PH 'keyboard army' drumming up support for drug war – report

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Philippines has a cadre of paid online commenters as part of a "keyboard army" that sought to support President Rodrigo Duterte and attack detractors of the administration, US-based human rights watchdog Freedom House said in a report.

According to Freedom House's Philippines-specific report, which studied the country from June 2016 to May 2017, the country's paid commenters could earn anywhere from P500 ($10) to up to P2,000 or P3,000 ($40 to $60) daily. 

Automated accounts, also called bots, as well as volunteers were used to spread political content.

The study of internet freedom in 65 countries found 30 governments deployed some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year. 

Two other countries with similar "opinion shapers" were Venezuela and Turkey.  (READ: More governments manipulate media with 'bots,' trolls – study)

Not as free as before

Countries were rated based on obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of human rights. Higher ratings denoted less freedom in a specific category, with 0 being the most free and 100 being the least free.

The Philippines still enjoys "free" status in terms of internet freedom with an overall score of 28, but it is less free in 2017 compared to last year, when it got a score of 26. 

Obstacles to internet access

The Philippines' internet penetration and average internet connection speeds improved in 2017. It must be remembered, however, that while the speeds have increased slightly, the Philippines does not rank highly in terms of either 4G LTE speeds or general broadband speeds.  

Also pointed out in the report was the National Broadband Plan, which aims to expand internet connectivity by 2020, as well as bring more affordable connectivity to people using new technologies and infrastructure building.

Instances of the National Telecommunications Commission ordering shutdowns of cellular phone signals for connectivity were also an issue. This was done in ManilaCebu, and Iloilo in January. 

Additionally, the Philippines also lacked competition to drive down prices and improve service. The landscape is "dominated by PLDT and Globe who both have acquired a number of minor players in the last two decades."

MEETING THE BLOGGERS. President Rodrigo Duterte meets bloggers and online defenders in Malacau00f1ang. Screenshot from RTVM

MEETING THE BLOGGERS. President Rodrigo Duterte meets bloggers and online defenders in Malacau00f1ang.

Screenshot from RTVM

Limits on content 

In terms of limits on content, Freedom House said, "No systematic government censorship of online content has been documented in the Philippines, and internet users enjoyed unrestricted access to both domestic and international sources of information during the coverage period of this report." It also added that the government does not normally request for content to be removed. 

It did note, however, that rare content blocks existed, such as the blocking of some pornographic sites in the country.

Aside from the "keyboard army" in the section on "Media, Diversity and Content Manipulation," one additional entry was posted: allowing pro-administration bloggers to cover Palace events and the subsequent discussion of a creation of a code of conduct for bloggers.

Outside the scope of Freedom House's report, it can be argued that the pro-administration bloggers also hold additional power as part of the Presidential Communication Operations Office (PCOO). In November, PCOO Assistant Secretary Esther Margaux "Mocha" Uson asked her boss, Secretary Martin Andanar, to reclassify news organization Rappler as part of the social media category under her purview. (FACT CHECK: Can PCOO reclassify Rappler as 'Social Media' under Uson?)

"Generally, though, the Philippine blogosphere is rich and thriving," Freedom House said.

Violations of user rights

The Philippines' lowest ranking – a score of 13 – was on violations of user rights.

The report explained that the country had 494 complaints of online libel, with some cases resulting in imprisonment. The rush of online libel complaints stemmed from a Supreme Court ruling in favor of punishing online libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, revisited a draft law that would require telecommunications providers to register prepaid SIM card owners, though this had not gone beyond first reading. 

While there were no reports of physical violence targeting internet users during the period covered by the report, violence against journalists, either as threat or as action, is still a problem in the country. 

Explained Freedom House, "As of early 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that at least 78 Philippine journalists had been killed in relation to their work – most covering political issues like corruption – since 1992."

The culture of impunity remains an issue, the message being individuals exercising free speech can be attacked at will. In his first press conference a month before being sworn in, President Rodrigo Duterte said corrupt journalists deserved to be killed.

Duterte has since continued to accuse journalists of unfair reporting, and in recent days – specifically during a meeting with US President Donald Trump – called journalists "spies." 

Technological attacks against journalist institutions have also been a problem.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism's website was defaced by hackers in 2016 following reports on Duterte's war on drugs. The PCIJ noted that "a phrase with explicit curse and threat has been written by the attackers into our stories."

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, meanwhile, faced a "massive denial of service attack" in January 2017.

Rappler was among the Philippine media sources cited in the Freedom House report on the Philippines, along with CNN Philippines, Philippine Star, GMA News Online,  ABS-CBN, Inquirer.net, Manila Times, BusinessMirror, Interaksyon.com, The Freeman, Mindanao Examiner,  SunStar Cebu, and Newsbytes.ph,

Among the other sources are The Sydney Morning Herald, Agence France-Presse, telecomasia.net, YugaTech, The New Republic, Google Transparency Report, Facebook,  PLDT, Securities and Exchange Commission quarterly reports, National Statistics Office, Supreme Court decisions, Department of Justice resolutions, Philippines laws, the Philippine Constitution, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Read the full Freedom on the Net 2017 report here. – Rappler.com

Victor Barreiro Jr.

Victor Barreiro Jr is part of Rappler's Central Desk. An avid patron of role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy shows, he also yearns to do good in the world, and hopes his work with Rappler helps to increase the good that's out there.

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