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What Facebook did to the Philippines

Yesterday we told you about how a single firm created 40,000 fake accounts in Poland to advocate for
December 7 · Issue #42 · View online
The Interface
Yesterday we told you about how a single firm created 40,000 fake accounts in Poland to advocate for the government’s interests. Today, we find a similar story in the Philippines, thanks to this dark and deeply reported story from Bloomberg.
It focuses on a journalist named Maria Ressa, who co-founded the country’s largest digital news site, Rappler. Ressa was savvy in the way she used Facebook to grow Rappler’s audience; she also used its live-streaming features to broadcast an early interview with Rodrigo Duterte that helped bring his strongman views to a young, engaged audience.
Duterte himself was awakened to the power of Facebook, and skillfully dominated discussions until the election. Then he won. And, well:
Since being elected in May 2016, Duterte has turned Facebook into a weapon. The same Facebook personalities who fought dirty to see Duterte win were brought inside the Malacañang Palace. From there they are methodically taking down opponents, including a prominent senator and human-rights activist who became the target of vicious online attacks and was ultimately jailed on a drug charge.
We’ve heard versions of this story before, but it’s important to reflect on how easily authoritarian governments bend Facebook to their will.  
Repressive governments originally treated Facebook, and all social media, with suspicion—they saw how it could serve as a locus for dissidents, as it had in the Arab Spring in 2011. But authoritarian regimes are now embracing social media, shaping the platforms into a tool to wage war against a wide range of opponents—opposition parties, human-rights activists, minority populations, journalists.
The phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “patriotic trolling,” involves the use of targeted harassment and propaganda meant to go viral and to give the impression that there is a groundswell of organic support for the government. Much of the trolling is carried out by true believers, but there is evidence that some governments, including Duterte’s, pay people to execute attacks against opponents. Trolls use all the social media platforms—including Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, in addition to the comments sections of news sites. But in the Philippines, Facebook is dominant.
Not only are viral social campaigns used to target dissidents; the campaigns lead to arrests. 
Ressa had already watched Duterte’s supporters undo his opponents. Senator Leila de Lima, who had led an investigation into Duterte’s extrajudicial killings in Davao City, was targeted by viral Facebook articles with headlines like “Leila de Lima is an idiot” and “Leila de Lima is the patron saint of drug lords.” An #ArrestLeilaDeLima campaign began—the origins are unclear—and in February she was arrested, on drug charges that she disputes. (De Lima is listed by Amnesty International as one of the world’s “Human Rights Defenders Under Threat.”) 
Facebook isn’t responsible for the rise of strongmen. But it is responsible in the many, and growing, number of ways that its platform has been misused. Whether it’s 40,000 fake accounts manned by a handful of human beings, or governments paying for “patriotic trolling,” Facebook’s defenses are facing an onslaught of threats that have few obvious solutions. 
Meanwhile, it’s striking deals with the same governments using the service to target journalists and activists:
In November, Facebook announced a new partnership with the Duterte government. As part of its efforts to lay undersea cables around the world, Facebook agreed to team up with the government to work on completing a stretch bypassing the notoriously challenging Luzon Strait, where submarine cables in the past have been damaged by typhoons and earthquakes. Facebook will fund the underwater links to the Philippines and provide a set amount of bandwidth to the government. The government will build cable landing stations and other necessary infrastructure. 
Not a great look.

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