The Anatomy of Journalist Harassment in the Philippines
It was election season in the Philippines and I had just been working on a report on the long, well-funded online historical distortion campaign that helped propel Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late disgraced dictator, to a landslide presidential victory. on May 9. It will be inaugurated on June 30.
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The thing about a candidate with a well-organized social media presence is that it doesn’t take long before you get a reaction to everything you’ve written. Angry comments immediately poured in via my post on the article on LinkedIn (not the usual site for such battles) and then on Facebook.
Pro-Marcos bloggers have claimed that I made up my story about money paid to trolls and online propagandists to promote certain politicians. Many posts implied that by reporting on the disinformation machinery, I was discrediting true Marcos supporters.
“I drive a 2022 Maserati Levante of my own work,” wrote a self-identified Marcos supporter. “That I suppose gives me the right to say PUTA KA SA LAHAT NG PUTA [you are the puta of all putas] to fabricate stories out of your demonic mind. Kakarmahin ka rin puta ka [Hope karma gets you, puta].”
“Many of us here in Europe earn at least 2000 euros, thanks to our blood and sweat,” wrote another. “And we’re not like you, a prestitute fool.”
I think I will never get used to it. Part of me doesn’t want to, because if I do, I feel like I’m giving up and accepting that this kind of online abuse is normal. I also recognize that this hate is manufactured and there are people who are paid full time to curse and threaten us – so to be honest these paid campaigns really make me angry.
This is the third campaign of harassment I have experienced under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. I say “campaign” because, having covered troll farms, I know these attacks are well organized. The first two happened in 2020 and 2021 and had to do with our critical coverage of Duterte’s pandemic response.
Since Duterte came to power in 2016, the Philippines has become a hub for online influencer campaigns, whether selling products or supporting political candidates. Harassment of opponents and independent journalists is common in many places around the world, such as India, but experts describe the level of organization – and disinformation – as particularly advanced in the Philippines, which is one of the largest Facebook markets.
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A whole industry of political strategy and public relations fuels the work of influencers and troll farms. The worst operations spread disinformation and harass critics, the opposition and the independent press. Women are particularly vulnerable.
Here’s how they generally work. A hyperpartisan personality sees the work of journalists and castigates them on social networks. Next comes the flood of messages. Some are sent at certain times – which may mean accounts are on shift – and the words, phrases and thoughts used are often similar. Indeed, troll attacks follow a script composed by a moderator, according to political strategist Alan German.
So I heard pro-Marcos propagandists blow me up. Here’s a look at my Messenger inbox after, not counting the tags and other spam.
— Regine Cabato (@RegineCabato) April 21, 2022
The messages generally claim that my reports are false and lack sources – although the source is clear in the articles – and use a lot of insults. From campaign to campaign, I’ve been called a liar, a pig and, more recently, a ‘whore’ – a cruder variant of the more common presstitute.
The advice is always to ignore the messages and don’t engage, but they kept calling me from my inbox like a haunted object in a horror movie. I had to find out if this was something worse than insults like being doxed or a horrible deepfake video with my head tied up – the machines supporting Marcos and Duterte have already fabricated sex scandals against their adversaries.
Sometimes my hands shake with anxiety or anger when I have to go through these posts, and I’m almost relieved when someone calls me a bitch or some other generic slur, because I always expect something worse. .
The first campaign against me was for a short article about how Twitter confirmed the removal of hundreds of accounts defending Duterte for inauthentic behavior. When I shared the news, a deluge of hate flooded my Twitter notifications – some are still visible in replies here — and one user incorrectly claimed that The Post had retracted the story. The second time was for tweeting about overcrowded hospitals during the covid wave. In both cases, the harassment lasted about two to three days.
Attacks on journalists in the Philippines are fairly constant and go beyond insulting messages. That of a colleague Facebook account was hackedand began posting nude photos and spouting pro-Marcos propaganda.
After BBC correspondent Howard Johnson was able to approach Marcos and ask him how he could be a good president if he didn’t meet the press, Johnson began receiving death threats.
Nothing, however, can compare to the campaigns against the Philippines’ most famous journalist, Maria Ressa, founder of the online news site Rappler, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize and a relentless critic of Duterte.
At the height of a campaign against her, she was receiving 90 harassing messages per hour. Analysis of these attacks showed they were pretty much torn between discrediting his work and destroying his spirit, often in sexist and violently abusive terms. I noticed a similar pattern in the attacks on me.
When I spoke to him last year, Ressa told me that misinformation melts into behavior modification. “The data tells me it got worse, not better,” she said. “A lot more steps need to be taken, otherwise we won’t have the integrity of the election.”
It’s not just journalists, of course. Politicians as imprisoned Senator Leila de Lima or outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo are seen as opponents of Duterte and have been constantly harassed and slandered online, often in very vulgar ways.
While covering the election, I witnessed what Ressa was talking about with people succumbing to the deluge of misinformation. After following opposition volunteers going door to door, I saw how Marcos supporters heckled them and slammed doors in their faces, refusing to believe “fake news” about their favorite candidate.
On election day, for half an hour in a single polling place, I had four consecutive interviews where people said the same thing – using the same words – “I don’t believe in ill-gotten wealth” about the Marcos family very well known history of looting the country.
During Marcos’ election campaign, there were media restrictions. His security swarmed around him and female reporters were pushed back as they tried to ask questions. In a video, supporters began chanting “Protect BBM!” – the initials of his nickname “Bongbong Marcos” and drowned out the journalists.
I was one of at least a dozen foreign press reporters who were denied accreditation for his campaign, and his camp did not regularly respond to requests for comment. After the election, his spokesperson ignored questions of Rappler reporter Lian Buan in the middle of a press conference.
Naked animosity toward the independent press has raised alarm bells about what Marcos’ administration will be like, especially after Duterte’s strongman reign. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines – where I sit as a board member – issued a statement expressing his concern.
A colleague on the board contacted me about my experiences and asked me to name some of the worst messages directed at me. I suddenly burst into tears and had to explain that I just couldn’t face my inbox again. It was then that I realized how stressed and frustrated I was, as it became clear as the election approached that these attacks would only get worse under Marcos.
“All of these restrictive actions undermine a critical and free press in an Asian bulwark of democracy,” the association said, “and have raised fears about how independent media would be treated under another potential Marcos presidency.” .
The next day, Marcos’ spokesman, Vic Rodriguez, replied, “I don’t know what the journalists are basing themselves on to say that they are attacked or threatened with death. He added that it was Marcos who was the “victim of the hate campaign”.
Marcos has previously denied using troll farms, insisting his social media presence is organic. “We don’t have any trolls… not one,” Marcos told CNN Philippines.
The evidence says otherwise. Marcos signed up zero expense for Facebook advertising, but fact-checking initiative Tsek.ph research shows that he is still somehow the biggest beneficiary of misinformation online. The data showed that Marcos has the largest online network among local elected officials.
On election night, my local press colleagues and I watched intently as the results rolled in and turned into a landslide victory for Marcos. After it was all over and we did our final interviews, it was 3 a.m. and we went to a 24-hour restaurant to share pizza. Unable to sleep, we made tongue-in-cheek jokes about the future.
Judging by the campaign, for journalists the next six years would be very difficult, and the hostility we had experienced so far was only the beginning.