MANILA - In the K-pop community, a “stan” means an avid fan. You see many stans on social media using images of their K-pop idols as their profile pictures.
A few weeks ago, 12,000 stans of K-pop group Twice may have been left wondering how they ended up liking a Facebook Page supporting my political campaign.
But the stans did not knowingly do that. And no, I am not really running in the 2022 elections either.
I bought that fan page.
I did that in collaboration with cybersecurity enthusiast and Manila Bulletin Technology Editor Art Samaniego to demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate social media.
In a country that has topped global social media usage for the 6th straight year, and is also home to a thriving K-pop fandom, I wanted to see how Facebook and K-pop fan pages would figure in the coming elections.
A quick search of "FB page for sale Philippines" would produce posts selling Pages priced according to the number of their followers. The price is also negotiable.
Why buy these Pages?
"Need publicity for May 2022?" "Black propaganda." "For the election campaign page."
These are just some of the advertised come-ons for buying a Page.
A Page with over 100,000 likes sells for P9,000. Others offer Pages with 1 to 2 million likes, but do not indicate the price.
For political strategists and campaign PR practitioners, buying Pages with thousands of followers could help them in their goal to win the 2022 election race.
“May tsansa para may i-brainwash niya yung followers niya,” said political strategist and campaign PR manager Armand Nocum.
(It has a chance of brainwashing its followers.)
A look at the Trendsmap for the past week will show that K-pop-related themes that dominate the Philippines' social media--trending words, hashtags, as well as number of users. It’s no wonder that K-Pop fan Pages gain thousands of followers quickly.
As I was shopping for a Page, the seller suggested the Twicethetics Facebook Page, a Page for Twice fans that has over 12,000 likes. The price was P1,200 pesos.
We made the deal. Art paid through an online payment system. As soon as the seller received the proof of payment, Art was made administrator of the Page.
Only the Page's administrator has access to change its name and other details. The seller also deleted the Page's content to give Art, the new owner, a free hand to convert it into my campaign page.
Art got one of my pictures and changed the background of the Page to “Jacque Manabat for Councilor Movement.”
“So pwede ka nang tumakbo. Meron ka nang 12,000 followers.” Art said in jest.
(So now you can run. You now have 12,000 followers.)
Aside from K-pop groups, Pages that used to be dedicated to celebrities, kids' shows, and memes have been bought by political operatives.
From posting photos of celebrities and memes, these Pages now post photos of political aspirants in Halalan 2022. Some Pages even switched allegiances from one politician to another.
It's easy to spot if a Page changed its name. Click the 'Page transparency' button of the Page, and it will show the history of how the names were changed.
EMOJI CLICKS FOR SALE
Besides flipping Pages to get instant followers for a candidate, another trick that political operatives can use is buying emoji reactions to manipulate simple online polls. This can make a candidate appear to have strong support online.
Emoji polls on Facebook are simple - users just need to click the emoji assigned to the candidate of their choice. The emoji with the highest number of clicks wins.
On the surface, this seems transparent enough.
However, savvy netizens quickly noticed that some of those who clicked on the emojis had foreign-sounding names. Some of them also had only around 200 friends, indicating that the account may be newly created. There was also no data available for some of those who clicked these emojis.
That’s because, like Pages, you can also buy emoji reactions to Facebook posts. One website that sells emoji reactions charges between P150 to P1,740, depending on the quantity.
You don’t need to sign up or give personal details to buy these “votes”. The website will simply ask for the link of the Facebook online poll and get to work.
An online news site recently deleted its Facebook emoji poll on 2022 presidential aspirants after admitting how these informal surveys could be manipulated easily.
HOW TO AVOID GETTING BANNED
On the platform's transparency site, Facebook says: "Do not conceal a Page's purpose by misleading users about the ownership or control of that Page."
In 2019, Facebook took down 200 pages, groups, and accounts engaged in "coordinated inauthentic behavior" on Facebook and Instagram in the Philippines.
The seller of the Twicethetics Facebook Page seemed to be aware of this risk, and sent Art “rules and regulations” for the purchased Page, which seem more like tips on avoiding getting unpublished.
Two of the rules are: 1) Avoid adding several page administrators; 2) Wait for 7 days before changing the content, such as the profile photo.
“Dapat dahan dahan yung pag-uupdate mo kasi iba yung purpose niya dati. Iba yung category niya dati, tapos bigla mo babaguhin. Pwede ka i-unpublish ng Facebook. Dapat parang tunay na tao at hindi troll (ang galaw mo),” Art explained.
(You should not rush updates to the Page because it used to have a different purpose. It was in a different category, and you will suddenly change that. Facebook can unpublish you.)
It took Art only two hours to purchase and gain control of the Twicethetics Facebook Page. My face then replaced Twice's profile pic and cover photo.
“Hindi natin tinuturuan na manloko o magcheat ang mga tao. Gusto lang natin ipakita na ganito kabilis mandaya at hindi reliable ang online surveys lalo na sa social media hindi siya reliable kasi ang bilis ma-rig,” Art said.
(We’re not teaching people to deceive or cheat. We just want to show that it’s this easy to deceive and that online surveys are not reliable, especially on social media because they are easy to rig.)
COMELEC spokesperson James Jimenez is a K-pop stan. He did not realize that the Facebook Page he liked had converted into a political campaign page because the content was changed gradually.
"One of the groups I joined suddenly went silent for a while. The next thing I knew, naglalabas na ng political content (it started posting political content), so I exited the group,” Jimenez said.
The COMELEC spokesman said he thought this Page-flipping was uncommon, but soon noticed that other Pages were also being flipped.
While fans may get annoyed when a Facebook Page changes its name into a group supporting a politician, this is not illegal as far as the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) is concerned.
“Hindi yan sakop ng authority ng COMELEC. In fact, yang nga ang isa yang dahilan kung bakit maganda na magkaroon ng social media regulation,” Jimenez said.
(That’s outside of the authority of the COMELEC. In fact, that’s one the reasons why there should be social media regulation.)
The Comelec spokesperson said while other forms of media like broadcast and print are regulated, social media is not.
“Yun nga ang nakakasama ng loob kasi wala namang guidelines pagdating pangangampanya partikular na sa social media.”
(That’s what bothersome, because there are no guidelines when it comes to campaigning on social media.)
Jimenez was referring to Republic Act 9006 or the Fair Elections Act published in 2001, which is silent on social media.
The COMELEC can only monitor the posts declared by the candidate's camp, such as promoted posts and the use of social media influencers as contractual workers.
These Facebook Pages may also be considered as being maintained by supporters, which is not covered by COMELEC rules.
This means that on social media, the COMELEC can do little against early campaigning.
“Kung naka-babad ka sa social (media) ma-identify mo kung sino ang mangangampanya. Ang problema, naramdaman mo nga, nakikita mo nga base sa experience mo alam mong kampanya yan. Pero wala kang pinanghahawakang batas na pwede mong sitahin yung nakikita mo. Yun yung challenge dito,” Jimenez said.
(If you’re immersed in social media, you can identify who is campaigning. The problem is, yes you feel and see that campaigning is being done based on your experience. But you don’t have a law that allows you to flag what you see. That is the challenge here.)
While online polls could sway opinions and converted Pages may present a facade of a huge following, there is a caveat to using these tricks.
“Aelia”, a KPop stan, liked a Facebook page of Korean boy band Big Bang and girl group 2ne1 in 2010. In August, she received notifications that three of the fan Pages she liked had changed their names. They were now supporter pages for a particular politician.
“Nag-leave ako agad at personally hindi rin ako supporter ng certain politician na yun,” Aelia said.
(Three months ago I got notified by Facebook that the group I liked had been renamed. I left it immediately and, personally, I am no longer a supporter of that certain politician.)
“Parang nag-join ka lang din naman para mag-enjoy, na parang masaya kasi na may kaparehas ka ng hilig, tapos magiging ganito.”
(It’s like I joined the group because I wanted to enjoy being with others with similar interests, and then this happens.)
Aelia said she did not like what happened and promptly left the flipped Pages.
The PR and social media strategists of politicians also recognize the dangers of angering Filipino K-pop fans.
Nocum said politicians and their campaign managers need to be cautious because netizens may call them out.
“Yung mga follower kung nakikita nila na ginagamit na sila, nagma-mass unlike sila.” Nocum explained.
(If the followers of the Page see that they are being used, they can do a mass ‘unlike’ of the Page.)
Alan German, a long-time PR practitioner and political campaign strategist meanwhile said the strategy was clumsy. He said the candidate's opponents could also use the screen grabs for negative campaigning.
"It is easy to expose. It won't take a lot for your opponent to show na how insincere you are. The association of doing that is not favorable to the candidate,” German said.
He added that resorting to such tricks to get social media followers shows that a candidate is not sincere.
“It shows you are a quick, short-cut guy. Rather than build your Pages from the ground, shinort-cut mo (you did a short cut),” German said.
“So that tells me a lot about your characteristics, and it is easy to expose kaya siya clumsy." German said.
Nocum and German agree that social media is a significant component of the campaign. Some political Pages were created as early as 2019 in preparation for the 2022 elections.
Meta, the rebranded company that operates Facebook, sent the following statement to ABS-CBN News regarding the flipped Pages we mentioned.
"We have reviewed the flagged groups and pages, and removed those that violated our policies against spam. We do not allow people to attempt to or sell, buy or exchange site privileges or product features, such as accounts, admin roles, Pages, Groups, and likes.”
“We encourage everyone to use our online reporting tools to let us know if they see something they think might break our rules.”
Art and I took down my 'campaign page' after our experiment.
On social media and in the elections, be careful who you stan.