Facebook announced late Thursday that it had removed 200 pages, groups, and accounts that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram in the Philippines. According to a company blog post, the pages and accounts were “linked to a network organized by Nic Gabunada” — the social media director for Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential campaign with whom BuzzFeed News spoke last year in a story about how Duterte harnessed Facebook to undermine domestic political opposition and fuel a bloody drug war in the country.
The accounts that engaged in such coordinated inauthentic behavior “[misled] others about who they were and what they were doing,” Facebook head of cybersecurity Nathaniel Gleicher said in the post. But, Gleicher also stressed, the company decided to take down these pages and accounts “based on their behavior, not the content they posted” (effectively providing cover for Facebook against possible accusations that it could be making content decisions on the basis of political bias and partisanship).
“In this case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action,” Gleicher said.
Gleicher said during a press briefing at Facebook Philippines’ office in Taguig City that a total of 3.6 million Filipinos follow at least one of the “inauthentic” pages, and at least 1.8 million Facebook accounts are involved in one of the identified groups.
As a September 2018 BuzzFeed News feature showed, in the Philippines, much of the extreme political rhetoric on Facebook props up Philippine President Duterte’s authoritarian reign. According to Gabunada at the time, from the very beginning of Duterte’s presidential campaign, Facebook was an essential tool for Duterte fans to freely spread coordinated messages on Facebook — especially because, thanks to deals that the company struck with local carriers, Facebook is free to use in the Philippines for anyone who has a smartphone.
During Gabunada’s interview with BuzzFeed News, he dubiously insisted that the engagement was “organic” and “volunteer-driven,” and also said Duterte’s campaign purchased no Facebook ads and only occasionally boosted posts.
Yet Facebook’s post yesterday tells a different story. The company said it detected around $59,000 in spending for ads on Facebook paid for in Philippine peso, Saudi riyal, and US dollars. The first ad ran in January 2014, the company said, and the latest ad ran as recently as March 2019. Additionally, “the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action,” Facebook said.
And despite Gabunada’s claim last year that the actors behind pro-Duterte pages and accounts posted content of their own accord, he also boasted that his team largely directed the messaging and supplied stories. “[We] gave them something to talk about,” Gabunada said at the time.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Facebook and Gabunada for comment.