Opposition Senator Leila M. de Lima has sought for an immediate Senate investigation following international reports that public funds are being used to pay online “troll armies” to manipulate public discourse in the country.
Last May 12, De Lima filed Senate Resolution (SR) No. 401 directing the appropriate Senate Committees to verify the veracity of several studies abroad explaining how the Duterte government has organized and operated troll farms to “parrot political propaganda” using fake or misleading information.
“[There is a need] to conduct an inquiry into the reports of public funds being spent to pay and maintain online trolls to distort and manipulate online information in various social media platforms in order to influence public opinion and political outcomes,” she said.
“It is against the interests of our country to fund online trolls who manipulate online discussions on national issues for political ends. These funds are better spent on education, alleviating poverty and improving our healthcare system,” she added.
In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index published early this year, the Belgium-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that the Duterte administration have been using “call center hubs” that are “disseminating fake or maliciously edited content and fake memes”, used for targeted harassment campaigns.
De Lima noted in SR 401 that the RSF report is only one of the many studies from think tank groups that have unearthed the existence of covert online trolls that are funded by millions of pesos that are most likely sourced from public coffers.
One of these earlier studies include the 2017 report from the University of Oxford which claims that the Duterte administration has used a total of $200,000 to hire trolls to spread propaganda and to target Duterte’s political opponents.
SR 401 also referred to a report from Freedom House, a USA-based human rights group, that the government has been paying individual trolls at least PhP500 a day to operate fake social media accounts supporting Mr. Duterte or attacking his detractors.
These troll armies, SR 401 claims, are being led by bloggers and social media personalities that have been appointed in various government posts for their rabid support of Mr. Duterte. De Lima notes that some of them are still “admins” of blogs and social media pages that are known to propagate fake news.
“With the seemingly consistent findings of various studies of state-backed ‘troll armies’ in the Philippines, it is imperative for Congress to verify the integrity of these reports and probe if any appropriated government funds are used to maintain and pay online trolls by various bloggers and social media personalities with their capacity as appointed officials in various government agencies or by the President himself under various discretionary budgets under his office,” De Lima said.
“Manipulation of public opinion through misinformation diminishes the level and quality of our national conversation and is ultimately detrimental to our democracy,” she added.
As the staunchest critic of the Duterte administration, especially of extrajudicial killings in the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, De Lima is a prominent victim of fake news concocted and propagated by troll farms in the Philippines. Mr. Duterte himself led the effort to spread false vitriolic narratives in his public addresses.
Numerous fake or totally untrue reports about her or her family’s involvement in the illegal drug trade have been published online, and ostensibly support the trumped-up charges that has led to her arbitrary detention since February 2017.
Fortunately, with the help of local and foreign fact-checking organizations, De Lima was able to debunk most of the fake news about her, solidifying her case as a victim of political persecution under the Duterte regime. (30)