Duterte has weaponised the Filipino social media environment. He now has Russian help in his attempt to drown out dissent.
Donald Trump is receiving recognition for changing the way leaders use social media. But long before Trump, Rodrigo Duterte was transforming social media in the Philippines. Since his days as mayor of Davao, Duterte has manipulated social media to his own objectives. He has transformed it into his personal propaganda machine.
There are worrying signs that he has partnered with Russia to further achieve his goals. This has dangerous implications for future general elections.
Duterte has constructed an effective propaganda machine
Duterte’s propaganda machine uses fake social media accounts to disperse false information. It all began in 2015 when he decided to run for president. Duterte employed Nic Gabunada, a marketing consultant. He paid him US$200,000 to generate a strong social media following for his campaign.
In the latter half of 2015, pro-Duterte posts and hashtags swept across social media. Four days after he declared his candidacy, over 700 tweets a minute mentioned Duterte. If this was a natural spike, it would have more likely occurred when he announced his decision to run.
Filipino social media is saturated with false information and fake accounts
Many accounts mentioning Duterte had the same suspicious traits. They had a small number of online friends and used a profile picture which did not belong to them. They also liked pro-Duterte and pro-Marcos groups.
The messages shared by these accounts penetrated a large segment of the population. Half of the Filipino population is active on Facebook. Social media access is often free on smartphones. Visiting other websites often incurs a data charge. As a result, Filipinos spend more time on social media than any other global population.
Duterte has capitalised on this environment
Duterte pays online trolls to spew pro-Duterte propaganda across social media. An online troll can earn up to US$2,000 a month for managing fake accounts. Affino is a prominent social media analytics firm. It estimates that 20% of Twitter accounts which mention Duterte are fake.
Real accounts have also been used to share false information. Duterte’s campaign spokesman was Peter Tiu Lavina. In August, he shared an image of a child that had allegedly been raped and murdered in the Philippines. However, the image was later proven to be from Brazil.
Screenshot from Pete Tiu Lavina’s Facebook profile
Has Duterte bought Russian help to further infiltrate Filipino social media?
There are indicators that Duterte has employed Russian sources to promote his propaganda. Three Twitter accounts have recently begun exclusively tweeting about Filipino politics. Before February 2018, Ivan22662, rickrick888 and bobbit2266 had extensively tweeted government-funded Russian propaganda websites. They tweet 24 hours a day, and their posts are identical.
In 2016, the Philippines and Russia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). It included a partnership between Duterte’s Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) and the Russian Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications.
Duterte has strengthened connections with Russia as part of his pivot away from the US. They are a valuable accomplice in his propaganda campaign.
In the US, investigations into Russia’s involvement in its 2016 election are ongoing. Twitter estimates there were 50,000 bots posting election material on its platform. They interacted with approximately 1.4 million users. This alone is enough to sway a closely contested election. This does not include the numbers of fake Russian-operated Facebook accounts. The next Filipino general election will likely suffer from the same election meddling.
It undermines Filipino democracy
Deeper ties with Russia should be a cause for alarm for pro-democracy groups. His use of Russian bots invites a foreign power to influence Filipino democracy. It takes the power out of the hands of the people and puts it into those of the Russian government.
As President, Duterte should be a champion for Filipino democracy. Instead, his weaponising of social media is undermining the whole democratic process.
As mobile penetration increases, social media becomes a more powerful election tool. By 2022 there will be approximately 46 million smartphones in the country. There are currently approximately 34 million. Duterte’s investment in social media propaganda is an investment in power retention.
Duterte has his own brand of authoritarianism
Duterte is essentially crafting his own brand of authoritarianism. Traditional authoritarian governments close channels of dissent. Social media becomes their enemy as a platform for free expression and thought. Duterte’s brand of authoritarianism maintains the presence of social media. But he occupies it with a tide of pro-government rhetoric and propaganda.
This in itself is another form of repression. Rather than block dissent, Duterte built a microphone so large he can shout over it. The end result is the same. He is still an autocrat manipulating his population to cement his grip on power.