The politics of Facebook: Is Duterte after the world's social media giant?

Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 29 2020 05:30 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte addresses the public after a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) at the Malago Clubhouse in Malacañang, September 28, 2020. Presidential Photo

MANILA— President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday invited Facebook for a talk after the social media giant took down several propaganda networks in support of his administration, spurring concerns of a possible exit of the online platform from the Philippines.

The public invitation sent Filipino netizens in a frenzy as rumors swirled that the Philippine leader, whose administration saw the shutdown of the country's biggest media network ABS-CBN, could now be after the world's most powerful social media platform.

"Now, if government cannot espouse or advocate something which is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose here in my country?" the President told Facebook in a speech on Monday night.

Duterte's interest in Facebook was prompted by the US-based social media platform's takedown of pages, accounts, groups, and Instagram profiles— which were allegedly targeting the Philippines for "coordinated inauthentic behavior" or manipulation campaigns on the platform. 

ABS-CBN News has reached out to Facebook for comment.

Most of the removed pages were in support of Duterte and his allies.

"You cannot lay down a policy for my government. I allow you to operate here. You cannot bar or prevent me from espousing the objectives of government," the President said.

THE POWER OF FACEBOOK

A recent Social Weather Stations’ survey showed that nearly all or 98 percent of Filipino internet users have Facebook accounts— or around 29.4 million individuals.

This means that the platform is a rich ground of information and disinformation— a strategy that became all too familiar during the 2016 elections.

The platform, known to host hundreds— if not thousands— of groups, pages, and personal accounts in support of the popular Philippine leader was a game-changer in the 2016 presidential elections after Duterte brought the political battle online, subsequently giving birth to the online political divide among the "yellows" and the "DDS" or "Duterte Diehard Supporters."

Banning Facebook in the Philippines will prove that Duterte is bent on curtailing freedom of information in the country given the recent shutdown of ABS-CBN, University of the Philippines political analyst Jean Encinas-Franco told ABS-CBN News.

"It can be construed as a threat precisely because he is the President and he makes the policy for the government and country in effect," Encinas-Franco said in a phone interview.

"It's not gonna do him well. He stands to lose more in terms of legacy."

Even Duterte's spokesperson Harry Roque acknowledged that a Facebook exit from the Philippines could be harmful to both the government and the social media platform as he denied rumors that the President is after the American conglomerate.

"Ang sabi ni Presidente kinakailangan mag-usap... Kung mawawala tayo, malaking kawalan po iyan sa Facebook pero at the same time dahil number one nga tayo, marami ring Pilipinong gumagamit ng Facebook na maaapektuhan din," Roque, an avid social media user, said.

(The President said this has to be discussed... If we cannot use Facebook, that is a big loss for Facebook but at the same time, since we are number one, many Filipinos who use Facebook will also be affected.)

Critics of the President such as activist Renato Reyes and detained Sen. Leila de Lima rejected Duterte's remarks against Facebook and urged the social media giant to stand its ground.

"Para kay Duterte, nandiyan lang ang Facebook para ikalat ang pambababoy, kabalbalan, at fake news ni Mocha (Uson) at ng mga trolls nila," De Lima said.

(For Duterte, Facebook is only there to spread lies and fake news of Mocha and their trolls.)

"Duterte thinks it can continue the spread of fake news and disinformation by making threats against FB," Reyes said in a tweet.

"It should stand its ground versus Duterte," he added.

CENSORSHIP?

Duterte's government, which has been repeatedly accused of employing trolls, claimed that Facebook is imposing censorship in the Philippines following the takedown of several propaganda networks in support of him and his allies.

"Ang punto dito bakit kapag pabor sa gobyerno tinatanggal? Kapag pabor sa oposisyon hindi tinatanggal?" Roque said.

(The point here is why do they remove pages that are in favor of the government? And they allow pages against the government?)

Calling the removed accounts as part of the government's "advocacies," Roque said the takedown of the pages could be considered a form of censorship given that Facebook did not classify these as "fake news."

"Hindi issue ang fake news ngayon. Ang issue ngayon eh, anong epekto ng pagtatanggal ng pages na 'yan?" Roque said.

(Fake news is not the issue now. The issue is, what is the effect of the removal of those pages?)

"The Philippine government submits it's a form of censorship," said Roque, a lawyer.

The Palace's claim of censorship may be viewed as "some sort of admission" that the Duterte government is engaged in disinformation, political analyst Encinas-Franco said.

"It's also difficult to present evidence but what it's telling us is Facebook has become a tool for government and for other groups in the country to convey information whether true or not, whether fake or not," she said.

Roque's criticism of Facebook's basis for the removal of certain accounts— many of which were in support of the President— and his hint at bias in the move, is also a signal to the Filipino public to be more discerning of the information they read online, according to Encinas-Franco.

"Whether the President likes it or not, many Filipinos are dependent on Facebook for information. Even the government uses Facebook. The lesson here is to be more critical," she said.

Duterte had said that the government allows Facebook to operate in the Philippines "hoping that you could help us also."

His spokesperson has also floated possible local regulation for the platform.

"Nagbabago iyong anyo ng Facebook. Kinakailangan din magkaroon po tayo ng mga bagong mga patakaran ‘no para naman po magkaroon ng level playing field diyan po sa Facebook," Roque said.

(Facebook is changing. We need to have new policies so that Facebook is a level playing field.)

Fow now, Duterte has yet to clear the air with Facebook.

"Is there life after Facebook? I don't know. Pero mag-usap tayo," he said.