Internet Trolls: The Backbone of President Duterte’s Administration

Written by: Amelie

Edited by: Megh

Visual by: Issy

The Philippines is currently hailed as the “social media capital of the world,” with an estimated 80 million network users in 2020 (Sanchez). With large swaths of netizens flocking towards the country’s most-used social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter, social media’s presence in the Philippines is truly a force to be reckoned with. However, has this expansive sphere of influence been utilized for good? Beyond lighthearted cat videos and memes lies the reality of your beloved platforms: a weaponized propaganda machine rife churning out exploitation, hatred, and censorship.

A report from the University of Massachussets-Amherst revealed that hidden in plain sight are a parasitic network of colloquially-termed “internet trolls” or “click armies” — composed of hierarchized individuals serving to dominate political discussions and propagate disinformation at a hegemonic scale. These alleged Internet trolls generate sham grass-roots support for politicians through fake social media accounts, working to stifle political dissenters and flood news feeds with political propaganda. Composed of advertising strategists, digital influencers, and community-level fake account operators, it is believed that these stakeholders play an integral role in shaping contemporary politics in the Philippines

While trolls are widely used among both local and national politicians, they also form the building blocks for the current administration, propelling Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to the place he is in today. A study from Oxford University revealed that Duterte’s political party, PDP-Laban, paid 10 million PHP (200,000 USD) for social media marketing during Duterte’s 2016 presidential campaign, in which aforementioned trolls employed fake social media accounts to promote or defend him against critics. Duterte’s continued influence on social media has strengthened through the ubiquitous “Mocha Uson Blog” – a pro-Duterte Facebook page led by Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson. With a following of more than 5 million, Uson has accumulated a loyal fan base of ‘die-hard Duterte supporters’ (DDS), who support her many posts. 

As politicians accumulate influence through the weaponization of social media, the effects of digital trolling extend well beyond the digital sphere, creating a culture of impunity, inequality, and injustice. Staunch critics of the administration face both physical and digital attacks, contributing to the declining state of press freedom. From June 30, 2016 to April 30, 2020, a report documented a total of 171 cases of threats and attacks against the press, including 12 deaths, 16 cases of intimidation, and 8 cases of slay attempts (Freedom for Media). To quote journalist Jodesz Gavilan of Rappler, “it’s hard to live thinking that the government can take away your livelihood so quickly.” 

Reports of Attacks and Threats Against the Press [Source: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism]

Internet trolls weave the fabric of Philippine politics, and heavily contribute to the Philippines’ now fractured democracy. As these “architects of disinformation” (One and Cabanes) inculcate themselves in contemporary society, countries such as the United States, Russia, and China increasingly turn to these “internet troll” tactics, holding netizens in digital bubbles. 

Unbeknownst to us, we’ve acclimated ourselves to a ‘post-truth’ era, where societies are built upon deception and falsehoods, where the line between appearance and reality continues to blur, where the distinction between friend or foe proves ambiguous. We scramble for a way out imprisoned by the monster we’ve created for ourselves. 

Works Cited

“Duterte Admits Paying Trolls for 2016 Elections.” Manila Standard, manilastandard.net/mobile/article/242853.

Jonathan, Ong Corpus, and Cabañes A. Jason Vincent. University of Leeds, University of Massachussets Amherst, 2018, pp. 1–82, Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines

Sanchez, Published by Martha Jean, and Jul 24. “Number of Social Network Users in the Philippines 2018-2023.” Statista, 24 July 2020, http://www.statista.com/statistics/489180/number-of-social-network-users-in-philippines/#:~:text=The Philippines have been called,as being highly internet-savvy.

“The State of Philippine Media, under Duterte.” Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, pcij.org/article/1596/the-state-of-philippine-media-under-duterte.“Troll Armies, a Growth Industry in the Philippines, May Soon Be Coming to an Election near You.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 19 Nov. 2019, www.latimes.com/politics/story/2019-11-19/troll-armies-routine-in-philippine-politics-coming-here-next.