On Thursday evening, Facebook announced in a blog post that it had removed about 200 pages from the site, some of them “linked to a network organized by Nic Gabunada,” the social media director for the 2016 campaign of Rodrigo Duterte, who is now the president of the Philippines.
Overall, Facebook’s cybersecurity team, headed by Nathaniel Gleicher, removed 67 Facebook pages, 68 accounts, 40 groups, and 25 Instagram accounts found to have engaged in what it calls coordinated inauthentic behavior. About 3.6 million people followed one or more of the pages, and about 1.8 million joined at least one of the groups.
According to the post, the pages and groups “frequently posted about local and political news, including topics like the upcoming elections, candidate updates and views, alleged misconduct of political opponents, and controversial events that were purported to occur during previous administrations.” Facebook’s post stressed that the company removed the pages not due to their content, but due to the behavior of the accounts and pages.
Duterte’s social media campaign
Gabunada told ABS-CBN that he was “surprised” and it was “unfortunate” that Facebook included his name in the report.
Gabunada, who, according to CNN Philippines, is now the head of a public relations firm, told ABS-CBN some of the pages mentioned were not even associated with him. Gabunada’s personal Facebook account was also taken down on Friday morning.
According to CNN Philippines, Facebook has taken down pages called “Bong Go Supporters” and “Kuya Sonny Angara,” two pages related to Duterte-backed Senate candidates.
Facebook’s report also stated that the accounts spent $59,000 in Philippine peso, Saudi riyal, and U.S. dollars on advertisements. In a 2018 BuzzFeed piece, Gabunada insisted that Duterte’s campaign never paid for Facebook ads.
Duterte, Fake News, and opposition
Duterte has taken a combative tone with the media throughout his presidency. He has called Rappler, an award-winning site covering human rights abuses by the president, “fake news.” Maria Ressa, a Filipina-American journalist who co-founded the site, was arrested on Friday for the second time in just over a month. Ressa was featured on Time‘s 2018 person of the year list.
Landing in a short while to face my latest arrest warrant and the 7th time I will post bail. #HoldTheLine we pledge to not just hold power to account but I will mark every violation of my rights under the PH Constition (like harassment cases to try to intimidate @rapplerdotcom!) https://t.co/4rjLRwapZ2— Maria Ressa (@mariaressa) March 28, 2019
In 2018, Freedom House classified the Philippines as “partly free,” saying, “Impunity remains the norm for crimes against activists and journalists, and President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs since 2016 has led to more than 12,000 extrajudicial killings as well as vigilante justice.”
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