Comelec says law needed to go after trolls, disinfo during election campaigns

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
Comelec says law needed to go after trolls, disinfo during election campaigns
Individuals queue for Voter registration outside the COMELEC office in Quezon City. Individuals Queue for Voter registration outside the COMELEC office in Quezon City on September 6, 2021.
The STAR / Boy Santos, file

MANILA, Philippines — A commissioner from the Commission on Elections said on Tuesday that it needed a separate law regulating the use of social media during election campaigns to act against the heightened spread of disinformation that has characterized the country’s recent electoral exercises.

Comelec Commissioner Efraim Bag-id, who also heads the electoral body’s Campaign Finance Office, said that it could better enforce rules on the fair use of social media during elections and “fill the gaps of policy” with the passage of House Bill 2820 or the Internet and Social Media Regulation for Fair Elections Act.

Bag-id bared the Comelec received “some legal questions” over the rules and regulations it created based on the Republic Act No. 9006 or the Fair Elections Act due to the law’s non-inclusion of what candidates post on digital platforms.  

“We received some legal questions saying the law is only for conventional media and it will not cover those digital platforms. so this is a first step if we will have a law. From there we can promulgate rules and regulations to regulate the use of social media,” Bag-id said.

The proposed bill mandates that all election campaign activity hosted online should be posted on platform-verified accounts declared to the Comelec and that all campaign propaganda should be "truthful and not misleading."

The measure also requires micro-targeting of electoral ads to be limited to the audience's geographical location, age and gender. Campaign advertisements must also include a disclosure of who paid for them. 

The Comelec has long implemented social media regulations during electoral campaigns similar to the rules prescribed in HB 2820. However, Bag-id said the body has difficulty enforcing these regulations without a law passed by Congress. 

HB 2820 was approved by the suffrage and electoral reforms committee pending revisions on style.

Weak monitoring 

The electoral body’s social media guidelines for the 2022 elections – which saw a massive spike in disinformation in the run-up to election day, according to fact-checking coalition Tsek.ph – include requiring social media influencers used by candidates for campaign advertisements to submit reportorial requirements to the Comelec. 

Despite this, however, disinformation primarily spread through “affiliate pages” or accounts not directly involved with the candidate, based on the monitoring of  Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente).

“We saw how badly the Comelec needed manpower and expertise to better monitor disinformation, especially during the campaign period,” Lente director Ona Caritos said.

Caritos said the Comelec’s Campaign Finance Office – which hires contractual workers as a temporary office – needed to be a permanent fixture of the commission so it can hire more experts trained to spot disinformation.

“It cannot be all lawyers in the office, all accountants. There’s a need for data analysts to better monitor what’s happening in the online world,” Caritos said in a mix of English and Filipino. 

Caritos also warned the commission to act fast due to the evolving nature of disinformation.

“By 2025, we will see a new animal of disinformation. We want Comelec to better address this,” she said.  

The committee’s discussions of the bill also touched on whether it can compel social media companies based in other countries to remove false content.

Rep. Maximo Dalog (Mountain Province), chair of the suffrage and electoral reforms committee, asked Bag-id whether the measure could give Congress the power to issue a subpoena to representatives of social media companies based in the Philippines.

Bag-id said that while social media companies like Facebook have its own regulations, “if the Comelec has teeth (in the law), for an appropriate time, it can (force) the removal of posts immediately. They will be forced (because the law) is already there.”

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