Last July 7, 2021, the Commission on Audit (COA) reported that the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) hired 375 contract-of-service (COS) employees totaling up to a salary of P70 million. COA established that the massive hiring of the contract of service personnel also had irregularities with its hiring, notably on the accomplishment reports of the employees sharing the same details except for their names and periods. COA reports that the number of employees being at 260% higher than the number of regular employees of the PCOO.
With the number of employees being unusually high and cited irregularities, these immediately raised suspicions that these COS employees were trolls. Recent developments made by senators have seen efforts to investigate whether the government is misusing the money to fund troll farms. However, as of writing, Kris Ablan, the undersecretary of the PCOO, defended the office from allegations of hiring trolls that these contractual employees were social media specialists with jobs ranging from graphic design to video editing, content creators, etc.
Regardless of the response from the PCOO, the P70 million budget for the COS employees during a pandemic is disproportionate for the pandemic response. P70 million could have served as funding for other projects.
The reason the PCOO cited for the increase of employees was because of the lack of manpower and the role of the PCOO has become more crucial in the pandemic, acting to disseminate information. This is a question on whether the PCOO, which primarily serves as a venue of communication, deserves such funding in the name of the continued attacks against press freedom. It is under the same administration that had blocked ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal for operations during the pandemic, which had, in turn, harmed the press freedom and reportage for people and denying people basic and public access to the news.
The prevalence of trolls in aiding politicians and forwarding propaganda is nothing new. Trolls are online anonymous identities that serve to push a certain agenda and narrative is not just words but in numbers. Even Duterte has even admitted to the use of trolls during the election period.
They have a range of purposes, while primarily serving one politician and forwarding their reputation, they can also be utilized to attack individuals. Undeniably, there is the existence of troll farms with and without the refute of the PCOO. This isn’t new as these troll farms have aided the dictatorship of Duterte from campaign season to the present time. Just as of June 8, 2021, Senator Lacson had reported an undersecretary approaching a member of his staff in order to organize troll farms. This normal occurrence has laid harm unto the perceived social media democracy. Not only has this allowed for the rise of Duterte pandering to populist sentiment, but also has more than bullied and silenced critics.
Even worse, troll farms have normalized the culture of red tagging. This has caused more than the loss of credibility and authority of dissenters like journalists such as Maria Ressa, preceded the deaths of activists like Randall Echanis and Zara Alvarez but has placed even normal people in danger.
A particular example of this is Patricia Non who has started the movement of community pantries. Through the attacks made by the trolls, community pantries later were turned into an act that was meant to attack the government. Parlade, the previous spokesperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) has even contributed to the demonizing and red-tagging by likening community pantries as satanic, giving more fuel for the trolls to discredit genuine communal effort. It is a question of why one engages in such work that is harmful to people. However, in a dire economic climate such as the Philippines, it is easy to see why. These trolls earn a salary ranging from P30,000-P70,000, a notable difference from the minimum wage of P537. It is also during the pandemic that the troll industry has experienced growth. With food prices rising, like pork reaching P400 per kilo only to be quelled by mediocre and lacking response from the government, people are left with no choice but to pursue the salary and job for one’s survival. [P]
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