Press freedom is under attack, with social media bots and paid trolls expanding their reach as they harass, bully and spread lies about journalists in the digital space. Maria Ressa, the Philippine journalist who was recently convicted of cyber libel, has become the most prominent target of such attacks by paid trolls and bot armies in her battle to tell the truth about her government. 

Ressa and Rappler, her Philippines-based online news website, are known for their relentless coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs. A story published by Rappler two years before the country’s new cyber libel laws came into effect led to a series of what Ressa calls “coordinated, inauthentic behavior” against her on social media, mainly on Facebook where almost 70% of the Philippine population are active users.

“The Philippines has higher than normal number average of fake accounts as compared to the rest of the world,” Ressa said, at a recent webinar organized by Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club. 

In 2016, Ressa became both a witness as well as target of the rising weaponization of social media. The same campaign accounts that helped Duterte get elected began posting negative information about her when she began reporting on his war on drugs, during which more than 1,000 people were killed every month in the first 6 months of his presidency. In 2019, human rights groups estimated that the death toll had reached 27,000 and that many of those deaths were extrajudicial killings carried out by police that involved no serious investigation. 

According to Ressa, society’s divisions are built into the design of social media platforms, which allows them to fertilize and sometimes manipulate public opinion.

“What the social media platforms do is amplification, distribution,” Ressa said. “That distribution used to be held by news organizations. Journalists were the gatekeepers to distribution. That’s no longer the case.” 

Bots and trolls are easy to weaponize

According to Anton Sobolev, a post-doctoral researcher at Yale University specializing in machine learning and political control, bots and paid trolls are some of the easiest tools to manipulate when it comes to spreading mass amounts of disinformation and creating echo chambers in their targeted communities. This phenomenon has little to do with complicated procedures, machine learning or artificial intelligence. It simply had to do with programming bots and engaging paid trolls to do as they were told. 

“The trolls, the bots, basically the best thing they can do is talk, repost something special or repost from specific resources,” Sobolev told Forkast.News. “What else they can do is, for example, if you want to use them for cyber bullying, you can basically tune them to attack a specific person with a pre-programmed message.” 

Facebook has become the favorite social media network for governments as well as hate groups to spread propaganda and execute their disinformation campaigns. But despite having a policy against disinformation, Facebook purposely has relaxed those rules in the past and made “special allowances” regarding fact-checking when it came to conservative media sources, which allowed them to spread “fake news,” Facebook employees told NBC News. 

Philippines Drug War Protest 2
Protest against Duterte’s war on drugs at the Philippines Consulate General in New York City. Photo: VOCAL-NY, CCA 2.0

Facebook also does not require most users to prove their real identities, which has opened the floodgates for trolls to register as many accounts they want. 

“So people create a lot of anonymous fake accounts and create the network within the troll accounts,” Sobolev said. “Then they start to actively report some fake news from the fake source.”

In 2018, Facebook did begin verifying the identities of a small number of users managing pages with large audiences. Recently, Facebook also announced that they will require identity verification from user profiles with a high reach in the U.S., and from accounts that exhibit “inauthentic behavior” that goes viral on the network.

A Facebook company spokesperson told Forkast.News that between April and June this year, Facebook removed 1.5 billion fake accounts, and continues to blocks millions of attempts to create fake accounts every day. The company employs over 35,000 people who work on security and has a dedicated team to help detect and block fake accounts and content that violates Facebook’s community standards. 

“Authenticity is the cornerstone of our community and we do not allow fake accounts on our platform,” the Facebook spokesperson said, in a statement to Forkast.News. 

Bots and trolls, however, continue to manipulate social media algorithms through other methods. For example, bots and trolls can post simultaneously, to trick an algorithm into thinking that the topic is trending and important. “This causes it to show up on your Facebook page or wall,” Sobolev said. 

In the Philippines, where the minimum wage can be as low as US$5.70 per day, some Facebook account holders are being paid $10 a day to act as trolls and publish fake content that favors and defends the Duterte regime. 

Worldwide, Facebook has more than 3 billion user accounts. In the Philippines, which has a population of about 110 million, with over 90% of the population having access to the platform. Accordingly, the vast majority of adults in the country are exposed, often on a regular basis, to government disinformation campaigns. In the Philippines, Ressa said, “Facebook is the internet.” 

Facebook’s ubiquity and power in the Philippines have also amplified and encouraged more Facebook campaigns by Duterte’s government. 

“The Philippines [has] quite a unique case for a developed/developing economy with some level of democracy with respect to the social media,” Sobolev said. “I haven’t seen any other country with that level of monopolization of social media space.”

Ressa added: “The [bots and trolls] in Facebook are looking for that moment when we are most vulnerable to a message. They are paid to give us the advertising. And the end goal of that is actually to modify our behavior.” 

Facebook’s algorithms also target communities and tailor messages in ways that few other advertisers can, based on the user’s profile and online activities. 

“The ‘opt in’ for this is gone,” Ressa said. “You can’t opt in or opt out.”

Technology vs. technology: enter blockchain

New forces of brutality in the virtual landscape call for new solutions in technology. Voice, a blockchain-driven social media platform, is an example of a company trying to eradicate bots and disinformation campaigns by making sure that every participant is real and rewarding users for posting quality content. 

Salah Zalatimo, the CEO of Voice, told Forkast.News in a recent interview about the enormous problem of fake online accounts. 

“You would be stunned if you did a quick Google search on fake accounts on Facebook and the numbers that they themselves report over the past two years. They’ve identified and removed over 8.7 billion fake accounts,” Zalatimo said. “It’s a staggering number to really think about. There are only 7.5 billion people on Earth.”

Other blockchain-run social media platforms have also been gaining traction of late. Minds, a crypto-based social network, has seen a spike of over 400,000 new users in Asia alone after the recent Twitter hack that hijacked the accounts of such high-profile users as Joe Biden and Elon Musk, as people seek out platforms that offer greater digital security and privacy. 

1920px Rodrigo Duterte delivers his message to the Filipino community in Vietnam during a meeting on September 28
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s government is believed to be behind the trolls and bots that have been harassing Ressa and other journalists online. Photo: PCOO EDP

To discourage the spread of online disinformation and shut down trolls and bullies, it may be necessary to verify the identity of social media users. 

“Verifying [the] identities of people on their way into the platform [is crucial]… to reduce the noise once inside,” Zalatimo said. “We believe that figuring this out is really critical to creating a social world that is free from that type of pollution and manipulation.” 

Social media abuses undermine press freedom and democracy

Ressa, her staff members and Rappler have endured threats and attacks by bots for years, an experience she describes as “dehumanizing.” 

“[It’s] like getting a virus. Like getting sick. And then, you know, not really being able to shake it off completely,” Ressa said. “There are days you wake up and you’re feeling okay. And then there are days … like yesterday when I woke up and late at night President Duterte gave a statement at 1 a.m. and called me a fraud. And while he said he wasn’t threatening, he did threaten me.” 

As a journalist and online publisher, Ressa probably could not have achieved the same level of impact and fame over her stories if not for social media, which greatly lowers the cost of content distribution and growing an audience. 

“In many ways, social media has been core to Rappler’s successful model,” said Caoilfhionn Gallagher, one of Ressa’s lawyers. “But we’ve then seen social media turned against Maria, with the weaponization of social media in a way that furthers and enhances the attacks against her.”

On June 15, 2020, Ressa and her fellow Rappler staffer Reynaldo Santos Jr. were found guilty of the criminal offence “cyber libel”, where they face a minimum of 6 months or up to 7 years in prison. A fine of approximately US$8,000 (P400,000) was also imposed. Seven other cases remain pending against Ressa — including allegations of illegal foreign media ownership of her news site and tax offenses — exposing her potentially to decades in prison. 

Ressa may be the most prominent, but not the only example of journalists being attacked online by their governments. In 2017, journalists at the BBC Persian Service in Iran faced online threats and harassment for their investigative reporting.

Aside from prosecuting Ressa, the Philippine government also recently shut down one of Asia’s oldest television broadcasters, ABS-CBN. Despite being a democracy, the Philippines now ranks 136 out of 180 countries in the 2020 Press Freedom Index

Amal Clooney, the international human rights lawyer who also represents Ressa, wrote in an Op-ed for the Washington Post that the verdict was crucial in deciding the message sent to the Philippine public and others who work in news media. “If Maria is convicted and locked up for doing her work, the message to other journalists and independent voices is clear: Keep quiet, or you’ll be next.”

Gallagher adds: “The world is watching Duterte, the world is watching this administration, and we’ve got to help Maria to hold the line.” 

As for Ressa, she says her experience is also a warning to voters in democracies around the world.

“What’s happening to us is coming soon to you,” Ressa said. “Our dystopian present is America’s dystopian future. It’s not just America. It’s every democracy around the world, precisely because for the very, very first time in human history, social media platforms connect us.”