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Is There Anything we can do When the Government Uses Facebook as a Weapon?

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The proliferation of fake news is not only a problem in the United States but in other parts of the world as well. Is there anything we can do to stop it?

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Fake news is a huge problem around the world.  We tend to think of it affecting only the United States, but that’s not exactly the case.  Why might this be?  In some countries – like the Philippines, the number of smartphones is greater than the number of people.  Not only that, but 97% of Filipinos who are online, also have Facebook accounts.  This is a platform where millennials live, essentially.  In the Philippines, Facebook was used to help a candidate stand out during the 2016 presidential election.  And maybe not in the way that you are thinking. During a candidate’s debate, Duterte was the only one who showed up.  Therefore he had center stage.  He was questioned by journalistic legend – Maria Ressa.  This in itself doesn’t appear to be nefarious, but you should keep reading.

During the “candidate’s debate”, Ressa lobbed Duterte with questions that had been crowdsourced on Facebook. It’s also worth noting that Facebook had co-sponsored the forum.  This forum actually allowed Duterte to be introduced to Filipino millennials.  Perhaps something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Further, Facebook might not have been so heavily involved, had this not have happened. I should also note that Duterte is known as “The Punisher” for his brutal response to crime in the southern Philippine city – Davao City.  During the election, Duterte hired strategists who helped him transform his modest online presence.  They created an army of Facebook personalities and bloggers worldwide.  These people quickly became known as the Duterte Die-Hard Supporters, or DDS.  But many decided this reference should more aptly be called: Davao Death Squad.  This was due to the fact that he is alleged to have killed hundreds of people.

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You’re probably thinking, this is all very interesting, but this is a tech blog.  So where am I going with this?  Well, the interesting thing about technology is that it always impacts our lives.  Sometimes it’s in a beneficial way.  Sometimes technology is used against us, and that’s the case with Duterte.  Since getting elected in May 2016, Duterte has turned Facebook into a weapon.  The people who used Facebook to help Duterte win were brought inside the Malacanang Palace.  From there, they started to take down opponents.  Of which, included a prominent senator and human rights activist who became the target of vicious online attacks and was ultimately jailed on a drug charge.

Rappler is the largest online news site in the Philippines, which was co-founded by Ressa.  Rappler was launched six years ago as a Facebook video. Ironic, isn’t it? During that first video, Ressa interviewed a young cosplay model, who had nearly 1 million Facebook followers.  This is what helped Rappler position itself outside of the old style, traditional news outlets.  But that didn’t mean Rappler wasn’t serious.  Their 2012 coverage of the impeachment trial of the chief justice of the supreme court gave them that credibility.  From there, Rappler had been used as a place for public debate forums for politicians.  No surprise, these are live-streamed on Facebook.

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Where am I going with all of this?  An interesting point about this whole thing.  For those of you who might think that Facebook is merely the platform, in this case, you’re incorrect.  Facebook actually flew some of their employees in to train the 2016 presidential candidates on the best way to use Facebook. Now I’m not saying that Facebook knew what would happen, but because of this information, Duterte was able to come up with quite the social media strategy.  Which relied on hundreds of volunteers to distribute messages created by the campaign.  Every day the campaign would tee up the messages for the following day, and the volunteers would distribute them across the networks.  Which included both real and fake Facebook accounts.  Does this sound like someone else we know?

Facebook started to receive complaints about pages that were assumed to be inauthentic.  But the complaints went in a different direction.  The complaints were now about Duterte’s Facebook army circulating aggressive messages, insults, and threats of violence.   What’s funny (and maybe ironic) is that one of the messages they posted was an endorsement by the Pope.  (Funny because this was “fake news” during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign as well.)

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There are a lot of intricacies with this stories, but the bottom line is that there were fake Facebook accounts pushing the agenda.  Albeit, a fake agenda.  But an agenda, nonetheless.  The messages that were being posted (like the one about the Pope) were consistently linked back to pro-Duterte pages.  The Rappler data team put in a lot of work tracking these accounts, and what did they find?  There are more than 12 million accounts that have created or distributed pro-Duterte messages or even fake news.  Of those accounts, though, it’s unknown how many are fake. Regardless of whether the accounts are real or not, fake information is being distributed far and wide.

What is Facebook going to do about this?  On one hand, you can argue that they have a responsibility to ensure that fake news doesn’t keep getting spread.  But on the other hand, how much control can they have over their platform?  They have said they will add 10,000 workers worldwide in order to handle security issues, and increase its use of third-party fact-checkers in order to identify fake news.  But is that going to be enough?

There has been an increase in violence in both the Philippines, as well as the United States. While I’m not drawing a straight line between Facebook and this violence, I wonder if they should take some responsibility?  Not only that, but Facebook could be an incredibly useful tool when it comes to things like politics.  But instead of being used properly, it’s being used in a way that isn’t fair to anyone.  I don’t know if that’s something Facebook can fix, or if that’s an issue with human nature.

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