Unmasking the trolls: Countering attacks in social media

Chi Almario-Gonzalez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 23 2017 08:58 PM | Updated as of Jan 24 2017 12:20 PM

[Last of a 2-part series]

MANILA - If online trolls are soldiers of social media's dark lords, it appears that an army of social media guardians are keen on fighting the dark army.

Freelance journalist and social media activist Inday Espina Varona is one of those who fight trolls online.

Varona, the former head of the advocacy group Change.org, uses her public Facebook account like a newspaper’s opinion page. She actively encourages public discussion on relevant issues. She also contributes editorial opinion pieces and other articles to news.abs-cbn.com.

She has been frequently attacked by trolls for her stand on several controversial issues.

Her Facebook account was also recently blocked after she raised the issue of online bullying and abuse on social media. It was restored after Varona and several journalists called on Facebook to bring it back online. She believes trolls were behind the move to take down her account.

Varona said she is not daunted by the troll army. She encourages participative and healthy discussion on her social media account if they behave.

Spotting trolls, fake news

Over the years, Varona has monitored and compiled online evidence revealing trolls and fake accounts, their activities and dissemination of fake news. Most of these, she said, were posted on her comments section.

One example, she said, was the use of a fake FB account linked to the profile of a certain "Soj'Kulotz Sanchez Pascua".

When Varona posted a call-out in late November for the protest action against the burial of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, the account made a comment alleging that people were offered money to attend the event.

Varona said she checked out the Facebook account and found it was under an “assumed name.”

A google search of the name Soj’Kulotz Sanchez Pascua led to a website. Scrolling down on the website showed the name.

Screenshot of the website Email-fake.com
Screenshot of the website Email-fake.com

A click on the name "Soj’Kulotz Sanchez Pascua" was redirected to the same website.

Here is the redirected account( ) if you click the name Soj’Kulotz Sanchez Pascua.

Varona has also exposed fake news.

One such item that Varona pointed out in her social media account was a fake report shared in August 2016 by former Duterte campaign manager and now National Irrigation Administration chief Peter Laviña.

Laviña reacted to an article about a raped and murdered child. In his post, Laviña lashed out at people criticizing Duterte’s violent anti-illegal drug campaign and yet allegedly do not raise an outcry over crimes like a child’s murder.

One journalist, Froilan Gallardo, fact-checked the article. He found out that the original story came out in a foreigner’s blog. The crime happened in another country in 2014.

Laviña’s post after a fact-check on the article
Laviña’s post after a fact-check on the article

A check on the link provided by Gallardo led to a foreigner’s blog post. The headline in the Portuguese language translates to: “Girl of 9 years is found dead with signs of sexual abuse and grandfather is the main suspect.”

The blog site where the original report came from.

Varona said she has called the attention of Laviña on the article. “This is a real person, responsible official spreading fake news,” she added.

Varona has also received many threats, including one from a troll. She called on her contacts from the Duterte camp to talk to person. She said the person was located and advised to refrain from issuing threats.

Screenshot from Varona’s Facebook account

“When they curse or call you names, I automatically consider them trolls. There are those who are real people who mask their accounts,” Varona said.

Tolerance

Varona often chooses to engage real people. “I take their questions seriously,” she said, adding that she allows contrary opinion but people must follow certain rules.

The rules are: no cursing; no personal insults; no sharing of posts from anonymous sites or sharing of fake news, and no memes.

Varona does not get angry at trolls. She said she even finds them funny. She, however stressed the importance of people not hindering free exchange of expression. She warned trolls not to use either threats or harassment to stifle debate.

Some die-hard supporters or fanatics, she said, use these tactics to defend the person they idolize. That is why leaders of these social media groups need to supervise their followers, she added.

DU30's 'army' 

Varona said one such group consists of volunteers for President Rodrigo Duterte. “They (volunteers) are being organized as activist groups,” she said.

She said the top leaders of the organization, two of whom are her friends, recruited many volunteers nationwide. All members have “on-ground and on-line presence.”

“They (leaders) meet every day (online) to scan the environment. 'What’s the problem? What’s our strategy if there’s criticism against Digong (Duterte)?'. At a snap of a finger, they (volunteers) can be mobilized,” Varona said, in describing the highly organized movement.

Varona said vigilance is important in guarding against use of social media for online attacks and spreading disinformation.

Like Armand Nocum, the political and social media strategist, Varona can see more netizens exercising caution in sharing news for fear of falling victim to fake news.

Fighting trolls

There are ways to protect against trolls and social media attacks.

Joj Gaskell, Radio Veritas new media department head, recalled how Pangasinan Archbishop Soc Villegas’ Facebook account was attacked in early 2016 after the Catholic Church leader had critical comments against Duterte.

“He was a victim of a wolf pack. We had to take down his account,” Gaskell said.

A wolf pack, according to Gaskell, refers to a group of trolls that launches relentless attacks on a social media account.

Priests vs trolls

The account was later restored. Gaskell said the Church's social media team has established a defense strategy: recruiting social media guardians.

What they did, he said, was organize the parishioners on social media and make them part of the Facebook account of the archbishop.

Account protection is fortified and the parishioners act as guardians. This way, Gaskell said, even if trolls attack the account, the army of parishioners will drown out and drive away the trolls. He said the same strategy is adopted in protecting the accounts of other Church leaders.

Media literacy

“We ask the parishioners to be active and vigilant so you repel the attack by the wolf pack. Eventually trolls transfer if there is no engagement because it will just be a waste of their time,” he said.

Another long-term solution, Gaskell said, is media literacy. He said if the public is educated on the role of media and how to verify information, the manipulation of opinion through fake news will stop.

Gaskell, like Nocum and Varona, believes that people are now monitoring the proliferation of fake news. Since people are more guarded, Gaskell thinks “trolling” will be “tamer.”

Nocum believes that the public tolerance for trolls has reached its limits. “Like the saying goes, you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

But Varona fears that if the people have busted fabricated trolling and spreading of fake news, political strategists may find new malicious ways of using social media as a manipulation tool.

Varona warned that political strategists' use of trolls may morph into "something else".

(A version of this report was submitted for an investigative reporting course that is part of the M.A. Journalism program at the Ateneo de Manila University)