Facebook dismantles disinformation networks targeting Philippines

Facebook’s recent removal of several “fake” pages, groups and accounts has angered the Philippine government, which has objected to the social media company’s actions. The controversy emerged after the US-based company announced in late-September that it was removing two separate networks for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. These networks largely posted content praising Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and China, while attacking his opponents and communist groups in the Philippines. Duterte and his allies have since threatened action against Facebook, but others have expressed concern over the networks’ alleged connections to China and the Philippine military and police.

What did Facebook remove?

On 22 September, Facebook announced that it had removed two separate networks for coordinated inauthentic behaviour, one originating in the Philippines and the other in China. According to the social media giant, network members coordinated with one another and used fake accounts “to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing”. Facebook also clarified in its statement that it typically removes such operations based on behaviour rather than specific content. The networks focused on the Philippines and Southeast Asia, in addition to some content about the upcoming US presidential election.

Disinformation targeting Philippines

Some deleted pages focused on pro-China and pro-Duterte content

Facebook deleted a network of 155 accounts, 11 pages, 9 groups and 6 Instagram accounts linked to individuals in China’s Fujian province. This network reportedly concealed identities and locations using virtual private networks (VPNs), focusing largely on Southeast Asia and posting in Chinese, Filipino and English. Approximately 133,000 accounts followed one or more of the deleted pages, about 61,000 people were members of one or more groups, and roughly 150 users followed at least one of the Instagram accounts. Additionally, Chinese yuan amounting to roughly 60 US dollars was spent on Facebook ads.

Similarly, Facebook announced the removal of 57 accounts, 31 pages and 20 Instagram accounts linked to the Philippines-based network, which targeted domestic audiences and posted in Filipino and English. A subsequent statement on 8 October increased the count to 64 accounts, 32 pages and 33 Instagram accounts. Around 276,000 accounts followed one or more of the deleted pages, and approximately 5,500 users followed one or more of the Instagram accounts. Around 1,100 US dollars’ worth of Philippine pesos was spent on Facebook ads.

Despite attempts to conceal identities and locations, Facebook’s investigation found links between this network and the Philippine military and police.

In addition to posts supporting President Duterte and Beijing’s interests, these networks also targeted Duterte critics and independent media outlets like news website Rappler. Such behaviour feeds into a wider environment of online trolling in the Philippines, with President Duterte’s opponents often facing coordinated attacks by pro-government networks.

What was the networks’ focus?

Disinformation from a pro-Sara Duterte group targeting her father's critics

A pro-Sara Duterte group in the Chinese was observed targeting her father’s critics

The network originating in China often posted on topics relevant to Beijing’s interests. Some themes were China-specific, like Beijing’s attempts to increase control over Hong Kong, but others had a greater Southeast Asia focus, like the disputed South China Sea. Beijing and Manila have long contested each other’s claims over the territory, but Rodrigo Duterte has displayed an inconsistent approach to challenging China’s operations in the area. Despite an international arbitration court ruling in favour of Manila in 2016, under the previous administration, Duterte has alternated between invoking the 2016 verdict and avoiding challenging Beijing.

With Duterte occasionally seen backing China, the Chinese-operated network often found opportunities to share pro-Beijing content on various topics. This network also focused heavily on domestic politics, often posting content attacking Duterte’s opponents and supporting him and his daughter Sara. One group expressing support for Sara Duterte’s speculated 2022 presidential election bid, for example, attacked Rodrigo Duterte critic Senator Francis Drilon. “Where is your shame Drilon? Right now you are a nuisance you did nothing but harass and talk nonsense things,” the post said, adding: “You did nothing but oppose! You don’t think anything but personal interest only.”

The network’s other prominent topics included overseas Filipino workers, attacks on Rappler, praise (and some criticism) for China, and discussions about US politicians. Domestic political themes were also common in the Philippines-based network, which was brought to Facebook’s attention by Rappler and civil society organisations. Facebook eventually uncovered links to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police, although both have denied connections to the network. This network prominently posted about military activities and a controversial “anti-terrorism” bill, and targeted the opposition and youth activists.

Criticism of communism was a common theme, with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), its military wing the New People’s Army (NPA), and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF) repeatedly targeted. Several posts labelled communists as “terrorists” and advised against joining them. One post warned: “Joining any organisations of CPP-NPA-NDF is like suicide because you are slowly approaching your own death.”

What is the reaction?

President Duterte has not taken kindly to Facebook’s actions, threatening the company’s operations in the Philippines. In a televised address on 28 September, Duterte warned: “You cannot lay down a policy for my government. I allow you to operate here.” His government called for a meeting with Facebook and the restoration of the pages, with the Department of the Interior and Local Government on 5 October expressing concern that Facebook was targeting AFP and PNP-linked accounts more than anti-government ones. Duterte allies called for a probe, and House of Representatives Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa – a former police chief – suggested Facebook’s actions affect citizens’ “freedom of expression”.

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