The Hicban brothers sourced from Twinmark employees and the Hicban’s social media accounts
Culture Spotlight

From the $100K checks to the European tours: what we know so far of the elusive Hicban Brothers

A portrait of the brothers behind the Facebook-banned Twinmark Media Enterprises, from the eyes of their employees and the media, and from what the spreadsheets say.
Warren de Guzman | Mar 12 2019

Twinmark Media Enterprises was banned by Facebook in January for coordinated inauthentic behavior, spamming, misrepresentation, and various other violations of Facebook policies. Twinmark was incorporated by the Hicban brothers—twins Pet and Ken, and their third brother Mark.

ABS-CBN published multiple stories on the operations of Twinmark Media based on insider testimonies and documents obtained from the company. However, the three Hicbans have continued to evade requests for comment and clarification. 

In light of this, the questions remain: Who are Pet, Ken and Mark?  Why won’t they come out to explain their actions?  What was the motivation behind this multi-million dollar social media-based business?  What do they think of Facebook banning Twinmark from the social media site? 

They haven’t stepped forward to give their side of the story, but many others have. 

 

Ruby’s story: Paychecks were steady, but money was never good

Ruby, not her real name, only interacted with the Hicban brothers a handful of times because meetings with them were ‘above’ her pay grade.  She did however know enough to recognize who was calling the shots. According to her, the twins Ken and Pet were the brains behind the entire operation.

Photograph from Twinmark employees and the Hicban’s social media accounts.

Ruby told ABS-CBN the twins were great at all things Facebook. She said they understood how the social network’s algorithm directed more traffic to new pages. She said they understood how Facebook regularly changed its algorithm to bury or eliminate pages with ‘negative’ content, particularly on taboo topics like suicide and violence. She also noted the brothers really understood how to make content go viral on Facebook, what kind of content would be in demand, would generate loads of clicks and comments, and bring more clicks and followers to Twinmark pages. 

Ruby noted the Hicbans never created any kind of campaign to influence public opinion or drive netizens to think a certain way. She however said the brothers also didn’t care about the consequences of their work.  They had no regard for the consequences of creating viral content using questionable sources. 

“Hindi naman well-being ng buong Pilipinas ang inisip nila,” Ruby said. “Ang inisip nila is kung pano maka adjust sa kung anong demand o sistema ng Facebook.” 

But the Hicbans were not lacking in good qualities, Ruby said. They paid their employees on time and made an effort to reform the company into something legitimate. 

But that’s about it. 

While the paychecks were steady, noted Ruby, the money was never good.  This was particularly painful for her and her fellow employees when they found out how much money Twinmark was raking in.  They found out the amount of the Hicbans’ profits after the company was banned by Facebook for spamming and coordinated inauthentic behavior.

“Hindi nila sinasabi sa amin yung kita, hindi nila pinapakita sa amin yung dating,” Ruby said. 

 

Sammy’s story: Each time something happens to them, it’s posted on Facebook

Sammy, not his real name, was a member of the management team of Twinmark Media Enterprises.  Even he only got glimpses of how much the company was making.

“Medjo malaki-laki, yung isang nakita ko for isang buwan, baka lumampas ng $100,000.  Isa pa lang yun,” Sammy said.  

While the Hicbans were never upfront with the employees about how much Twinmark was making, they were certainly not shy about flaunting their expenditures, according to Sammy. “From yung mga panahon na wala sila sa bansa, active rin naman sila sa social media, FB.  Pag may nangyari sa kanila, automatic na may post sa Facebook,” Sammy said.

Sammy also observed the Hicbans never had any agenda other than gaming the Facebook system to make money.  “Importante sa kanila na magkaraoon ng pera, kung meron nangyayari sa Facebook, hahanapan nila ng paraan para gumana ulit,” Sammy said.

Sammy also revealed the Hicbans made an attempt to ‘legitimize’ their business. He said the brothers brought in consultants several times to help bring in best practices and improve the company’s corporate governance.  However, these efforts ultimately failed. The reforms that were introduced reduced rather than increased Twinmark’s bottom line. According to other Twinmark insiders, the reforms thumbed down by the Hicbans included fact-checking, stricter editorial controls, and collegial decision-making.

 

The media reports: almost a month’s tour of Europe

Online news sources did stories on the Hicban brothers, revealing a near month-long tour of Europe in 2017, and a background of multi-level marketing dating back to 2014. It was reported the brothers were under 30 years old. It was also reported the Hicbans spent on employee perks, including trips to Hong Kong, where they covered transport and lodgings. The report also suggested the combined value of Twinmark’s pages, assets and online reach was enough to compete with the Philippines’ top news organizations. The reports however were based on reports released before Twinmark was banned by Facebook in January 2019. 

Photograph from Twinmark employees and the Hicban’s social media accounts.

The revelations from the documents: multiple peso and dollar accounts in multiple banks

Documents obtained from Twinmark Media Enterprises sources revealed the Hicban brothers did not let their money sleep. Spreadsheets revealed payments for luxury items such as watches, lease/rent on condominiums, insurance policies for all three brothers, vehicle amortizations, and hundreds of thousands of pesos in vacation expenses. The spreadsheets revealed multiple peso and dollar accounts in multiple banks. There were entries for bitcoin as well. With tens of millions of pesos in revenues coming in from Facebook and Google, and more cash coming from off the books sources, the Hicbans were earning serious money. 

Some of the testimonies and public profiles of the Hicbans clash.  Were they cheap employers concerned only with their bottom line?  Were they lavish spenders, eager to share their ‘blessings’ with friends and colleagues?  Were they savvy businessmen with investments in everything from real estate to cryptocurrencies?  Were they street smart social media publishers who exploited vulnerabilities in Facebook and Google’s platforms for profit? 

The story of the Hicban brothers resists painting them as one-dimensional characters (though it’s clear they were motivated by one thing: money).  Until they come forward, Pet, Ken and Mark continue building a millennial mystery as slippery as it is compelling.

 

You may also like: