Law in the Internet Society

Facebook and Third World Democracies

-- By AikenLarisaSerzo - 15 Jan 2021

I. The Spawns of Facebook: Dutertismo and a Marcos Return

The Philippine political landscape, since the election of President Duterte, has largely been shaped by populism fueled by the weaponization of social media platforms (with the firepower of disinformation, and troll farms). Unsurprisingly, the leading candidate for the upcoming presidential elections is Bongbong Marcos Jr., the son of the late authoritarian dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Historical accounts, court cases (both local and abroad), and academic journals have documented the human rights abuses and plunder of Marcos senior, as well as the complicity of all his heirs including today’s leading candidate. Despite the ease by which the population can access these materials through the web, polls suggest that voters believe these accounts are outright falsehoods and are mere propaganda by Marcos’ political rivals. Surveys show that almost half of the voters would elect Bongbong Marcos. The incredible success of the Marcoses at whitewashing history may be attributed to a decades-long effort by the Marcos family to reform its legacy and revise history. Such revisionism has been facilitated by social media, with some help from Cambridge Analytica. Alternative histories — shown through YouTube? videos, forged documents, and memes — which purport to establish that the Marcos patriarch legitimately owned tons of gold even before he was President; and that the martial law regime was a golden age of economic and cultural superfluity are widely accepted by Marcos supporters. Economic data and academic journals are ignored. In the words of Imelda Marcos – “perception is real, the truth is not.” An opposition senator is sent to languish in jail without trial; an award-winning journalist is charged with multiple civil and criminal charges on flimsy pieces of evidence – all with hardly any uproar from the public. The government is repeatedly rewarded with record-breaking satisfaction ratings.

II. The Philippines as Facebook's Playground

The Philippines is an optimal petri dish for Big Tech platforms to test out its power and political experiments. The exposure of its population to social media, coupled with the lackadaisical information literacy makes it easy for social media-savvy PR companies and campaign teams to shape narratives. The country remains the top in social media and internet usage. The platforms provided superficial solutions in response to calls made by journalists and minority lawmakers for greater accountability. Recently, YouTube? announced that all videos pertaining to the martial law regime of Marcos Sr will contain information panels that would provide links to Wikipedia. Facebook, in response to backlash on the troll farms on its platforms, started conducting online literacy workshops to educate Filipinos to be more critical about disinformation. A closer look reveals that these workshops train Filipinos to bury themselves deeper into the platform: how to use hashtags, engage users, and create bigger networks. Facebook also actively trains local governments in the country to use Facebook as its main engagement platform. The workshops, disguised as a CSR activity, only entrenches Facebook more in the nation’s sociopolitical psyche.

Platforms are the new public squares where narratives and opinions are created. The danger is that now these public squares are operated by supranational entities for private profit. Traditionally, the responsibility to regulate private activity is lodged with government. However, this is impossible given the cross-border nature of internet services and the powerlessness of some countries to influence companies headquartered abroad. China’s taken the extreme approach of instituting national firewalls when it comes to tech companies. This is obviously not a democratic alternative as it merely replaces a tyrant with another.

Similarly, platforms may not be trusted to self-regulate. Regulation of troll farms are antithetical to the platforms’ revenue models where the user is the resource. At the end of the day, the interests of a tyrannical government are aligned with Big Tech’s.

Beyond winning the elections through a campaign of disinformation, the Duterte regime used Facebook to further perpetuate its power. Official government pages are used to redtag critics and activists. This is amplified by other pages. ​​Facebook eventually took down some of the pages months after the red tagging – too late the hero.

III. Breaking the Cycle

It is difficult to know the way forward for a country where the majority of its population are living on a day to day basis; where education takes a backseat in political debates, and where Facebook is the only free platform that may be accessed by the masses.

There is a sliver of hope. Several approaches may be simultaneously pursued.

In addition to being the top in terms of social media use, Filipinos also ranked above the average when it comes to concern about misuse of personal information and fake news. Academe and privacy advocates should continue providing digestible information on how platforms process users’ personal data to create a continuous data-heavy profitable business model that is harmful for individual freedoms. Those in the minority should advocate for independent and open source platforms which users can utilize for information sharing. It will take a while for the population to appreciate and adopt alternative technologies. Funding and lobbying for alternatives outside of BigTech? would be easily crushed by BigTech? ’s own lobbyists. This already happened to congressional bills seeking to regulate fake news and online commerce in the Philippines.

Lawyers could further use the country’s strong anti-graft laws to prevent Facebook from providing services to government. The Philippine’s Anti-Graft law prohibits government officers from providing any unwarranted benefit to private entities. Facebook may argue that its training programs for local governments is for gratis, however, a strong argument may be made that such programs enable Facebook to monetize comprehensive data about populations as well as the local government.

Until a substantial portion of the local population becomes more educated and IT literate (and eventually get out of poverty), Facebook, YouTube? , propagandists, and the new Philippine political elite can rest easy on the successful ecosystem they have created that ensures each other’s coexistence. In the meantime, Philippine democracy can be one of the many mummified trophies hanging on the wall of Big Tech.

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r3 - 16 Jan 2022 - 00:47:09 - AikenLarisaSerzo
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