State-sponsored disinformation and incitement to violence against opposition politicians thrives in the Philippines
The NTF-ELCAC, a well-funded national task force to fight terrorists, is using public funds for a years-long social media campaign to identify opposition politicians as “communist terrorists.” Fact checkers have proved these claims false, and Facebook took down elements of this network in 2020. However, it has thrived and expanded since then and is shaping the current national election on May 9, 2022.
- The main theme of the troll network is anti-communist and they post about the communist terrorists’ alleged recruitment of children as armed combatants. In the beginning, a central source of the disinformation being spread by the network was the “Hands Off Our Children” Movement. We refer to this entire network as the Hands Off Our Children (HOOC) network in this report. This is their own description of their purpose.
- Our analysis found 2,779 pieces of unique red-tagging content (images) shared by 273 accounts/pages/groups on Facebook. The evidence found proves that these accounts are actually a troll network that meets Facebook’s definition of Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB). Above are representative examples of their content.
- By red-tagging opposition politicians and using state-sponsored venues to demand that they be made ineligible, and warning voters not to vote for “terrorists”, the current administration is using public funds to hurt their critics and opposition politicians. It is interesting to note that only two of the three leading presidential candidates are called out as communist terrorists in this network. Bong Bong Marcos is never mentioned in their propaganda.
- The funds for the reg-tagging activity come from The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
- The NTF-ELCAC has yet to provide the Senate a detailed report on how it has utilized its P19.1 billion ($364 million) budget in 2021.
- Politicians critical of the lack of accountability and huge budget of the NTF-ELCAC have been relentlessly red tagged on social media by the troll network documented in this report.
- There is no evidence that the people being red-tagged are communist terrorists, nor have they been charged. In fact, these claims have been fact checked and determined to be false.
- The red-tagging is effectively harming the election prospects of the opposition politicians, and the threats are real. In April 2021, the NTF ELCAC red-tagged community pantry organizers, causing senators to call for defunding the anti-communist task force. Fear of being linked to the communist movement caused some community pantries to cease operations. Other groups red-tagged by the NTF_ELCAC include Filipino Nurses United (FNU), Alternative media outlets, Universities, trade unions, and Rappler, for operating as an independent- fact checker on Facebook. Starting in September 2021, NTF-ELCAC began removing books deemed “subversive” from library shelves.
These combined attempts to manipulate, distort and polarize the online political conversation in the Philippines should be viewed in the context of the upcoming presidential election, the extensive use of “troll armies” in the 2016 presidential election, the current effort to rebrand authoritarianism and the Martial Law period of the Marcos regime in a positive light, and the government’s red-tagging of opposition voices, arresting of journalists, and extra-judicial killings.
The HOOC network’s main goal is to identify politicians as suspected Communist Terrorists and urge people not to vote for them. The massive amount of content and activity are intended to create the impression that there is a lot of evidence that these politicians are communists and that not voting for them is the only way to save the country and to prevent children from being recruited into a death cult.
It is primarily a distribution network. The main activity we see trolls perform is creating and sharing content to many pages that are dedicated to this red-tagging content. There is almost no commenting activity performed by the trolls in this network.
HOOC is our name for this collection of accounts and pages that spread political-based red tagging. This is not the only activity of the NTF-ELCAC, and some social media pages that belong to the NTF-ELCAC actually report on communist rebels that have surrendered, and programs that help towns that are “terrorist-free” and to rehabilitate surrendered terrorists. We have not included posts and pages related to these goals in our analysis. For example, the Philippine National Police local pages usually share content from the HOOC network, but they mostly share non-political content, and we don’t count that as part of the red-tagging network we are investigating.
We use several third party tools in our research and evaluation of trolls. We use the image search tool TinEye to determine if the profile photo is unlikely to belong to a real account because it is widely available on the internet, is a celebrity photo, or a stock photo. We use Copyfish to extract text from images, and we use Google Translate to translate the text from images and comments.
Definitions of terms used in the HOOC report (download link below):
HOOC: an abbreviation for the “Hands Off Our Children” movement, which claims to represent parents whose children were recruited to the CCP-NPA by the party’s “front organizations” operating in schools.
NTF-ELCAC: The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict. President Duterte sits as its chairperson, but its policies and activities are overseen mostly by vice chairperson Esperon. It has an enormous budget, no accountability, and is the government organization that is funding the red-tagging activity.
CPP: The Communist Party of the Philippines, founded in 1968 and recognized internationally as a terrorist organization.
NPA: The New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The NPA is one of the key figures in the ongoing communist rebellion in the Philippines.
NDF: National Democratic Front is a coalition of revolutionary social and economic justice organizations, agricultural unions, trade unions, indigenous rights groups, leftist political parties, and other related groups in the Philippines. It belongs to the much broader National Democracy Movement and the communist rebellion in the Philippines. [source: Wikipedia]
ATC: The Anti-Terrorism Council, created by the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, is a presidentially-appointed body which designates the persons who could be arrested as “terrorists.”
For a detailed background on the red-tagging situation in the Philippines, we highly recommend this report by US-based Digital Forensics Research Lab (DFRLab) that describes the first HOOC network that Facebook took down in 2020.