Duterte Threatens Facebook Shutdown in Philippines After Pro-Gov't Pages Removed

But the social media giant’s platform was integral to his presidential election win in 2016.
September 29, 2020, 8:21am
Facebook, Philippines
A human rights advocate holds up a mask featuring Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte during a march to mark International Human Rights Day in Manila on December 10, 2019. Photo: Maria TAN / AFP

President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to shut down Facebook in the Philippines as he rebuked the leading social media platform in the country for taking down a network of accounts linked to the Philippine military.

“Facebook, listen to me,” Duterte said in a rambling late night televised speech on Monday. “We allow you to operate here hoping that you could help us also. Now, if [the] government cannot espouse or advocate something which is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose here in my country?”

The president said the government was using Facebook to stop Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency.

The televised dressing down came after Facebook removed a network of 155 accounts, pages and Instagram accounts linked to the Philippine military for its “coordinated inauthentic behavior” that violated the social media platform’s rules.

A sampling of content shared by the tech giant showed the network targeted activists, opposition figures and the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing, the National People’s Army.

Included in the dismantled network are accounts that originated in China and supported the potential presidential bid of Duterte’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, Facebook added.

The Philippine military first denied Facebook’s allegation that they are behind the pages, but it later asked the company to restore the deleted accounts saying they are using it for “advocacy.”

Duterte accused Facebook of siding with the left and communists in the Philippines as he demanded a dialogue with the tech giant’s executives.

“[W]hat would be the point of allowing you to continue if you cannot help us? We are not advocating mass destruction, we are not advocating mass massacre. It’s a fight of ideas,” he said.

The removal of pro-government accounts amounted to censorship, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Tuesday, adding that Duterte will probably not order Facebook banned.

Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment from VICE News. However, it has stressed before that the take down was not based on content but due to “inauthentic” behavior or when fake accounts mislead people about “who they are and what they are doing.”

An independent investigation done by Washington-based The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab revealed the names of three Philippine soldiers who operate the network of fake accounts. One of them was the head of the army’s social media operations.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to Philippine military and Philippine police,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said in a briefing on the take down.

It remains to be seen whether Duterte would take action against a platform that was so key to his election campaign.

The number one website in the Philippines, Facebook was instrumental to Duterte’s landslide presidential victory in 2016, elevating a brash city mayor to the top job.

Duterte’s supporter base thrived on Facebook with mobilization fueled by social media influencers, some of whom were later appointed to government positions.

The Philippine president has also admitted his campaign paid some $200,000 to help rally support on Facebook, as first reported by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University.

“I spent P10 million? Me? Maybe in the elections, in the elections I spent more than that…they were all during the campaign,” Duterte said.

Critics of Facebook say its model undermines democracy and helps autocratic governments across the world, but it remains an enormously popular platform with 2.7 billion monthly active users worldwide.