Lawmakers in the Philippines passed a bill this week that will require everyone to register their real name and phone number when opening a social media account. The move is an attempt to block legions of online trolls ahead of an upcoming general election, in a country where populist politicians have spun online disinformation to their advantage in recent years.
With President Rodrigo Duterte presently expected to sign the bill into law, the Philippines may provide the world a test case as governments across the globe, from the UK to Australia, increasingly discuss the need to take measures against anonymous accounts on social media.
“With the Philippines emerging as some kind of global troll farm or troll hub, its experience [mandating registration] can have reverberations around the world, and other besieged democracies also in the grip of authoritarian populism will take notice,” Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based geopolitical author and professor, told VICE World News.
The new measure, named the “SIM Card Registration Act,” will require telecommunications service providers to register every SIM card sold before activation. This way, even prepaid mobile phone lines can be traced to their owners. The same policy will apply to social media, as users will be required to register their true identities and phone numbers when they start an account.
Accounts, including existing ones, that are not linked to verified identities within six months of the law’s enactment will be deactivated. Anyone found using a fictitious identity to obtain a SIM card or use social media will be imprisoned for at least six years or fined up to 200,000 pesos (about $40,000), or both.
With nearly 80 million smartphone users and more than 70 million Facebook subscribers, the Philippines is a huge social media market. Filipinos spend an average of four hours on social media daily, according to studies.
In recent years, disinformation networks linked to politicians and political parties have flooded Filipino social media with propaganda. Bolstered by paid troll armies, these campaigns have shifted public opinion on key issues in favor of politicians like Duterte, whose myth and popularity are largely built on sensational messaging propagated online.
A timeline for when the bill will be officially enforced is unclear, but if enacted in time the new law could sway the country’s general election on May 9, when Filipinos are to elect a new president. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of a deceased dictator and now a frontrunner for the presidency, has campaigned largely on social media, steering clear of televised debates.
With echoes of Duterte’s successful 2016 campaign, Marcos has relied on online supporters—real or otherwise—to spread myths and sanitize his family’s record of corruption and abuses when they were in power for two decades. Last month, Twitter suspended over 300 newly created accounts tied to Marcos’ support base for violating its platform manipulation and spam policy.
For the bill’s authors, the fact that they’ve managed to pass it amid the Philippines’ fraught pre-election political atmosphere is quite an achievement, especially since their own careers might be on the line.
“[The bill] is our little contribution to fight the anonymity that provides the environment for trolls and other malicious attacks to thrive in the age of social media,” Senator Franklin Drilon, one of the bill’s authors, said in a statement to VICE World News. “I hope this signals the end of the troll era that infected and caused further division in our country.”
Telecom companies are to submit users’ registration information to a centralized database, “which shall strictly serve as a register for the processing, activation or deactivation of subscription, and shall not be used for any other purpose,” according to the bill’s authors.
With this, the Philippines may serve as the world’s lab rat in terms of measuring the feasibility of requiring registration for social media accounts, and whether it will curb online abuse from anonymous accounts. Governments across the world are increasingly concerned about abuse stemming from online anonymity. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison recently called social media “a coward’s palace” for providing a venue to “destroy people’s lives and say the most foul and offensive things” with impunity.
The UK too is debating whether to require the registration of social media accounts in an effort to curb online anonymity following the murder of a member of parliament last year.
“The Philippines in many ways could be an important test case and also a cautionary tale,” Heydarian said. “I think there definitely was a lack of proactive legislation in the past, and the Philippines has paid a steep price for that with the emergence of authoritarian nostalgia.”
In September 2020, Facebook removed networks linked to China and Philippine authorities that showed coordinated inauthentic behavior. Besides this, the platform has not taken any major action against a slew of disinformation, despite repeated complaints from Filipino users. VICE World News sought comment from Facebook and Twitter in the Philippines for this story, but they did not immediately respond to our queries.
“This alone won’t be enough,” Heydarian said. “There will have to be other measures, including pressure on the social media platforms to make necessary adjustments in their algorithms.”
Follow JC Gotinga on Twitter.