who was assassinated in 1983. Nieto has also tried to artificially deflate the number of Filipinos murdered in Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. He has used Facebook Live footage of child autopsies in a crusade to blame a health crisis on the former administration.
Nieto speaks to an audience of more than 2 million Facebook followers. Each of his posts gets thousands of likes and shares, consistently more than the political commentators he’d be most comparable to in the US. He touts all this as evidence that everything is just fine in the Philippines. “They’re saying that freedom of speech is under threat. No,” he said. “It’s never been more democratic.”
Whether or not Nieto is overstating the influence of his preferred medium, the numbers are tough to dispute: According to the polls, Duterte is one of the most popular Philippine presidents of all time.
Facebook’s struggle to wrangle fake news in the United States is well known. But that struggle extends far beyond the borders of the US, and it is particularly difficult in markets like the Philippines, where in many cases, Facebook lacks the cultural context to police its platform. The company says it is growing its team of 7,500 content reviewers — a mix of full-time employees, contractors, and companies Facebook partners with for content review — which allows it to cover every time zone. Facebook also said its teams can evaluate content in over 50 languages, including Tagalog and other Filipino dialects like Ilocano, Cebuano, and Tausug. It says it is investing in people, and will have 20,000 working in safety and security by the end of this year. But according to Filipinos who have experienced harassment on the platform, the social network’s systems are woefully inadequate.
Jover Laurio, a 38-year-old law student behind the anti-administration Pinoy Ako Blog (nearly 200,000 followers), has endured relentless abuse on Facebook for speaking out about state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings and analyzing false claims made by the president and his cohorts. She is suing Nieto and Sasot for publishing personal information about her online that she says incited a wave of harassment. (“I first sued her for libel,” Sasot said when asked for comment from BuzzFeed News. “That’s all I can say to that because our case is currently going on.” Nieto did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this issue.)
Three months after the Philippine presidential election, Laurio said, she posted a list of reasons she could not support the president to her personal Facebook account. The post, which was shared some 28,000 times, provoked immediate backlash online. “I started receiving death threats, hate messages,” she said.
Laurio then started an anonymous Facebook page and website, which she called the Pinoy Ako Blog, to mitigate harassment. But the harassment didn’t stop. “They started mass reporting the [Facebook] page,” she said. “It would get suspended one week, two weeks, sometimes a month.”
Laurio repeatedly contacted Facebook executives overseeing Southeast Asia for help. “I am being constantly targeted by the supporters of this administration,” she wrote in June 2017, adding, “Honestly, I have not posted anything offensive at all. I am just trying to correct all the fake news that has been spreading by the present administration. This mass reporting strategy is to silence me, or silence the truth.” Facebook’s response? Identical, boilerplate emails notifying Laurio that it had lifted the “automated” restrictions on her page, sent four times.
In September 2017, Nieto and Sasot launched a campaign to find out who, exactly, was behind Pinoy Ako, and Laurio eventually revealed herself as the author. The online hate only intensified once her identity was known. Facebook Messenger messages, sent to Laurio and reviewed by BuzzFeed News, were a hive of invective. “Animal kang puta ka na mukha kang bayawak demonya” (You are an animal, bitch! You look like a lizard, you demon); “Putang ina mu jover ... kpag nkita kita bubuhasan kita ng mainit n tubig sa muka” (Fuck you, Jover; when I see you, I’ll pour boiling water on your face). Along with a dick pic, one harasser wrote: “Regalo ko sayo, nanalo ka e” (My gift to you, since you won). Laurio said at the high point of her harassment, she was receiving 20 to 30 messages a day.
Nieto himself photoshopped her head on a turkey with a caption (“Gobble, gebble, GOEBBELS!”) and inexactly quoted the German Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels: “A lie, when repeated often enough, becomes the truth,” the meme read. He used the acronym of her blog, PAB, to spell out “Passive-Aggressive Bitch.” He called for the Philippine NBI Cybercrime Division to investigate her, to hold anonymous bloggers “accountable.”
Laurio was forced to move to a safe house. Her supporters helped her to hire bodyguards, and a pro bono lawyer came to her aid. She continues to publish to her Facebook page and her website. And she continues to fear for her life.
For Phelim Kine, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, who has studied the ongoing violence in the Philippines, counter-narratives from Nieto and his ilk are not only dangerous — they’re damning.
“Any influential person with a public following, through whatever media, who refuses to recognize that the Philippines is in the throes of a human rights calamity ... and seeks to vilify the reputations of those who are seeking to provide reliable information about that [calamity]," he said, “those people are, at the very least, doing a disservice to the public good, and may very well be complicit in these crimes that are occurring.”
Communications Secretary Andanar said the accusations go both ways. “To be fair to the supporters of the President, the bullying, the harassment, and the threats go both ways,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The critics of President Duterte are just as vicious and mean — and their attacks are potentially hurtful.”
The story of Facebook’s rise in the Philippines is, in many ways, the story of Facebook’s original mission of “making the world more open and connected,” and its unexpected, calamitous consequences. It’s the story of Facebook working exactly as designed in a country that seemingly had so much to gain from embracing it. It’s the story of what happens in a society when truth no longer matters. And, if you’ve paid any attention at all to what’s happened in the United States this past year, what’s happened in France, in Mexico, and in Myanmar, it’s a familiar one.
“At some point they knew — we knew — that dissemination of fake news, propaganda and outright intentional manipulation and brainwashing was being committed through their platforms,” de Lima wrote from jail. “At that point, when they knew and did nothing to protect both their own platforms and the people who use them from these unethical, illegal or destructive practices, they played a part in everything that happened.”
Conversations with Filipino reporters quickly put this all into stark relief. The journalists I met in Manila bemoaned shifting narratives from victims who make personal calculations on the fly, telling different versions of the same story in hopes of protecting friends and family. Facts are inconsistent. Sources fear for their lives. The reporters struggle to tell a horrific story that desperately needs to be told.
According to a June 2018 study conducted by a consortium of Philippine research universities and a local investigative news outlet, it’s the poorest Filipinos who are most vulnerable to Duterte’s war on drugs. Researchers identified 223 of 5,021 killed in drug-related incidents between May 10, 2016, and Sept. 29, 2017, as pedicab or jeepney drivers, construction workers, farmers, and garbage collectors. Another 38 victims were reportedly unemployed. Some of these people and many of the more than 12,000 victims of Duterte’s drug war have been slaughtered by motorcycle-riding vigilantes or death squads. Others have been slain by the police.
After being elected as president of the Philippines, Duterte — who has publicly bragged about killing criminals himself — promised that any police officer who shot and killed in service of his war on drugs would be pardoned. “When the time comes, I’ll remember the arrangement, and you cops can take your pardons,” he said in Tagalog. “There will be many copies of pardons, pre-signed.”
At 12:20 a.m. one humid evening in March, in the shanty neighborhood of Tondo, Manila, a rail-thin mother slumped in a makeshift bed — two plastic chairs shoved together under a tent made of flimsy green tarpaulin. Clutching a frayed blanket, her face was a mask of grief. In front of her, a child-size coffin.
A week earlier, 13-year-old Aldrinne Pineda — whose nickname had been Ilong, or “nose” in English, when he was alive — had been shot in the hip by a police officer while playing near his home. “Doon siya bumagsak. Sa kagitnaan doon,” his grandmother, Cora, told the scrum of reporters gathered for his wake, pointing to a dark alley behind the coffin. (“Over there is where he fell. In the middle [of the alley] there.”)
I had come to the wake with a cadre of freelance Filipino photojournalists on the so-called Night Shift. Every night in Manila, a group of journalists work to document the victims of Duterte’s war on drugs. They gather at the main city police station along United Nations Avenue at 10 p.m., waiting for tips. When they get one, they mobilize like a fire brigade. Their cars in caravan, they speed through the near-empty streets, headlights blazing, hoping to beat police investigators, some of whom reportedly have a track record of altering crime scenes and intimidating witnesses. The Night Shift operation has been going on since mid-2016.
On this night, the sole tip was from Aldrinne’s family. But Night Shift regulars told me it is often far worse. There is a pattern to the carnage: Mondays are the busiest day of the week; the nights are long. Bodies have a way of appearing in the early hours of the morning. The shift ends at 5 a.m.
The record number of bodies reported in 24 hours was 32, in August 2017. “Those who died in Bulacan, 32, in a massive raid, that’s good,” Duterte said of the operation. “If we can kill another 32 every day, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country.”
That evening, a reporter told me about their work on a big, incriminating feature about the drug war a year or so into Duterte’s presidency. It concerned a cop who had killed four residents in one of the shantytowns of Metro Manila. It took months to report. It was sourced to more than three dozen people. It showed, in great detail, a tight-knit community gutted by the drug war. The journalist told me the subjects of the piece were threatened and harassed by the police after its publication. “One had to move to the province; one went into a witness protection program run by a local human rights group,” they said.
And on Facebook, where nearly two-thirds of the Philippines’ population comes to be entertained and to read the news, the story saw just a couple hundred shares.
“No investigation came out of that story,” the reporter said. It was a shame, they added. The exposé just “didn’t get that much buzz.” ●
* Reached for comment on Duterte Communications Secretary Martin Andanar’s remark, Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch said: “Andanar’s ham-fisted attempt to impugn the integrity of Human Rights Watch’s on-the-ground, verified research of summary executions by Philippine police personnel and their agents in the Duterte ‘drug war’ is emblematic of the Philippine government’s tactic of denial and distraction in a craven attempt to dodge accountability for what is nothing less than a policy of state slaughter of urban slum dwellers under the veneer of an anti-crime campaign.”
This story has been updated to clarify comments from Maria Ressa.