By R.P. Martinez, I.R. Lopez, A.D. Sarrol, and C.L. Buenaluz
Graphics by Sonya Castillo
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The article was edited to include reports from other universities)
Reports of duplicate accounts bearing the names of dissenters were being discovered on Facebook after the violent dispersal of protestors and arrest of eight individuals in an Anti-Terrorism Bill protest on Friday in Cebu.
UP Cebu’s student publication, Tug-Ani, first reported these incidents last Saturday. These accounts, appearing with seemingly no content available and with only the default profile picture, were believed to be impersonating student activists and journalists who were present during a peaceful protest outside of the UP Cebu campus grounds.
Further reports confirmed that this was not an isolated case, as students, alumni, and faculty personnel from other UP campuses have noted other dummy accounts surfacing. It was speculated that this was an attack on the constituents of the UP system. Those affected have oftentimes uncovered more than one dubious account bearing their names.
Additionally, reported sightings of duplicate accounts in other universities, such as in Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP), and De La Salle University (DLSU) were raised.
In plain sight
There have also been recent reports of said duplicate accounts sending death threats to the original accounts. The majority of those who were threatened were vocal critics of the national government, as well as the controversial Anti-Terrorism Bill.
Since its third and final reading, the Anti-Terrorism Bill has been a frequent source of criticism from Filipino citizens. Many have lambasted its unconstitutional and unnecessary measures with regards to penalizing possible terrorists, as well as its ill-treatment of criticism geared towards the national government. Its extreme penalties and grounds were also frequent points of criticism, including its practices of warrantless arrests and wiretapping.
Incidents involving death threats have been prevalent since the implementation of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon. In total, there have been 13 recorded incidents, wherein student volunteers in UP Los Baños were consistently red-tagged as being affiliated with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF). This is despite a frequent lack of evidence proving this accusation. (READ: https://bit.ly/2APbzX6)
Unrest in the university
In response, concerned UP students took to social media to secure their respective accounts, with many asking for aid in mass-reporting dozens of copy accounts. As a result, the #HandsOffOurStudents became trending in both Facebook and Twitter.
The UP Office of the Student Regent warned students of this occurrence. “We express our utmost alarm since these accounts are suspected to cause harm or spread false information,” said the office in a Facebook post.
Additionally, they cautioned students to remain informed and vigilant in searching for fake accounts while advising them to avoid reporting legitimate accounts.
“As much as we want to shutdown true duplicate accounts, please do exercise restraint against reporting possible real-life accounts of people having the same name as ours,” the office added.
Raymund Enriquez Liboro, Privacy Commissioner for the National Privacy Commission (NPC), released a statement explaining that the matter has been brought to Facebook, with the commission already investigating the situation. Liboro, who noted that the majority of reports came from “academic institutions”, also urged users to report imposter accounts immediately.
The Department of Justice Office of Cybercrime (DOJ-OOC) has confirmed that they would be probing the situation, with Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra explaining that, in a national crisis, false information is the last thing that the people needed.
The agency affirmed that anyone found guilty of being involved in this crime would be charged with violating Section 4 (b)(3) of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act No. 10175). A penalty of at most a 12 years jail sentence, or a fine of P200,000 until a maximum amount commensurate would be given both to suspects, or both.
This was not the first time that Facebook has been allowing exploits – lax security measures, inconsistent policing of content, and little to no amount of privacy for its users – for political purposes. The blatant misuse of user data, coupled with rampant disinformation that was left unpoliced by Facebook, made many online users vulnerable to several forms of malicious online activity.
In 2016, millions of user data were mined without consent by political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The data of 76 million American users were then sold to Donald Trump, who was elected President of the United States that same year and had used the social networking site to campaign extensively. It was during this time when Russian firms were revealed to have been using social media stories and fake news to promote Trump.
About 1.1 million Filipino users also had their data unwittingly harvested by the same firm. It was also reported that the parent company of Cambridge Analytica – a political consulting firm known as SCL Group – may have used this data to aid President Rodrigo Duterte in his then presidential campaign.
Though Facebook has made amends by partnering with fact-checkers, reducing political campaigning and revising its algorithm of ordering posts in a user’s news feed, their actions have paled in comparison to other social media giants.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg once stated that social media sites “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.” This, alongside his increasingly hands-off approach to Facebook during a politically-sensitive time period, were met with criticism even from Facebook’s own employees, as The Guardian reported.
In the Philippines, scores of so-called fake news peddlers churned out false information without any effort from the social media giant to institute a program that fact-checks these. Facebook’s algorithm has amplified these posts, along with thousands of fake accounts to take form. Fuel was added to the fire when it was recently revealed that Facebook was taking down posts from Anti-Terrorism Bill critics. [P]