Unliked: Philippines’ Duterte speaks out against Facebook censorship

Unliked: Philippines’ Duterte speaks out against Facebook censorship
A Facebook group, which campaigns against recruitment of students and children by communist guerrillas, was taken down by the social media giant. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 30 September 2020

Unliked: Philippines’ Duterte speaks out against Facebook censorship

Unliked: Philippines’ Duterte speaks out against Facebook censorship
  • Social media giant warned against targeting pro-government advocacy pages after hundreds of military and police accounts taken down last week.

MANILA: “Is there life after Facebook?”

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte says he “doesn’t know” the answer to his question as he slammed the social media giant for its decision to take down hundreds of accounts linked to government security forces and supporters of his administration last week.

In a late-night address on Monday, Duterte ranted against Facebook for allegedly “targeting pro-government advocacy pages.”

“I have learned in the past days that even those supporting government advocacy are being removed ... Facebook, listen to me. We allow you to operate here hoping that you can help us also. Now, if the government cannot espouse or advocate something which is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose here in my country?” he said.

Last week, Facebook deleted more than 200 accounts belonging to two networks based in China and the Philippines for “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity.” 

Among those taken down were 57 accounts, 31 pages, and 20 Instagram accounts linked to the Philippines’ military and the police.

Duterte, however, said that the accounts were “purely advocacy pages” supporting government initiatives, particularly against the communist insurgency.

According to Duterte, no government in the world espouses killing or execution, “but there is the left,” he said, referring to the Communist Party of the Philippines - National Democratic Front (CPP-NDF) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).

Duterte then warned Facebook that it could not lay down a policy for his government. “I allow you to operate here. You cannot bar or prevent me from espousing the objectives of [the] government,” he said.

He added that if the government cannot use the social media platform for the good of the people, then he will have to “talk” to Facebook, which he accused of being “used by the left.”

“My job is to protect government interest. If you cannot help me... then let us talk. We may or may not find the solution. If we cannot, then I’m sorry,” he said.

Reacting to the president’s vote of support, a military spokesman thanked Duterte for backing the Philippines Armed Forces (AFP).

“The AFP views Facebook and other social media outfits as platforms to disseminate accurate information that would empower our people to see through the lies and reject terrorist organizations masquerading as pro-people,” AFP Spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said. 

He added that the military organization is “one with the president” in his call for Facebook executives to sit down and discuss how Filipinos could benefit from the popularity of the social media network and its presence in the Philippines. 

The Philippines is Facebook’s second-largest market in Southeast Asia. According to data provided by German company Statista, there were 76 million Facebook users in the Philippines as of July 2020, with the number expected to reach 88.1 million by 2025. 

Experts, however, are skeptical as to whether Duterte will fulfil his threat.

“It’s a threat, but I’m not sure if he will go through with it,” political analyst Ramon Casiple told Arab News, while international security analyst Steve Cutler said that he “understands the president’s frustration.”

“Lots of folks get banned or suspended on Facebook, Twitter, etc. But the terms of service apply to anyone. If the terms of service — a contract — are violated, then the account is closed or otherwise penalized,” Cutler told Arab News. “I suppose he could ban them,” he added, but said that Duterte would have to explain to millions of Filipinos why they can no longer use Facebook to stay in touch with their families “just because the president is upset over the shutdown of accounts supporting government advocates.”

Terry Ridon of the public policy think tank Infrawatch PH and Duterte’s former urban poor chief called on Facebook to push back against the president’s “veiled threats” to ban the popular social media network in the Philippines.

“A distinction should be made between legitimate government activities and state-sponsored coordinated inauthentic behavior within Facebook. Legitimate government activities within Facebook have not been removed and continue to provide information and services to the public. What have been removed are digital assets that had violated Facebook’s terms of service,” he said.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook head of security policy, said these networks posted about politics in the Philippines, the military’s activities against terrorism, the anti-terrorism bill, criticism of communism, youth activists and the opposition, criticism of the CPP-NDF, and the NPA. 

Facebook attributed the Philippines-based network to the military and police, which disowned the fake accounts.

One of the pages closed by Facebook was the Hands Off Our Children (HOOC), which was linked to a Philippine army captain who was also behind other fake Facebook accounts. 

Earlier, the military had asked the social media company to restore HOOC, which it said was a “legitimate advocacy page.”