Fake News Floods the Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Credit Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Credit Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Yen Makabenta, a veteran journalist now at The Manila Times, wrote a prominent column last month about the American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who enthusiastically praised President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. “The Philippines is suffocating,” Mr. Makabenta quoted the ambassador as saying. “We must give President Duterte the space to run his nation.” Ms. Haley, he reported, warned of “destructive forces” that “have calibrated their plot to ouster movements” against Mr. Duterte.

Mr. Duterte no doubt appreciated Ms. Haley’s support. The only problem: It wasn’t true. Mr. Makabenta had based his column on a fake story from a website whose web address, grammatical errors and far-fetched assertions should have made clear that it was a counterfeit of Al Jazeera.

As it has around the world, the internet in the Philippines has become a morass of fake news and conspiracy theories, harassment and bullying. This has muddied public discourse and cultivated a populist attitude toward democracy. What is true, or legal, is no longer important as long as the majority supports it. Responsibility has been discarded for partisanship.

Since well before the presidential election last year, a multitude of dubious independent news sites, counterfeits of established news outlets and blatantly partisan blogs have supported Mr. Duterte. They have featured fake endorsements from leaders like Pope Francis (“chosen by God”), Emmanuel Macron (“role model”) and Angela Merkel (“a giant”). Celebrities who have offered praise, according to fake news, include Angelina Jolie, Dwayne Johnson and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was said to have called Mr. Duterte “a real starring fighter”). Even NASA purportedly named him “the best president in the solar system.”

The fake news isn’t always complimentary. An opposition politician was said to be “recruiting soldiers for a coup.” Vice President Leni Robredo, of the opposition Liberal Party, had supposedly met with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general at the time, to conspire to remove the president.

Mr. Duterte’s opponents have at times benefited from fake news, but a disproportionate amount of it favors him. Nobody knows for sure who funds these efforts, though a study by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project determined that the Duterte campaign paid $200,000 for as many as 500 dedicated trolls to attack dissenters and spread disinformation. (In response, Mr. Duterte called Oxford “a school for stupid people” — before admitting that he had in fact hired trolls.)

One of the most egregious employers of this tactic is an informal group that calls itself the Duterte Diehard Supporters, whose initials, not coincidentally, are the same as those for the Davao Death Squads, which killed crime suspects in Mr. Duterte’s hometown when he was mayor. These supporters spin circuitous defenses of Mr. Duterte’s administration, disseminate spurious reports and cast dissent as destabilization. The most dedicated have been rewarded with government positions or other employment with his allies.

I know well what it’s like to be targeted by this propaganda machine. My opposition to the president’s violent rhetoric and his disdain for democratic checks and balances has earned me attacks and threats. Usually Duterte Diehard Supporters will seize on one of my columns or Facebook posts, engaging in ad hominem assaults on their pages that they tacitly encourage their followers to continue onto mine. It has come to the point that I check every morning to see if something I wrote has prompted more abuse. (You can imagine what this essay will elicit.)

I am far from the only Filipino to get this treatment. The attacks come in waves from outraged trolls — with social media accounts and inboxes flooded with insults, promises of violence and memes made to expressly mock and disgrace — before they move on to the next target after several days. The duration and intensity seem directly correlated to the reach and influence of the person being attacked. Recently, an anonymous anti-Duterte blogger and the man who merely administers the server hosting her popular blog were publicly outed and threatened, and now face libel charges — a criminal offense that carries possible imprisonment.

These online assaults mirror what is known as “tokhang” — the door-to-door, sometimes lethal visits by policemen in search of drug suspects. A group called the Duterte Cyber Warriors even adopted the term “cyber tokhang” for its efforts to shut down Facebook accounts of people who oppose the president.

Just as the real-world killings include innocents, the online assassinations have proven similarly indiscriminate. A Filipina propagandist living in the Netherlands recently sought to discredit a journalist who, it turned out, only had the same name as someone who had worked for the opposition.

Mr. Duterte not only has refused to condemn the flood of fake news and the belligerence of his online supporters but also has rewarded some of their leaders. Mocha Uson, for example, now has a job at the Presidential Communications Operations Office even as she maintains her popular pro-Duterte blog. Another unabashedly partisan blogger, R. J. Nieto, was hired by the Department of Foreign Affairs as a social media consultant.

Ms. Uson and Mr. Nieto were among the bloggers and journalists invited to a recent Senate hearing on fake news. They were grilled by opposition senators about responsibility and fairness, but the two bloggers adamantly insisted that they are exempt from such standards — Ms. Uson said that she is not a journalist; Mr. Nieto said he used his blog to “imagine scenarios.” The televised hearing ended without any definitive result, except perhaps to increase the visibility of the bloggers.

Meanwhile, irresponsible conduct online continues, with only a few independent sites like the fact-checking blog Memebuster attempting scrutiny. Others have started campaigns against fake news or online harassment but have largely failed or come uncomfortably close to censorship. Despite our country’s issues, free speech still thrives, though the mob rule of populism certainly tries to control it through brute force and denial.

In The Manila Times, Mr. Makabenta issued neither correction nor retraction of his article on Ms. Haley, despite public criticism as well as a statement from the American Embassy. Instead he doubled down in a subsequent column, citing President Trump’s rhetoric on a hands-off foreign policy.

“Some will continue to badger me for allegedly falling victim to fake news,” Mr. Makabenta wrote, as if his lack of responsibility was ultimately inconsequential. He continued: “The idea will live on long after the hysterics are over.”

Mr. Makabenta’s fake news article remains on The Manila Times website, just as if it were true. That speaks volumes about accountability in the era of Mr. Duterte. Given this administration, and those who prop it up, this is typical and expected. And that, sadly, is a fact.

Miguel Syjuco, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the novel Ilustrado and a professor at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi.

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