Influence ops target journalists, expert as China vessels patrol West Philippine Sea

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com


This report forms part of Philstar.com's coverage of influence operations, which involve the spread of false information and propaganda that can mislead, cause confusion and prevent informed understanding and discourse. Read our explainer on influence operations.

MANILA, Philippines — Filipino reporters and a known maritime expert received a barrage of messages from unidentifiable sources in 2023 that attempted to divert public attention away from Chinese vessels’ actions in the West Philippine Sea to Vietnam’s supposed “militarization” there. 

Around seven messages were sent to four Filipino journalists covering different beats and Jay Batongbacal, the director of the University of the Philippines - Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, all encouraging them to report or comment on Vietnam’s alleged plans to build defense infrastructure on Spratlys Island based on supposed leaked documents.

These emails and text messages — most of which were sent within days and weeks of each other from July to August — have some of the markings of an influence operation that Philstar.com is tracking across all social media platforms, groups and spaces on the internet. 

According to screengrabs of the messages that Batongbacal and the four reporters, including two foreign correspondents, shared with Philstar.com, all the senders’ names cannot be verified online and there are no traces of the affiliations some of them claim to have. 

These messages offered to provide the reporters and Batongbacal with insider information on Vietnam’s construction plans on Spratlys Island. The individuals behind these messages identified themselves as either concerned Filipinos, employees of the Vietnamese construction company involved in the alleged militarization, or experts willing to help write an article against Vietnam.

Some senders were also persistent in following up with the reporters, aiming to incite anger or fear about a perceived Vietnamese threat to Philippine sovereignty while downplaying China’s actions in the region.

‘Pressuring Vietnam’

In July and August 2023, two accounts emailed two Filipino journalists about the supposed defense infrastructure that Vietnam plans to put up on Spratlys Island. Both individuals emphasized Vietnam’s supposed threat to Philippine sovereignty and promised to provide more information upon further contact.

Based on Philstar.com’s research, a certain “Domingo Cortes” sent at least two identical emails from the last week of July to the first week of August, claiming to have a “confidential document from Vietnamese Military regarding VN's construction plans on occupied Spratly Islands.” 


Screengrab of an email shared with Philstar.com.

Cortes also introduced themselves as a “Filipino who (sic) concern about my country's maritime sovereignty but have to stay anonymous for safety reason (sic).”

Cortes said in their emails that Vietnam plans to build defense fortification systems and other infrastructure meant to give the country a "coordinated and advantageous position." 

They wrote: 

“Militarization of islands by VN, especially on Pigeon Reef and South Reef poses great threat to nearby Philippines occupied Rizal Reef and Northeast Cay. On both Pigeon Reef and South Reef, VN is dredging and deepening navigation channels, constructing breakwaters and sea embankments and two more wharfs, as well as expanding runways.

I can tell more about what I know and the document if you think the information is newsworthy.”

Similarly, in July 2023, another user who went by the name “Amiham Santos” emailed another Filipino journalist and claimed to be an employee working for Vietnamese construction company “ADCC” (Airport Design and Construction Consultancy One Member Limited Liability Company), which they alleged to be involved in Vietnam’s plans to build an artificial island in the West Philippine Sea.

Philstar.com has reached out to ADCC for comment and will update this story with their response.


Screengrab of an email shared with Philstar.com.


The email from “Amiham Santos” claimed that they were a Filipino employee working for ADCC who was recently "transferred to the island-building project team" in the West Philippine Sea and "got to know lots of details since then,” which made them “angry and frustrated.”

“Amiham Santos” also said that they were willing to “(reveal) the company’s confidential information” even as it carries the risk of retaliation from Vietnam. This is so that the Philippine government “can acknowledge Vietnam’s aggressive move in disputed features in (the West Philippine Sea) and realize the necessity to act immediately to protect our sovereignty and national interests."

The email also outright stated that they want to "put pressure on the Vietnamese government through the media to stop its island-building activities." 

A search of the name "Amiham Santos" online did not show any results showing that the individual is an employee of ADCC.

One of the Filipino journalists who received Santos’ email asked for documents to substantiate their claim. 

In response, Santos sent two PDF files that contained a table detailing the alleged military infrastructure that Vietnam was building and descriptions of these planned structures. These files did not contain photos or videos, the Filipino foreign correspondent told Philstar.com. 

“I then said I would have to independently verify the materials sent, which do not look like official documents at all. They were just PDF files, with no official letterheads or signatures whatsoever,” the Filipino journalist said.  

Santos also refused to meet the reporter in person. 

All four journalists who spoke to Philstar.com said that there are indications that similar emails were sent to other reporters covering issues in the West Philippine Sea as part of the foreign affairs beat. 

Philippine Coast Guard Spokesperson Jay Tarriela told senators in September that some journalists have informed him of emails attempting to “divert the attention of Filipinos (where) instead of concentrating on the aggressive actions of China, they are diverting it to Vietnam.”

‘Experts’ reach out to Batongbacal

In July, maritime expert Jay Batongbacal received a message from a certain “Eva Laster” on Viber who sent him a link to a July 16 report by The Manila Times about Vietnam’s alleged militarization in the West Philippine Sea. 

“The intention was to cause alarm and get me, as a public intellectual, to write about it. I did not react because the reported reclamation on the identified reefs had already been monitored and twice reported (with satellite pictures) by the US think-tank AMTI-CSIS I think in 2019 and 2021,” Batongbacal said.

Days later, a certain “Herman Duncan” who claimed to be from the Singapore Maritime Institute sent Batongbacal the same Manila Times report and “invited” him to write about the issue. 

The Viber message said that Batongbacal had the option of publishing an article “through our channels.” It added: “Please inform me if you need additional funding or other supports (sic).”

A search for the name "Herman Duncan" does not yield any results for a researcher associated with the Singapore Maritime Institute.

Duncan’s message was then followed by an email from a certain "Jess Johnson", claiming to be an environmentalist who also similarly asked Batongbacal to write an article about Vietnam's alleged destructive activities in the West Philippine Sea. 

In their email, Johnson compared Vietnam to China twice (“except for China,” "many states regard us as a pawn against China, but…") in describing Vietnam’s supposed ongoing construction activities on Paracel Islands — a group of more than 30 islands in the South China Sea in which Vietnam, Taiwan and China all have overlapping claims.

Johnson told Batongbacal that Vietnam's "operating scale is much larger than we know", saying that its building of infrastructure has caused some environmental problems.

Screengrab of an email shared by maritime expert Jay Batongbacal with Philstar.com. Yellow highlights added by Philstar.com.

Johnson ended their email with an appeal to Batongbacal to write about the issue to "protect our interests and our planet as well."

Batongbacal told Philstar.com that he responded to these messages by declining to write about the issue. Since then, the two people who contacted him through Viber — “Eva Laster” and “Herman Duncan” — have unsent their messages. 

This alert/analysis/series was produced with support from an Internews initiative aiming to build the capacity of news organizations to understand and monitor disinformation and influence operations in the Philippines.

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