A 21st century strongman, enabled by the internet: a case study

How can a politician and their supporters use social media to build up power?  Lauren Etter‘s Bloomberg News article “What Happens When the Government Uses Facebook as a Weapon?” offers a chilling account of how Philippine president Duterte and his supporters deployed trolling, targeted abuse, fake news, fake accounts, and especially Facebook to help win elections and go after their enemies.

It’s a compelling, very well told, and long read, which I recommend to anyone interested in technology and/or politics. Here I’ll pull out some of the themes that seem especially relevant for the global future of technology and education.  I’m not expert on Philippine history or politics, so I’ll defer to more knowledgeable people on that score.


Politicized trolling Etter singles out the importance of trolling, and coins a good term for its specific use in this case: “patriotic trolling”.  She defines it as “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.”  For example,

Within hours of [publishing an article critical of the government], she and Rappler were being attacked through Facebook. She began receiving rapid-fire hate messages. “Leave our country!!!! WHORE!!!!!!” read one. The messages became increasingly violent: “I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death.” When she later reported that she was getting as many as 90 such messages per hour, including rape threats, the tidal wave began again. The onslaught became so disturbing that Ressa sent her social media team to counseling. She installed an armed guard in front of her office.

The war on drugs Duterte made fighting drug dealers the centerpiece of his career.  The ferocity with which he conducted that war is legendary, and both won passionate supporters and critics.

Duterte… told Filipinos the nation was being ruined by drug abuse and related crime, and promised to bring to the capital the merciless strategy he had employed in Davao. Soon, Duterte’s death squads prowled the streets at night in search of drug dealers and other criminals. Images of blood-smeared bodies slumped over on sidewalks, women cradling dead husbands, and corpses in satin-lined caskets went viral. As the bodies piled up—more than 7,000 people have been killed as part of Duterte’s war on drugs—the social media war escalated.

It’s important to recall the many ways an aggressive drug war pushes down on civil liberties, and, over time, habituates people to some form of police state.

The war on terror Since 9-11 the Philippines have played an important yet underappreciated role in what the Pentagon used to call the Grand War on Terror.  Actually, there are also key incidents during the preceding decade, like the immensely ambitious Operation Bojinka in 1995 (imagine if that had come off!).  This provides important context for Etter’s story.  She mentions, for example, how just a few months ago a Philippine city experienced an actual pitched battle between Islamicists and state security forces.

Again, as with the war on drugs, prosecuting such a conflict is usually bad for civil liberties.  Did it help prepare the ground for Duterte’s use of digital tools?

The government’s role All of the preceding points refer to the Duterte administration’s active participation in these activities.  As one commentator observed on MetaFilter,

after the fall of Usenet, it was glaringly obvious how online communities can be gamed by bad actors. What’s new is state-sponsored bad actors working hand in glove with private, centralized services. The same utopians, crytpo-kids and FOSS zealots in particular, have been warning about the flip side of the coin for just as long, if not longer.

Years ago Evgeny Morozov made the case that state actors would turn the liberatory functions of the internet on their head, turning social media, mobile devices, etc. to their own accounts.

Facebook’s role Etter observes that “Facebook is inherently conflicted.”  On the one hand, the company took care to actively support the president after his election:

After Duterte won, Facebook did what it does for governments all over the world—it began deepening its partnership with the new administration, offering white-glove services to help it maximize the platform’s potential and use best practices. Even as Duterte banned the independent press from covering his inauguration live from inside Rizal Ceremonial Hall, the new administration arranged for the event to be streamed on Facebook, giving Filipinos around the world insider access to pre- and post-ceremonial events as they met their new strongman.

Which sounds horrendous in retrospect.  On the other hand, Facebook is now trying to fight fake news in some various ways. “In the Philippines, it began conducting safety workshops in 2016 to educate journalists and nongovernmental organization workers.”  (More on this at various points below)

Internet.org: Facebook drove this implementation of zero rating (whereby a company makes a very limited form of internet access available for low cost) in the Philippines.  Etter argues that this gave Facebook even more media presence than it does elsewhere, since it became the connective tech for so many people.

Nationalism and internationalism The pro-Duterte forces emphasize nationalism in their content.  There seems to be a theme of anti-elitist populism in that identity politics, based in part on Duterte’s origins in poverty.  You can get a sense of this in one bit of popular fake news, “a post by Peter Tiu Lavina, Duterte’s campaign spokesman”, which Ressa cited in the article that elicited so much backlash.  Lavina wrote that “human rightists, bishops and ‘presstitutes’… are more concerned with the human rights of criminals and worried about our country’s so-called ‘image’ abroad”.

I wonder about the clerical or religious angle expressed here.  Is it because the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued a pastoral letter deeming fake news sharing a sin, and also published a list of websites it deems likely to share fake news?  Or is there a recent history around clerical politics that I’m not aware of?  If so, how do these combine? (thanks to Mike Caulfield for those links)

Duterte and Ressa

Collating fakes The heroine of Etter’s article is Maria Ressa, the leader of Rappler, a web-based news and opinion site that Etter compares to Vice.  As a defensive move she and her team create a database of fake accounts, nicknamed the Shark Tank.  (See above for the nation’s Catholic bishops assembling a list of fake-happy websites) Is this a useful tactic?

Digital literacy Could digital literacy skills defang the Duterte digital movement?  Facebook seems to think so to some degree:

Facebook maintains that an aspect of the problem in the Philippines is simply that the country has come online fast and hasn’t yet learned the emergent rules of the internet. In October the company offered a “Think Before You Share” workshop for Filipino students, which focused on teaching them “digital literacy” skills, including critical thinking, empowerment, kindness, and empathy.

This reminds me of some other digital literacy models, like this one produced by UNESCO.  There’s a degree of political empowerment here, drawing on the tradition of media literacy.

Why does this matter to the rest of the human race beyond southeast Asia?  The biggest reason is that politicians often learn from each other, across all kinds of borders.  John Robb refers to the model of open source warfare whereby strategists and tacticians borrow strategies and tactics from each other.  These practices worked for Duterte, and are now in the political equivalent of Github.  Ready for other would-be leaders to pick up and use.

Back to digital literacy: this story resonates deeply with my sense of digital literacy as something broader and more socially unstable than checking URL domains.  I’ve spoken and written (for example) about the political possibilities digital literacy unleashes, but have emphasizes their insurgent aspects.  Etter’s article reminds me – reminds all of us – about its use by those in power.

Who else is using Duterte’s toolkit?

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2 Responses to A 21st century strongman, enabled by the internet: a case study

  1. ted says:

    These trends seem especially ominous for the future of US politics. Recent events such as the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules and the continued expansion of Dollar General (900 new stores in the next year because, according to the CEO, “The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer”), make it likely we’ll see zero rating plans here as well as a further entrenchment of Facebook as the de facto face of the internet. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who don’t use it, and the number of spare fingers keeps growing…

    I’m pretty skeptical of the power of digital literacy to hold back the influence of patriotic trolling and fake news. Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug.

    Feels like we’re moving into a perilous night.

  2. Pingback: On the solstice, dark thoughts for 2018 | Bryan Alexander

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