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Watchdog: Social media influencers paid to back Duterte

President Rodrigo Duterte presides over the 19th Association of Southeast Asian Nations -Republic of Korea Summit at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. PPD/Albert Alcain

MANILA, Philippines — An army of social media commentators were paid to manipulate the information landscape in support of President Rodrigo Duterte, a US-based human rights watchdog said in a report.

Freedom House said that there was an increase of reports of commentators being paid to manipulate social media information from June 2016 to May 2017.

"News reports citing individuals involved said the commenters, which they characterized as part of a 'keyboard army,' could earn at least PHP500 (US$10) a day operating fake social media accounts supporting President Rodrigo Duterte or attacking his detractors," Freedom House said in its section on the Philippines in its Freedom on the Net 2017 report.

"Other reports put the figure at P2,000-3,000 ($40-60) a day," it added.

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The watchdog said that these cases of payment in exchange for information manipulation indicated an attempt to distort information in advance of President Rodrigo Duterte's election victory in May last year.

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Since Duterte came to power, these social media commentators have remained "highly vocal" in posting information defending the president or attacking his political detractors.

Aside from paying social media commentators, the report said there was information showing the use of automated accounts or bots to spread political content which was also posted by volunteers.

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Although both state and non-state actors have actively used the internet as platform to discuss politics especially during elections, reports published during the period covered by the investigation demonstrated the "clearest evidence to date widespread online campaigning with undeclared sponsorship."

Freedom House said that most of the activities were concentrated around last year's 2016 elections, and then-candidate Duterte directed much of his budget to fund social media campaigns before his surprising victory.

"Social media users also admitted to being approached by a supporter of Duterte’s candidacy to 'make noise' and demonstrate his popular backing," it said.

"Many of the accounts 'continue to spread and amplify messages of support of [Duterte’s] policies now he’s in power,' though it is not clear whether they are working with official government channels," the Freedom House report added.

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Orchestrated attacks

The report also detailed technical attacks targeting media groups such as the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines during the coverage period.

"The website of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) was disabled in July 2016 after publishing reports about Duterte’s war on drugs," it said, while the NUJP website was temporarily disabled in a "massive denial of service attack."

The Freedom House report said that NUJP treated the attack as an attempt to silence critical speech after it condemned the disabling of the PCIJ website and criticized Duterte's remarks about journalism shortly before the incident.

Freedom House also noted the cyber-attacks on websites of government institutions which could potentially obstruct the access of citizens to information.

"Dozens of government websites were reportedly attacked following the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea," Freedom House said.

"The origin of the attacks has not been established" it added.

Oxford University said early this year that the camp of Duterte spent around P10 million to hire trolls who would spread propaganda material online on behalf of the campaign.

The study titled, “Troops, trolls and troublemakers: A global inventory of organized social media manipulation,” claimed that Duterte's team of 400 to 500 cyber troops posted nationalistic and pro-government comments and interacted with online dissidents through harassment and individual targeting.

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