Unmasking the trolls: Spin masters behind fake accounts, news sites

Chi Almario-Gonzalez, ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group

Posted at Jan 20 2017 06:56 PM | Updated as of Jan 24 2017 12:20 PM

Editor's note: In this two-part series, we look at how trolls operate and how the notorious online society changed the Philippines' political landscape.

(First of two parts)

MANILA (UPDATED) - Trolls took center stage in the May 9 presidential elections, after polluting social media in the past years.

Trolls nowadays not only seek attention. ABS-CBN has found out that some media persons turned public relations consultants are among political operators responsible for the fakery now rampant on social media.

Here's how ordinary people online, as well as big media organizations, fall prey, wittingly or unwittingly, to trolls.

Meet the reporter-turned-publicist

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Armand Nocum is a political strategist harnessing the power of social media.

Armand Dean Nocum, a former newspaper reporter, told ABS-CBN news how he saw the rise of trolls even before the May 2010 elections.

Nocum left newspaper reporting in mid-1990s and formed Dean & Kings public relations and communications firm, which has handled public relations of several candidates since the May 2010 elections.

Now a veteran political strategist, Nocum revealed how he formed his network of contrived social media groups over a period of six years, perhaps not knowing that all these would one day be called trolls.

Admittedly, he used social media to advance the cause of his candidates. Now, he has 50 social media sites, some of these accounts he called “fake,” which he uses for his public relations consultancy.

He runs an organization of trolls whose mission is to infiltrate online conversations, specifically on Facebook, to promote causes or candidates, and in the last elections succeeded in using this organization to disparage political opponents, among others.

He said he believes this strategy is effective in influencing people to believe in his candidate-client, or to put it bluntly, in the planted message. He has observed that ordinary people tend to believe the comments of other ordinary people like them.

In this case, the trolls pretend to be ordinary people. Nocum says he and his group consider themselves successful when the manipulated message gets aired on traditional media—newspapers, radio and TV—giving legitimacy to the contrived message.

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Manipulating social media

According to 2015 statistics compiled by the National Telehealth Center, a University of the Philippines research unit, 42 percent of 102 million Filipinos were active users of social media, with Facebook as the most actively used social media platform.

And with the growth of social media, political strategists have also mastered its potency as a political tool. These experts have devised a system of interconnected fake and fabricated social media accounts used to manipulate people’s opinion and disseminate misinformation.

When the 2016 elections came, Nocum’s army of social media was battle-tested and ready for the main fight: the presidency.

Nocum was hired by one of the top presidential contenders. He used his social media teams to launch an intensive “demolition job” against his client’s main rival, the then frontrunner.

The mission was successful. The rival, who had an early lead in the surveys, gradually slid in ranking and eventually lost in the elections.

But so did Nocum’s client.

He said the winner, President Duterte, had a better social media strategy.

Duterte’s campaign trolls?

ABS-CBN was able to talk to a self-confessed troll who claimed to come from the Duterte-Cayetano social media campaign team. He agreed to be interviewed on condition that his identity is not disclosed for fear of retaliation. Nico* said he was hired during the 2016 presidential campaign period to manage five people. He claimed their job was to create fake sites and fake accounts. These accounts, he said, spread “negative comments and memes” against political rivals.

Nico said the social media group that operated in a hotel in Ortigas, Pasig City was just one of the NCR chapters. He believed there were a few other social media chapters in Visayas and Mindanao.

Aside from his group of trolls, Nico said the team was also composed of people who edited digital video and graphics content that were posted online. He said they were well-equipped with laptops, editing computers and a big projector where they monitored online traffic.

Nico explained their social media strategy included infiltrating “convergence points” on Facebook and other social media sites. He described “convergence points” as active social media discussions about the most popular topics.

With the fake accounts, Nico said they would plant a message or meme against their candidates’ rivals in the discussion or convergence point. Then the fake accounts will “like” the message or meme.

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Artwork by Maverick Pesigan

“If it has many likes, it comes out often on FB feed, also becomes one of the top feed. People, they often don’t read but just ‘like’ it too. So, it attracts more likes. More likes create impression that many people believe in it and it’s credible,” explained Nico.

After the elections, Nico claimed the operations in the Ortigas hotel stopped and he looked for another job.

Reached for comment, Peter Laviña, Duterte’s campaign manager and now National Irrigation Administration (NIA) Chief, said they did not hire social media trolls.

“Our campaign did not have money. We never hired social media staff. All were volunteers, the more we cannot hire trolls,” said Laviña.

The office of Senator Allan Peter Cayetano also “vehemently" denied that their 2016 vice-presidential campaign used fake trolls as strategy.

“We request the public to check our official pages Alan Peter Cayetano and Duterte-Cayetano to check the content and see that we promote responsible and fair use of social media,” said Cayetano’s social media manager Paolo Capino in a text massage sent to ABS-CBN.

Learning curves

But way back in the 2010 elections, Nocum observed social media teams have been used for election campaigns.

He recalled that when he formed his social media team then, in time for the presidential elections, it was a small group of less than 10 people. The team promoted the candidate’s political agenda and boosted his image to get the netizens’ support.

“Everyone was goody-goody then,” he said. “We were also hired for the 2013 midterm elections. We applied some demolition tactics but it (social media team) was used mostly for promotional purposes.”

Dangerous curves

In 2016, however, the gloves were off. Candidates attacked each other viciously, using social media for massive black propaganda.

Nocum said he hired some 50 people to destroy a target candidate.

Special social media campaigns are expensive, he said. They can cost up to tens of millions of pesos. He quickly added, however, his campaign strategy cost much less.

“I now manage more than 50 (social media) sites,” he said.

Mind conditioning

Nocum narrated the process of manipulating content and “twisting” information on social media.

The operation is activated inside the 50 or so social media sites he manages. Most of these sites are Facebook accounts and fan pages. The sites host the most popular or controversial socio-political issues that act as magnets for netizens of similar opinions.

“Example, if I want to hit a candidate who is part of a political dynasty, I will create an FB page against political dynasty,” he said.

“Then I will post something about that candidate on that page. He’ll really be attacked there,” he said.

Each site now has members or “likers” that range from 5,000 to 70,000.

“So we have at least one million (site members). (Sites) deal in all topics,” he said.

The membership increases everyday as long as the site is maintained, he said.

The people in Nocum’s social media team supposedly are the ones who plant the malicious content on these sites. Each person, he said, manages five to 10 fake troll accounts.

Yet, Nocum said he and his team don’t step into the dark side; they don’t peddle lies.

Fake trolls defined

As explained by Ateneo de Manila Computer Science lecturer Dr. William Yu, trolls are online accounts that serve to disrupt or annoy on social media.

A fake troll is a social media account that is not a real person. There are other kinds of trolls. One is a real person using his social media account to act as a troll. Another kind is a “bot” or a computer program that is created or “written” to act as a social media troll with automated responses.

Nocum said he has 10 regular social media staff. He adds more only when there is a special project or campaign. The social media team, using real and fake trolls, will cross-post on his maintained sites.

In the comments section on these sites, Nocum said it is important that the planted content gets the most support, shares or likes. The trolls make this happen.

With the most likes, Facebook algorithm puts the planted positive or negative comments on the top 20 feed.

“The theme or messaging that you want should be on the top 10 or 20 because those are ones reviewed (by site visitors),” he said.

How lies spread

If the comment or messaging appears popularly supported in the site, Nocum said, it will be picked up and shared. Then friends and relatives will share too. It will spread, more people will be convinced and mind conversion happens.

“So yung third party endorsement will happen to be your friends, your relatives—this is very effective sa masa (among the masses). Kasi alam mo naman yung masa e (Because you know the masses), comfort in numbers, credibility in numbers,” he said.

Nocum said he also uses these sites to monitor people's sentiments on certain issues. Even if a site is created for a particular issue, example environmental protection, Nocum said he can surreptitiously insert a comment on an unrelated issue, example charter change. Using his social media team, he can control the discussion on the unrelated topic to achieve an objective.

Another effective strategy is to use Facebook ads to promote a site, said Nocum.

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Nocum said he once had a client from the province who wanted to promote an energy project but it was being blocked by a politician. What he did was to create a Facebook fan page against power blackouts. He used Facebook ads to target regular posting of the site on Facebook feed in that province.

With blackouts as a hot topic, Nocum said the site attracted many members. The site, of course, was meant to influence people to protest the blocking of the client’s energy project.

Other dubious social media strategy, Nocum said, involves hiring trolls who can be sourced from other countries. These hired trolls mechanically provide large numbers of likes to push messages on top of the social media feed or make them viral. It’s like putting the message on the priority read slot on your social media account.

“Pwede ka bumili ng tao sa Bangladesh, bumili ng tao sa India. We never did that. Why? You can increase likes. Or (use) bots. Pero iba pa rin yun tunay na tao e,” he said.

But here is the clincher: manipulation of messages on social media has limited effect unless it is picked up by major media organizations like the TV networks and the major newspapers.

“We call that the Big Bang effect,” Nocum said.

“We already believed in the power of social media but if you can make ABS-CBN, GMA, Inquirer pick up the issue, boom!”

Nocum said once the tri-media carries a report in their newscast or newspaper about a viral or controversial social media comment, the “shareability” of the message increases since traditional media is still perceived as a credible source.

Unwitting players

This is how traditional media give legitimacy to some rumors, inaccurate information and planted content on social media.

Nocum admitted his social strategy is highly controversial. However, he emphasized he only accepts projects he believes in or advocates for. He assured he does not spread outright lies or fake news on social media.

“I appeal to fellow socmed operators, strategists to stick to the truth as much as possible. We have the license to twist the truth but do not resort to outright lies,” he said.

Nocum was referring to what he calls a new breed of political or PR strategists who create fake news, use profane language and use social media for threats and harassment.

For Nocum, there are currently two kinds of social media operators. The first kind are those like him who used to be members of traditional media and continue to adopt certain professional ethics.

“We almost try to go by the rules,” he said. “We do not do actual lies. We twist the facts a little, we shape the facts a little, but not outright lies. Not invented,” he said.

The other kind, he said, are those who mostly came from other fields such as computer science, computer graphics, marketing, sales and other communication fields.

Nocum called them the “young Turks.”

“They started on their own, learned their way in social media, put up blogs and websites for hire. Then clients hired them. Then along this environment they became social media operators minus the ethics and professionalism,” he said.

Honor among fakes

Nocum said he knows some members of this group because they are his “co-operators.” This group, Nocum added, usually “hate” the traditional tri-media and look at them as “communication dinosaurs” who are on their way out.

“They spread actual lies (on social media) and have no qualms about hitting the (traditional) media and the reporters. They demonize and bully reporters (using social media),” he said.

Medal of valor?

Nocum warned these social media operators against harassing journalists. The efforts, he said, will not result in “mind conversion.”

Journalists, he added, tend to treat these scare tactics like a “medal of valor.”

Due to the proliferation of fake news on social media, Nocum said he has observed that more netizens now turn to traditional media to get authentic news. People who have been victimized sharing fake news are now more careful and discerning.

He said sharing news to your friends and later finding out that it’s fake have placed netizens in embarrassing situations.

“We should all see the writing on the wall,” he said. “Everybody will be affected. They (operators) are so lucky that even without the media connection they found power. And they’re richer now because of social media so why destroy it? Why destroy something that’s enriching us? They are shitting on the well we are all drinking on. So, stop shitting on my well,” he added.

(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)