Government-funded 'troll farms'? Senators want closer look

Jonathan de Santos - Philstar.com
Government-funded 'troll farms'? Senators want closer look
This file photo shows logos of social networking site Facebook
File photo

MANILA, Philippines — Twelve senators, including the Senate's leadership, have signed a resolution for hearings into potential government spending on "troll farms", or networks that spread disinformation and misinformation.

The resolution refers to allegations by Sen. Panfilo Lacson — a co-author of Senate Resolution No. 768 — that an unnamed government undersecretary has been organizing these troll farms to target politicians who are opposed to or are not aligned with the Duterte administration.

Lacson said his source told him the official was putting up two "farms" per province. 

The resolution also references a P909,122 contract that the Department of Finance awarded to Nic Gabunada, a communication strategist linked to a network of pages and accounts that Facebook took down in 2019 for "coordinated inauthentic behavior", or the use of fake accounts to boost content.

Gabunada, through his lawyer, has stressed the contract with DOF is above board. He also claimed in 2019 that the takedowns of the pages linked to him were meant to erode support for the Duterte administration.

Senators also noted an arrangement between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Rey Joseph Nieto, a blogger left unnamed in the resolution but described as being "accused of peddling fake news and spreading hateful comments against critics of the administration."

RELATED: Duterte camp spent $200,000 for troll army, Oxford study finds

Senators — including Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto and Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon — said that these engagements "illustrate that troll farms and the misinformation and fake news that they propagate may be state-backed and state-funded."

They said Congress should check government spending "used to fund misinformation and fake news that affect millions of Filipinos."

They also questioned the potential use of public funds on "troll farm operators" whom they said were disguised as PR practitioners and social media specialists instead of on COVID-19 assistance and other programs that would benefit the public more.

That PR agencies and practitioners accept work as "trolls" has been an open secret since the release of the 2018 study "Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines" by researchers Jonathan Corpus Ong and Jason Vincent Cabañes.

PCOO 'social media specialists'

The Presidential Communications Operations Office was also under fire last week over findings by the Commission on Audit that it spent P70 million in 2020 to hire 375 contractual employees. COA called the hiring of contractual workers, which included so-called social media specialists, "unrestricted and massive" and said the money could have been spent for other programs.

PCOO Undersecretary Kris Ablan said in response that the agency has not hired any "trolls", telling ABS-CBN News Channel last Friday that "social media specialists (do) not equate to trolls."

He said that "the social media specialists in the COA report are actually our graphic artists who upload our (social media) cards, our infographics explaining our programs on PhilSys (Philippine Identification System), COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) response, and the vaccines."

Also listed as co-authors of the resolution are Sens. Francis Pangilinan, Nancy Binay, Leila De Lima, Richard Gordon, Risa Hontiveros, Manny Pacquiao, Grace Poe and Joel Villanueva.

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