Philippine leader Bongbong Marcos’ digital disinformation regime
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of the Philippines’ late and not-so-great former dictator, has been president for just over a year. Last month, Marcos announced a national campaign against disinformation and made some smooth-sounding statements about the importance of media literacy. Taken out of context, this could sound reassuring. But it is pretty rich coming from someone who has dedicated extensive resources to using social media platforms like Facebook and political consultancies like Cambridge Analytica, according to a whistleblower, to help rebrand the image of his family and in particular of his father.
Ferdinand Marcos Sr. is notorious for his flagrant abuses of human rights, most of which occurred when he put the Philippines under martial law for nearly a decade, beginning in 1972. Since 2019, our friends at Rappler have documented how propaganda spread by Bongbong Marcos supporters and campaign workers across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube helped pave the path to electoral victory in 2022.
But Marcos hasn’t just flooded the zone with disinformation about his record and historical revisionism about his family. He has also continued to pursue threats against websites belonging to small media and civil society organizations. In one case, originally brought by his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, officials ordered the National Telecommunications Commission to block independent media sites such as Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, alongside a smattering of civil society groups’ websites. The order cited the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act, insinuating that the sites were somehow undermining national security.
My old colleague Mong Palatino, an editor at Global Voices who has worked with Bulatlat, got me up to speed on how affected websites have been responding. The case has them working overtime on their defense, but they are undeterred, he said.
“If the intent is to silence these groups, then the authorities have failed,” Palatino told me. Just as the major social media platforms have helped the Marcos family recast their image, they have also given smaller, more critical media and civil society groups an alternative platform that’s not so easy for the government to snuff out.
“The blocking of websites didn’t prevent these groups from reaching the public through other platforms and social media,” Palatino said. “But we continue to challenge the order and call for its withdrawal,” he added. “It could set a dangerous precedent if authorities continue the systematic crackdown against dissenting voices.”
Is Russia thinking about cutting itself off from the global internet? Network observers wish they knew. On July 5, a hiccup in international web traffic moving in and out of Russia came during a test that industry sources told RBC was intended to “check whether the Runet really continues to work” if the country cuts itself off from the global internet. The test seems to have caused brief lapses in connectivity for local sites, as well as major platforms, including Google and Wikipedia. As I wrote in my last edition, the war in Ukraine has made it a whole lot harder for people in Russia to find reliable information about what’s happening on the frontlines and in the halls of power. Although Russia has run tests of its “sovereign internet” in the past, yielding similarly glitchy results, the timing of this one has understandably put Runet watchers on edge.
“Russian internet experts tell me they doubt Roskomnadzor’s claim that the Sovereign Internet testing was ‘successful’ as the documented internet outages were scattered & not wide scale,” wrote Access Now’s Natalia Krapiva on Twitter. “Sounds like Putin won’t be able to isolate people any time soon, but he’ll keep trying.”
Further complicating the Russian information landscape is Twitter’s new pay-to-play verification system, which appears to be boosting disinformation about the war. The BBC has a new investigation showing a series of viral tweets promoting demonstrably false reports about the war, ranging from a completely fabricated story about “baby factories” in Ukraine that are selling children into sexual slavery to a heavily twisted spin on the future of elections in Ukraine. They’ve all come from accounts with the blue checkmark that now confirms absolutely nothing about its bearer, apart from the fact that they can afford the $8 monthly fee. Nice work, Elon.
Millions of Bangladeshi citizens’ data was leaked and left online recently, only to be discovered by a security researcher who stumbled upon the leak while running a routine Google search. The data, which includes people’s full names, phone numbers, email addresses and national ID numbers, was in the possession of a government agency that the researcher opted not to name, in the interest of protecting the privacy of the millions who could be affected by the leak. Similar to neighboring India, while Bangladesh’s efforts to digitize its national ID system may be intended to help streamline things like the delivery of social services, they have brought serious unintended consequences when it comes to data privacy.
If you’re sitting somewhere in the U.S. and saying to yourself, “phew, nothing for me to worry about this week,” hold that thought. A Nebraska woman pleaded guilty last week to helping her teenage daughter get abortion pills and has been sentenced to two years in jail. The story is painful to read and think about, and most of what it deals with lies beyond the scope of this newsletter. But what drew me to the item was the fact that Facebook messages, sent between the woman and her daughter, were a key piece of evidence used against her. If Facebook were to offer end-to-end encryption on its Messenger service by default, the company would have had nothing to hand over when the prosecutors came knocking. But it doesn’t. As state-level crusades against people seeking abortions continue to play out in post-Roe America, I have no doubt that we’ll see many more cases like this one. If you haven’t already, I suggest you go download a real end-to-end messaging app, like Signal.
WHAT WE’RE READING (AND LISTENING TO)
- Two editions ago, I wrote about the hundreds of migrants who died in the Mediterranean sea in early June and pointed to the increasing use of surveillance by state border agencies seeking to keep migrants from entering the EU. Foreign Policy’s Andrew Connelly has a compelling new essay on the same topic that is very much worth a read.
- The Meta Oversight Board recently recommended that Facebook suspend Cambodian President Hun Sen from the platform for six months — this is especially serious since elections are coming up later in July. Sen responded by closing his account altogether and kicking Meta employees out of the country. Rest of World has a good play-by-play on the ongoing fallout.
- The Wall Street Journal’s Karen Hao has a great new podcast out of Kenya, where she interviewed people who are struggling with PTSD after working on the frontlines of content moderation for ChatGPT.