Palace accused of paying for 'cyber trolls'

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 09 2015 12:43 AM | Updated as of Sep 09 2015 10:31 AM

MANILA - Kabataan partylist Rep. Terry Ridon on Tuesday asked if the government's confidential and intelligence funds have been used to fund pro-government "trolls" on social media sites.

Ridon, in a press conference, said these funds that he called as part of a "black budget," run up to P1.4 billion next year.

He alleged that the funds are spread out across different agencies with the Office of the President as the biggest recipient.

Ridon said these funds do not get the benefit of scrutiny by the Commission on Audit (COA) and he is asking Congress to call an executive session to investigate the use of the money.

Ridon suspects that "armies of trolls online" who pursue the advocacies of the administration could be funded by the "black budget".

Citing government records, Ridon alleged that as much as P9 billion in public funds have been used under the "black budget" for the duration of the Aquino administration.

Ridon said the Office of the President has some P50 million in unliquidated confidential and intelligence funds, based on COA findings.

He alleged that "cyber trolls" support the Aquino administration, most recently in the defense of the death of lumads.

“It’s called a black budget because even legislators are left in the dark about the real purpose of the said funds,” Ridon said in a statement.

He said the government's "black budget" has two components: confidential and intelligence funds.

Confidential funds are funds for surveillance activities in civilian departments and agencies.

Not all agencies are provided with confidential funds, as during budget preparation, the Executive Department exercises its discretion on which departments will be given funds for confidential expenses. To tighten the secrecy in the use of said funds, all disbursements or releases from this fund should have the immediate approval of the department secretary concerned. The government has an average P724 million in confidential funds annually.

Intelligence funds, meanwhile, are funds for “intelligence information gathering activities of uniformed personnel and intelligence practitioners that have direct impact to national security.” Like confidential funds, intelligence funds are given to agencies during the budget preparation process subject to the discretion of the Chief Executive.

Apart from that, intelligence funds can only be released upon approval of no less than the President himself. Details of the expenditures are kept secret, and all reports of the utilization of intelligence funds are submitted directly to the President. The government has an average P690 million in intelligence funds annually.

Budget Secretary Butch Abad denied Ridon's allegations.

"We don't waste money on internet troll accounts. We have better things to do," Abad said in an email to ABS-CBN News. "We have enough good news to share to the public through traditional and social media. Ridon's fertile imagination can be better put to use in passing urgent legislation, like the BBL"

Ridon, citing data compiled from Budget of Expenditures and Sources of Financing from 2012-2016, alleged that the Aquino administration's "black budget" has amounted to the following:

Year Amount (in '000 PHP)

2010 1,835,491

2011 1,195,371

2012 1,396,745

2013 1,598,870

2014 1,270,208

2015 1,488,419

TOTAL 8,785,104

(Data compiled from Budget of Expenditures and Sources of Financing 2012-2016)

Ridon said the national government is again asking for a P1.5 billion "black budget" next year, divided into P701 million in confidential funds and P833 million in intelligence funds.

“The secretive nature of these funds explicitly bars the public from scrutinizing how these funds are used. Even the Commission on Audit (COA) only has a minute ministerial role in scrutinizing the use of such funds,” Ridon said.

He said it is rare for COA to mention the use of confidential and intelligence funds.

An exception is the 2014 annual audit report for the Office of the President, wherein COA noted in passing that the Office of the President has a P50 million unliquidated cash advance for confidential and intelligence expenses last year.

“The black budget’s secret nature makes it is very easy for the Executive Department to use it to hire cyber armies and bankroll paid trolls,” Ridon alleged.

“We suspect that the Palace has thousands of yellow trolls in its payroll, all ready to defend Aquino and presumptive heir Mar Roxas from critics and even create an illusion of massive netizen support for the president,” the legislator said, explaining that the government’s "cyber army" may employ tactics ranging from posting comments in social media sites to even hacking accounts of critics.

Ridon challenged the Executive Department to disclose its employment of "paid trolls" who allegedly wage online propaganda in favor of the President and his men.

“We also challenge the Aquino administration to disclose details on the use of confidential and intelligence funds – even through an executive session of the House,” he added.

The lawmaker also alleged that apart from funding "cyber armies," the P1.4 billion annual "black budget" may also be funding covert counterinsurgency activities such as summary killings, torture, and snooping and wiretapping, among others.

“Black budgets of governments around the world have long been criticized for being institutional sources of corruption and funding for extralegal activities. Congress should seriously consider excising this black budget from the annual appropriations law, as it poses several dangers – especially in our country where there’s still no Freedom of Information Law,” the legislator said.