OPINION: Silence of the Graveyard: The digital version

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Dec 08 2016 10:33 PM | Updated as of Dec 09 2016 01:53 AM

It started as a private, closed group, where individuals – many under assumed identities – posted “instructions” for reprisal moves against the thousands protesting President Rodrigo Duterte’s support for the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Soon after, hundreds of users found themselves blocked from their Facebook accounts. Many thought they had been hacked, noting efforts to log in to their account from places they had not been to.

Some, myself included, were told by Facebook that “someone” had reported violations of community standards. 

As reports of blocks that seemed linked to hacks mounted, posts on the Duterte Cyber Warriors closed group started circulating. 

Among the claims by the group: the availability of a "DCW mobile offensive tool" to monitor traffic. Characters in the group, including a “Dr. Salim McDoom” – alleged founder -- called it “Oplan Cyber Tokhang.” 

They called for field operatives. It was a war against critics of the government and used the language of bloodlust that President Duterte likes hurling at opponents of his anti-drug offensive.

The goal, as stated by the self-proclaimed hackers, was clear: disable accounts, sow fear by openly targeting critics. 

Complaints poured at the Facebook reporting desks. 

FAKE NEWS?

As the controversy mounted, the hackers and “experts” changed tune. 

It was “just a social experiment to bait media into spreading fake news,” Manila Bulletin Tech editor Art Samaniego Jr. told Future Perfect.

The journalist and cyber security expert called "Salim McDoom" and his ilk “security professionals,” basing his assessment on an on-line interview. 

He also pointed out, citing group chats with McDoom’s group, that most members of the group are “good writers” and “good communicators” but not really cyber experts. 

Why were they doing this “social experiment”?

The group made it clear that they are supporters of President Duterte. 

The goal, Samaniego said, was to prove mainstream media “could be tricked into publishing fake news.”

The group showed him a device, basically some sort of TV tuner that one can connect into a computer, and then fire up commands to detect nearby signals. 

Very clearly, it is a dangerous move because it could mimic frequencies and send it back, confusing gadgets – the example featured an attempt to open one’s car. 

It can also intercept text and voice messages and one needs tools to decrypt and a powerful computer “like a Mac”. 

Samaniego equated the fact that “neutrals” were also victimized as proof of fake news. He said there was a bug – a nice coincidence that Facebook later used, days after the hacking complaints. 

He also acknowledged there may have been an actual attack but that the perpetrators didn’t care whether or not victims were anti-Marcos. 

NAMBOBOLA?

Samaniego seemed please with the briliance of his news subjects. 

“Nabola ka ng magaling,” was the phrase he used for what happened to colleagues in media. 

An attack is a crime. Attempting to open a vehicle that is not yours is definitely a crime. You don’t need to be a lawyer to recognize that. 

It's easy to wash one’s hands of an attack by dragging in “neutrals” – that is an old cyber propaganda ploy, used both by Duterte supporters and their opposite numbers. 

(Yes, the other side also spreads fake news, first by letting gullible Digong supporters fall for incredible but fake good news, and then later by letting them spread false charges against other people they want to hoist up as martyrs.)

Last night, journalists were offered a preview of the Duterte Cyber Warriors’ latest statement by a public relations professional who said he was acting as “intermediary”.

Reading through the statement brought up memories of Presidential Communications chief Martin Andanar’s attack on “temperamental brats” protesting the Marcos burial. 

Well, he may want to revisit his definition of that phrase.

The Duterte Cyber Warriors, offered their version of the olive branch with this call: “Let us bury the hatchet and pick up the spade. Time to rebuild. Join us in uncovering truth and burying lies.”

They were issuing the statement as “evidence of our sincerest intentions” and in aid of “alliance-building beyond pro-Duterte groups alone … “in pursuit of better governance and demanding news that does not manipulate the way our perceptions are shaped." 

“In the court of public opinion, we believe, it is in the Philippines where the People's voice is heard loudest,” the group said, hailing the GMADII-Guardians and Underground DUtertistas for joining their efforts. 

The target: “established power structures,” clearly of the past administrations. 

“They have essentially waged war on the Filipino people, rendering services and infrastructure not far from that of a war-torn country, and continue to attempt to usurp our new leadership, primarily via disinformation and propaganda,” the group added.

Obviously, media -- traditional and social -- is the main platform for this “war”.

This group of "data security professionals as well as well-meaning social activists" called what they did “a constructive reminder,” a “Content & Technology vulnerability test.”

“The exercise has led many to question what really construes the news. Initial mission, accomplished.”

How interesting that they parrot Samaniego – on everything. And they blame “spies” and then wash their hands of the attacks, claiming their cyber experts were not even in the country.

The statement was offered with a reassurance that neither journalist Ed Lingao or I were targets, with the compliment about being “fair.” 

TERROR TACTICS

I’ve covered terror groups for a number of years and know all the justifications for attacks.

I’ve also covered threats of attacks that didn’t happen – with the same justifications raised.

Dear experts, I am not impressed.

This wasn’t just about embarrassing media – and your excuses fall flat there, too. 

This was about terrorizing the vast users of social media, journalists and non-journalists, into publishing only what you deem as “fair” or “unbiased” news. 

Only you seem to have a monopoly of the definition of “public trust”.

Moving forward, you make demands, including that media “serve the people and not special or private interests”. 

And you order the following:

1.) REPORT EVERYTHING. This includes information that may involve your parent or affiliate companies. Do not insulate them. Disclose all private affiliations.

2.) AVOID QUOTES AS HEADLINES. This has been used too frequently and misleads the public who often do not read beyond headlines. Whenever this is employed, your organization acts no more than a mouthpiece for the person quoted.

3.) DO NOT LABEL. Unnecessary labelling equates to hasty judgement. This includes recent reports on unsolved killings, readily branded by most media as extrajudicial killings. This obscures from the public the real dangers that surround them.

4.) NO TO OMISSION. Simply stating that other sources are not available is not balanced reportage. Omission would include double standards as well.

5.) NO CREATIVE CROPPING. This is the lensman's and cameraman's equivalent of omission.

6.) FOLLOW YOUR STORIES. Jumping to the next big thing and forgetting the last does not serve the public well.

7.) REPORT ON POSITIVE CHANGE, TOO. In a country mired in poverty and underdevelopment, good news is news as well.

Stem the propagation of lies and be wary of sources that may only have political destabilization in mind.

TERRORISM BY ANY OTHER NAME

I have never shirked from calling out colleagues when we get the news wrong. I do not mind criticism either. 

Social media is powerful enough that it can call out mistakes almost simultaneously as the media you want to boycott commit these.

You have your social media stars that have millions of followers. Lil ‘ol me enjoys only a few thousands of followers and I do not begrudge them or their followers who are true-believers.

Criticism is one thing. Methods employed are a different story.

Your so-called social engineering comes with a clear goal. You threaten to follow up on the earlier threat (that supposedly never happened) -- if and when your targets do not follow your demands.

That’s terrorism, pure and simple. 

Every journalist and every netizen who cares about freedom of expression – whatever side one backs – must stand firm before any terror threat.

You are terrorists and you will not win. 

The Duterte administration, whose flag these cyber terrorists fly, must crackdown on this group and individuals. If you don't, you are complicit in their terrorist goals.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.