“Keyboard army” amplifying impression of support for Duterte’s drug war — report

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/15 November) — Members of a “keyboard army” are being paid to amplify the impression that the Duterte administration’s “brutal crackdown on the drug trade” has obtained widespread public support, a US-based democracy and human rights watchdog said in a report released on Tuesday.

“Reports of commenters paid to manipulate the online information landscape increased during the coverage period. News reports citing individuals involved said the commenters, which they characterized as part of a ‘keyboard army,’ could earn at least PHP500 (US$10) a day operating fake social media accounts supporting President Rodrigo Duterte or attacking his detractors,” according to Freedom on the Net 2017, an annual country-by-country assessment of online freedom released by Freedom House.

Infographic on the number of suspects killed, across the Philippine regions, from July 1 to 13, 2016. PCIJ

“Other reports put the figure at PhP2,000-3,000 ($40-60) a day. Some reports noted the use of automated accounts or bots to spread political content. Similar content was also posted by volunteers,” it said.

The report said Duterte campaign’s used paid commenters to create the impression of widespread support for his candidacy.

It added: “Many of the accounts ‘continue to spread and amplify messages of support of [Duterte’s] policies now he’s in power,’ though it is not clear whether they are working with official government channels.”

The report further cited the cyberattacks on websites run by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

PCIJ has published reports on alleged extrajudicial killings and other issues related to the war on drugs.

‘Antidemocratic agenda’

“Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an antidemocratic agenda,” said Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project. “Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it.”

“The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside,” Kelly said.

“The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary. Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline,” she added.

Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States, damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate. The content manipulation contributed to a seventh consecutive year of overall decline in internet freedom, along with a rise in disruptions to mobile internet service and increases in physical and technical attacks on human rights defenders and independent media.

“The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”

The report covers 65 countries, accounting for 87 percent of internet users worldwide. It focuses on developments that occurred between June 2016 and May 2017, although some more recent events are included as well.

It said that governments in a total of 30 countries deployed some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year.

Leaders used paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites, and propaganda outlets, among other techniques, “to inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves,” it added. (MindaNews)