Archives: Facebook Finds “Coordinated and Inauthentic Behavior” In the Philippines; Suspends a Set of Pro-Government Pages Ahead of May Elections

Graphika often collaborates with scholars, human rights groups, think tanks and technology platforms to detect and analyze coordinated and inauthentic behavior on social media, along with threats to electoral integrity around the world. This post is the first in a series of independent analyses seeking to enhance public transparency regarding content taken down by social media platforms as part of their moderation efforts, and to archive insights about online disinformation networks.

On March 29, Facebook announced that it had removed a set of 200 assets from the platform, which they found to be linked to a network organized by Nic Gabunada, who notably previously managed social media strategy for President Duterte. Facebook highlighted that these assets were taken down for engaging in coordinated and inauthentic behavior, and for misrepresenting themselves — not on the basis of the content that they shared.

This takedown includes a set of 65 pages that were primarily engaged in spreading content supportive of President Duterte of the Philippines and promoting a number of Duterte-aligned politicians due to run in the House of Representatives elections, scheduled for May. This set of accounts ranges widely in popularity, with the number of “likes” per pages spanning from 3,318 to 457,624.

These Pages Were Mostly Created in 2017, and Most of Them Were Administered from the Philippines

The vast majority of the administrators of these pages were based in the Philippines, with a few exceptions. The “Info and Ads” feature on every Facebook page, introduced in August last year, allows the user to see where page administrators are based. Some examples of pages in this set with administrators based outside the Philippines are shown below.

The locations of page administrators outside of the Philippines are shown on the map below. There were also four pages in the set that did not disclose the location of their administrators — these were the pages with the smallest followings.

Locations of Page Administrators

The graph below shows when the pages in this network were created: most of them were created in 2017, but the oldest page in this network dates back to May 2013. The most recent page in this network was created on October 24, 2018.

Page Creation Date

Content Shared By The Pages Was Mostly Political In Nature, With A Strong Pro-Government Focus

The large majority of the content shared by these pages was political in nature. Non-political content included cultural and sports news. In our categorization of content and narratives shared by the network, we found that 46.2% of the pages shared content explicitly supporting President Duterte as a politician, and the second largest category (27.7%) shared news articles that paint the Duterte administration and the government writ large in a positive light.

Page Content Breakdown

The remaining political pages in the set are dedicated to other politicians, Sara Duterte, Ferdinand Marcos, Imee Marcos, Bongbong Marcos, Ronald dela Rosa and Bong Go, most of whom are aligned with Duterte’s PDP-Laban party. The most common support pages among these were for other members of the Duterte and Marcos families. The remaining 13.8% of the pages were seemingly non-political in nature: they are mostly dedicated to South Korean soap operas and pop stars.

Most of These Pages Are Engaged in Spreading Pro-Government Content, and Spreading Conspiracies About Duterte’s Opponents

The largest category in this set were pages that described themselves as “fan” pages or support pages for President Duterte. They were primarily engaged with promoting content that is favorable to the President. This includes celebrating his policies and diplomatic missions, supporting politicians that have been publicly endorsed by the President, and presenting his personal life in a positive light. These support pages also frequently reposted general political news about events in the Philippines, with a particular emphasis on the President’s response.

On rare occasion these pages posted content that was critical of Duterte. For example, the image below asks why President Duterte has been quiet on the issue of vaccinations and natural medicine, suggesting that he may be under pressure from the CIA.

A large volume of content also promoted the actions of the Philippines National Police (PNP); other articles glorified Duterte’s actions related to the war on drugs. This content was frequently mixed with content produced by political bloggers and Filipino pop culture videos.

Some pages in this category had been repurposed from support pages for different individuals and movements: the evolution of these pages can be observed by using the “page history” feature. For example, the page history below for Duterte Daily Topics/Philippine Daily Politics shows that this specific page was dedicated to Senator Manny Pacquiao, a former boxer who won his seat with Duterte’s party, PDP-Laban, in the 2016 elections, and before that it served as a support page for Duterte.

Page history showing the “repurposing” of a Manny Pacquiao support page

A Number of Pages Were Dedicated to Supporting Politicians Other Than Duterte, Including Imee Marcos and Sara Duterte

Pages in this set that actively supported past and present politicians other than President Duterte represent 12.3% of the total set. This includes fan and support pages for Sara Duterte, Ferdinand Marcos, Imee Marcos, Bongbong Marcos, Ronald dela Rosa, and Bong Go. All these politicians are either directly related to Duterte, are affiliated through their employment or political party, or are at least aligned with his political standpoint — a few of them will be running for seats in the House of Representatives elections in May. For example, Ronald dela Rosa is the former Director General of the Bureau of Corrections and will be running as a candidate in May. Rosa is PNP-aligned and is proposing to bring back the death penalty for convicted drug pushers.

The largest contingent of pages in this subset was dedicated to Duterte’s daughter Sara, currently Mayor of the city of Davao. These pages were closely followed in volume by Imee Marcos fan pages. Pro-Imee Marcos content was being shared not only by dedicated fan pages but also by fan/support pages celebrating her father, Ferdinand Marcos (shown below).

Imee Marcos content promoted on Ferdinand Marcos fan page

These two dedicated pages were focused on glorifying Ferdinand Marcos’ authoritarian rule (1965–1986), and on campaigning for a return to authoritarianism in the Philippines. At the time it was taken down, the page shown above had close to 283,000 likes.

Fan page for Ferdinand Marcos publicly advocating for martial law

A Small Set of Pages Were Focused on Culture and Sports, Though Some Had Been Repurposed From Politician Support Pages

About 12,3% of the pages in this set were seemingly focused on topics other than politics: they primarily include fan pages for Korean actors, models, and popstars, as well as a LeBron James fan page. These pages appeared to be run by administrators in the Philippines and occasionally interweave pro-government news into their timelines. Inspection of the page histories revealed that some of these pages had been repurposed from Duterte support pages. As shown below, the page Suportang James EVER was previously named Suportang Duterte EVER.

Duterte fan page repurposed into a LeBron James fan page

Textual Analysis and High-Frequency Terms

Roughly 48,600 words were available for collection from recent posts and from the about sections of these 65 pages. Analysis of this aggregated text data revealed the main languages of messaging to be English and Filipino, with roughly half of all messaging occurring in each language. Examining triplets of words occurring in this corpus (also known as “trigrams”) lent insight into the main topics of interest for messaging across these pages. The most frequent trigrams in the set nearly all contain Rodrigo Duterte’s name or the names of other current members of the Duterte administration, such as Jun Evasco. Particularly frequent are trigrams wishing happy birthday to President Duterte and Secretary Evasco. Bohol, a city and province in the Philippines due to have local elections in early May, also appears high up in the most frequently used trigrams in the set. Other common topics in this set included Ferdinand Marcos and support for Duterte’s war on drugs.

Participation in Targeting and Harassment Campaigns

This set of accounts were also used to target human rights activists and political opponents of President Duterte, such as Leila de Lima and Leni Robredo, the current Vice President. This messaging was adaptive and often shared in the context of unfolding political news. Messaging focused on opponents took several forms, including:

  • Sharing criticism of President Duterte made by opponents;
  • Petitioning for opponents to resign or be removed from office;
  • Amplifying claims and conspiracies leveled against these opponents;
  • Discrediting opponents personally (on the basis of their character);
  • Spreading disinformation about opponents.

For instance, in the case of Leni Robredo, these pages focused on establishing a narrative that she is planning a coup or is devising a plan to destabilize the government enough for her to take control. Examples of the tactics outlined above are shown below:

Petitioning for opponents to resign or be removed from office (the example below used a doctored picture to this effect)

Amplifying claims and conspiracies leveled against these opponents

Spreading disinformation about opponents

Sources of Content

One of the sites being shared most frequently across the set was topreader.online. The top ten cited domains in this set of 65 pages follow in the table below [note: Facebook.com itself has been left out of this table — it was the second most highly cited domain in posts from this set, with 73 citations].

Pages in this set often “cross-posted” content of the pages in the set and promoted the same set of groups, Sara Duterte Worldwide Supporters ☑ and Duterte Worldwide Supporters☑, in addition to having similar names (“…Supporters/Worldwide Supporters”). Those groups, along with the Tatay Digong Supporters group, were all administered by the Sara Duterte Worldwide Supporters page. Altogether, this small network of pages and groups was followed by 452,636 Facebook users.