Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is seeking a meeting with representatives of Facebook after he questioned the social networking platform’s decision to take down pro-government and pro-military “advocacy” pages and accounts, saying he does not see any use for it if it does not help the government in the “fight of ideas”.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque on Tuesday explained that Duterte does not intend to shut down Facebook’s operations in the country, but slammed its takedowns as a form of censorship and suppression of free expression.
“The president only said there is a need to talk,” Roque said. “It won’t be good for Facebook and the Philippines [if the social network is banned], because we are number one on Facebook after all.
“So it will be a huge loss to Facebook. But at the same time, since we are number one, many Filipinos using it will be affected.”
Facebook last week said it took down two clusters of fake accounts, one in the Philippines and another in Fujian, China, that were involved in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” in violation of its community standards.
The local group linked to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police was engaged in attacks against activists and dissidents. The Chinese network attacked Rappler and supported the potential presidential run of Duterte’s daughter Sara in 2022.
On Monday night, during his weekly television appearance, Duterte said the social media giant’s reasons for taking down the “advocacy” pages were “so convoluted” that he couldn’t understand them.
He said: “Facebook, listen to me. We allow you to operate here, hoping that you could help us also. Now, if [the] government cannot espouse or advocate something [that] is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose here in my country?
“What would be the point of allowing you to continue if you cannot help us?
“We are not advocating mass destruction, we are not advocating a mass massacre. It’s a fight of ideas. And apparently from the drift of your statement or your position is that it cannot be used as a platform.”
Duterte said Facebook “cannot lay down a policy” for his government and prevent him from “espousing the objectives of [the] government”.
“If you cannot help me protect government interest, then let us talk. We may or we may not find the solution. If we cannot, then I’m sorry,” he added.
According to Roque, the president “does not tolerate censorship of pro-government advocacies, such as advocacies to protect children against enlistment as combatants”.
One page taken down by Facebook was the “Hands Off Our Children”, which was put up and managed by an Army captain as a platform for parents whose children had allegedly been recruited by the communist New People’s Army.
Roque said: “We believe in freedom of speech. They may use as justification the ‘inauthentic behaviour’ but the effect is censorship because the contents of the page were deleted.”
Such “content-based restriction” is unconstitutional, said the former human rights lawyer.
He also criticised Facebook for choosing groups that were “against the Duterte administration” as fact-checkers, pointing to Rappler and Vera Files, which are independent media outfits.
Department of the Interior and Local Government undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said Facebook’s “unilateral act, without prior consultation or due process with affected individuals” was a cause for concern for the department.
He said “the least” that the social media giant could have done was to allow those concerned to refute the allegations against them.
“We are open to dialogue with Facebook even as we appeal to them to be more transparent and accountable to their members in their regulation of member accounts,” he added.
Bayan Muna Representative Ferdinand Gaite said the president’s statements were an admission that the government had a hand in using fake Facebook accounts for propaganda and “massive disinformation”, which largely targeted critics and the opposition such as the Makabayan bloc in the House.
He called on Facebook not to be intimidated by the president’s threats.
“They [Facebook] must reveal these pages and accounts. The people and the victims of these trolls’ online attacks deserve to know at least that much,” he said, adding that whether public funds were being used should be probed.
“This is not merely an issue of fake accounts – this is about fake accounts spreading lies, vilification and hatred that has been used to justify human rights violations,” Gaite said.
A university professor said banning Facebook would only entrench and strengthen, rather than dismantle, disinformation networks or troll farms.
“Any state regulation of social media would be for the best interest not of the people, but of the powers that be,” Danilo Arao, a mass communications professor at the University of the Philippines, told the Inquirer.
PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK