As public anger mounted last year over delayed plans to shake up the Philippines’ outage-plagued telecommunications sector, angry comments and one-star ratings flooded a government-run Facebook page.
When employees suspected online trolls, President Rodrigo Duterte’s digital mastermind offered a solution.
“I’ll handle this,” said Nic Gabunada, the architect of the social media strategy that powered Duterte’s 2016 election victory, according to a government employee who managed the Facebook page.
Pro-Duterte comments soon poured onto the page, with users defending the president’s handling of the situation or blaming the problems on the previous administration. Many of the new commenters had only basic profile information on their pages, which featured mostly generic posts with religious or pro-government messages.
“It was Nic,” said the employee, who was interviewed on condition her name not be used for fear of retribution. “The fact that he had a troll army was known by everyone, but not openly talked about.”
In the Philippines, candidates and government officials routinely pay vast cyber-troll armies that create multiple fake social media accounts to smear opponents and prop themselves up.
It’s all part of the online propaganda wars shaking politics in the country.
And it could soon be coming to the U.S., according to election officials and disinformation scholars who are watching closely. They warn that the Philippine epidemic probably will spread here, given Filipinos’ proficiency in English, facility with social media and the lure of money from campaigns looking for a new way to get an edge over the competition.
Already, U.S. operatives in both parties have made early efforts at using trolls for political gain. Rogue progressives stealthily launched fake social media campaigns against Roy Moore, the GOP nominee for Senate in Alabama, during a 2017 special election. Their campaign aimed to confuse voters into thinking Moore supported banning alcohol and that Russian bots were working on his behalf.
The New York Times revealed the plot, along with an earlier, aborted plan developed by a firm run by former Israeli intelligence agents to engage dozens of paid trolls in swaying delegates to Donald Trump during the 2016 GOP convention. The plan was requested by a senior Trump campaign official but was not carried out.
“The presence of a large for-hire market looking at all the disinformation online that you can buy and people are selling is quite disturbing,” Camille Francois, the chief innovation officer of Graphika, a firm that helps tech companies and government investigators find and confront online disinformation, said at a Federal Election Commission symposium in September.
“What these troll farms are reporting is a growth of global business.… What do we do about that?”
Manila alone has hundreds of active troll farms. The shadowy networks act as weapons that, for the right price, can build artificial buzz around a product, a celebrity — or a political figure.
Those troll techniques “will be used more and more,” said Malou N. Tiquia, chief executive of the Manila political strategy consultancy Publicus Asia. “When Facebook said it won’t ban political ads, that was already a signal to everyone that anything goes.”
U.S. regulators have barely begun to consider the mounting threat, and Silicon Valley has shown itself lacking the tools and will to effectively confront it. Tech firms are making little headway stamping out the scourge where it has emerged, even after Facebook in March removed from its platform 200 pages for “inauthentic” activity and took the rare step of identifying Gabunada’s network as the culprit.
The Philippine digital propagandist has denied trafficking in misinformation and did not respond to texts seeking comment about his work for the Duterte administration.
Such moves by Facebook are doing little to slow the trolls.
Filipinos spend so much time online — they average a staggering 10 hours a day, according to industry data — and disinformation has spiraled so quickly that Katie Harbath, Facebook public policy director for global elections, during a 2018 talk in Berlin branded it “patient zero in the global disinformation epidemic.”
“The propaganda looks really organic and it often doesn’t trip any of the flags” that alert tech companies, said Jonathan Ong, a professor of global digital media at University of Massachusetts Amherst whose research has taken him inside Philippine troll farms.
“The best strategists know how not to get caught.”
Political campaigns contract out their digital efforts to consultants, who in turn pay up to $1,000 per month to college students and recent graduates who are charged with launching multiple fake Facebook pages designed to look like they were created by actual voters or grass-roots groups.
“It is so easy to be enlisted in these jobs,” Ong said. His recent study on the industry includes an interview with one paid troll who fell into the work when the chief of staff of the political campaign she was working on ordered everyone to start creating fake accounts and posting on them.
Others have fleeting loyalties politically but are attracted to the cash. Consultants running troll farms have been known to switch sides in the middle of an election.
“The alliances are very shifty,” Ong said. “Strategists will switch in the middle of a campaign to join who they think will be the winner. They will betray their client. It happened in the last election.”
Most often, the operations are run through contractors separate from the actual campaigns so the candidate has no fingerprints on the weapon. And the trolls often don’t trigger attention from tech platforms because they know how to avoid detection. The algorithms that tech companies use to detect phony accounts tend to focus on dozens of commenters posting the same message around the same time, or users with a stock photo on their profile page. The trolls don’t do these things.
“You can look like legitimate Facebook users to trick the [company’s] artificial intelligence,” said Ross Tapsell, a researcher at Australian National University who documented the surge of paid troll activity in the Philippine province of Cebu.
Some trolls, he said, get offered a rate of $1 per social media post. In some cases operatives contract the work out to troll farms in far-off places, including Saudi Arabia.
“We have only scratched the surface of what a lot of this involved,” he said.
The government employee who last year watched what she believed were trolls swarm to the defense of Duterte on Facebook said her suspicions were confirmed when her boss later talked openly at a meeting about Gabunada’s troll operations. She also met colleagues who had visited an office building in metropolitan Manila that housed the troll farm.
She quit soon after.
“It was very scarring,” she said. “I don’t know if these practices will end. It’s very normalized in the Philippines, and advertising professionals are not ashamed that they use these strategies.”
Among those who have been in the trenches is Joyce Ramirez, a publicist who ran social media for one of Duterte’s rivals, Grace Poe.
Ramirez, who specializes in promoting films and celebrities, at one point controlled an army of 50 social media loyalists who together had 45 million Twitter followers on accounts that didn’t use the owners’ names. With a few strokes, she said, she could make any entertainment-related topic trend on Twitter in the Philippines. The tweeters were sometimes paid in cash, sometimes in cellphones and other gifts.
Such a network is politically potent, as in the Philippines, “there is a thin line that separates politics from showbiz,” Ramirez said.
When a pro-Duterte blogger accused Ramirez of secretly working for another opposition candidate in 2017, she was attacked on social media by a blogger who was echoed by thousands of pro-government users; Ramirez believes they were paid trolls. The blogger was under contract at the time as a social media consultant for the Philippine department of foreign affairs.
“They hammered fake news against me again and again, with 5,000 to 7,000 people writing against me,” Ramirez said. “It was all made up.”
Ramirez quit politics. Her army of young influencers disbanded, some switching sides to defend Duterte’s government, others leaving Twitter after their accounts were deleted or suspended. What the experience taught her, she said, is that Filipinos “thrive greatly in manufactured noise.”
“Nothing is ever real,” she said. “Whatever you hear in the news is most likely to deflect people from the truth.”
Bengali reported from Manila and Halper from Washington.