MANILA (UPDATE) - In January this year, Facebook took down hundreds of pages and accounts handled by digital marketing group Twinmark Media Enterprises in a sweeping purge of sites engaged in "spamming" and massive distribution of so-called "fake-news."
But the monster that the social media giant slayed was also one that it helped sustain, if not create.
Based on several documents backed by testimony from insiders, it appeared that Twinmark earned hundreds of millions of pesos from Facebook and Google since starting its operations in 2014, 5 years before being banned on Facebook for "repeatedly violating its (Facebook's) misrepresentation and spam policies and exhibiting coordinated inauthentic behavior."
Twinmark management team member “Sammy” (who requested not to be identified) explained to ABS-CBN News how Twinmark earned as much as $100,000 for a Facebook page in a single month, just on clicks alone on "Instant articles." This is a feature of Facebook that allowed users to read or view stories and videos without going out of the social networking site; content are thus served within the Facebook platform. Sponsored content are served by Facebook as ads on Instant Article stories and videos.
By the time Facebook kicked out Twinmark, a total of 220 Facebook pages, 73 Facebook accounts and 29 Instagram accounts were linked to the digital marketing group. These include the then widely shared Trending News Portal and TNP TV pages.
"Ang Instant Articles, gumagawa siya ng pera 'pag nag-click ang tao sa articles sa Facebook. Nagbabayad. 'Yung isa ang nakita ko, isang buwan, lampas $100,000. Isa pa lang na remittance. $100,000 isang buwan, isang page pa lang yun. Mag-a-add up lahat," Sammy said.
(Instant articles earn money when people click on articles on Facebook. It pays. I saw one that paid over $100,000 for one month. That’s just one remittance. $100,000 for one month for just one page. They all add up.)
After collating data obtained from insiders, the ABS-CBN Data Analytics Team found that Twinmark earned over US$1.5 million or over P80 million from May to December in 2017 alone. The remittances were paid out to several pages with topics ranging from entertainment to politics. The biggest earners were Trending News Portal and TNP TV.
Twinmark ledgers shown to ABS-CBN News also reflected nearly $3 million or about P150 million in payments from Google Adsense from 2014 to 2017. This would have been more but Google deducted P3.3 million from its payment to Twinmark after observing that traffic on advertisements on Twinmark’s sites appeared "invalid."
Citing BIR filings, "Sammy" said Twinmark paid corporate income taxes but couldn’t say if these were commensurate to their multi-million-peso earnings.
Google, meanwhile, neither confirmed nor denied that Google Adsense paid Twinmark the values listed in the digital marketing company’s ledgers.
"Advertising fraud is a complex challenge, one we remain committed to fighting using a mix of strict policies, automated systems, and expert teams. When we discover invalid activity on our ad platforms, we work quickly to stop it and have a longstanding policy of crediting advertisers for invalid traffic," Google Philippines told ABS-CBN News.
Facebook, for its part, confirmed Twinmark Media Enterprises received payments from Facebook’s Audience Network ads on Instant Articles.
"Twinmark, while still on Facebook, received revenue from Audience Network ads that ran on Instant Articles, which is standard for pages and publishers who do the same. Instant Articles is a tool for publishers on Facebook, and is open to all publishers of any size, globally," Facebook said in a statement sent to ABS-CBN News.
Facebook, however, stressed Twinmark was not penalized for the content it was producing, but rather for fraud related to artificially inflating distribution for profit. The social media site also vowed not to allow Twinmark back, saying it was monitoring possible efforts by that organization to re-establish presence on Facebook.
"Twinmark Media Enterprises will not be allowed back on Facebook," Facebook said.
But Facebook and Google were not the only sources of revenue for Twinmark. Politicians also fed Twinmark, finding use for the digital marketing group’s high traffic, high engagement pages and viral content.
One Twinmark employee interviewed said politicians paid for the generation of online buzz on articles or any other content about them. "Sammy" confirmed this, although he was unable to cite actual revenues from these activities.
Twinmark's articles of incorporation lists its owners as twins Pet and Ken Hicban, and their brother Mark. The employees said they have not heard from the three since Facebook banned Twinmark in January.
In early February, one of the Hicban twins responded to ABS-CBN News’ text messages seeking their reaction to the Facebook takedown and the information disclosed by their employees. However, they have yet to give a full statement as of the publication of this story.
But how did a mainly backroom operation manage to not only produce a wide variety of content but also get these to viral levels?
"Ruby," another Twinmark employee who also requested anonymity, said the whole process involved basically just researching what’s online, rewriting this in any form, and reposting repeatedly with the help of so-called "influencers" or people who have huge following and high engagement on social media.
"Research, naghahanap ng balita online, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, artista, lahat na nagvi-viral. Ipapagawa, ipapasulat sa mga writer, isusulat kahit anong way," Ruby said.
(We research to find news online, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, celebrities, anything that has already gone viral. Then we have it rewritten in any manner.)
Based on documents provided by the employees, Twinmark allegedly paid tens of millions of pesos to a list of influencers -- ranging from media personalities to actors to politicians -- whose act of reposting, sharing, or forwarding content produced by Twinmark made the content go viral.
These values and names have not been independently verified, but Twinmark employees said these influencers were instrumental in generating clicks and cash.
"Ruby" said another way to get content to go viral was cross-posting, where each of their sites shared the same article or link to 10 or more other pages which in turn shared it to 10 or more – creating a multiplier effect, generating more eyeballs, and resulting in higher website traffic.
Twinmark also employed to the hilt various online tools and tactics to generate clicks.
"Ang pinaka-misleading ay 'yung thumbnails, kasi 'yung mga pictures na inilalagay nila para sa mga links na iyon, sinisigurado nila na eye-catching o kaya clickbait. Ibig sabihin, dapat kung minsan, halimbawa celebrity ang topic, nakaturo sa maseselang bahagi ng katawan ng babae kahit hindi tungkol du'n 'yung kuwento," she said.
(The most misleading thing about it is the thumbnails. The pictures they use are eye-catching, or clickbait. They use provocative and suggestive pictures even if these have nothing to do with the article.)
"Ruby" said Twinmark engaged the services of the so-called internet trolls but not in the way most people imagined troll armies operated.
Sometimes, she said, the "head troll" would simply go to internet cafes and computer shops and offer to pay for user fees in exchange for comments, likes, and shares on Twinmark content. Sometimes a bottle of liquor was enough for launching a full blast argument in the comment section.
"May mga kausap na pinaka-head na troll. Meron siyang mga tao sa maraming computer shop. Sila 'yung bahala kung anong gagawin," she said.
(There was a 'head troll' who had people at several computer shops. They knew what to do.)
"Ruby" and "Sammy" said money was the main motivation of the Hicbans. They said Twinmark's owners never cared about the content; what was important was the clicks, and the cash that followed.
Some years back, Facebook tried to clamp down on certain types of content that used certain keywords. Twinmark simply adjusted by editing out "negative" words from their content.
"Ang pagkakaintindi ko, habang nagtratrabaho, hindi naman well-being ng buong Pilipinas ang iniisip nila. Ang iniisip nila kung pano maka-adjust sa kung anong demand o sistema ng Facebook," "Ruby" said.
(As an employee, my understanding was that they were not after the country’s well-being. All they were thinking of was how to adjust to changes in Facebook’s system.)
"Sammy" added: "Importante sa kanila na magkaroon ng pera, na kumbaga, kung merong nangyayari sa Facebook, hahanapan nila ng paraan para gumana ulit."
(It was the money that was important to them. If anything changed on Facebook, they would find a way to keep the operations going.)
Asked why they were spilling the beans on their former employers, "Ruby," "Sammy," and other Twinmark employees said they wanted to set the record straight on the Hicbans’ objectives: it was never about influencing public opinion, it was always about making money – and lots of it.
The employees believed they were not doing anything wrong because they were being paid by reputable companies, the biggest names in social media. They also said the Hicban brothers assured them the business was aboveboard.
But Twinmark employees claimed the Hicban brothers broke off all contact with them after the Facebook ban.
Twinmark’s bosses have left their jobless employees in tears, even as they may have been laughing their way to the bank.
ABS-CBN is still awaiting the full statement from the Hicban brothers and Twinmark management.