A list of Mocha Uson’s fake news posts; List shows many fake news sites bear Duterte’s name; DFA, PCOO spread fake news about outcome of PH human rights report at the UN
Fake News Floods the Philippines
Yen Makabenta, a veteran journalist now at The Manila Times, wrote a prominent column last month about the American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who enthusiastically praised President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. “The Philippines is suffocating,” Mr. Makabenta quoted the ambassador as saying. “We must give President Duterte the space to run his nation.” Ms. Haley, he reported, warned of “destructive forces” that “have calibrated their plot to ouster movements” against Mr. Duterte.
Mr. Duterte no doubt appreciated Ms. Haley’s support. The only problem: It wasn’t true. Mr. Makabenta had based his column on a fake story from a website whose web address, grammatical errors and far-fetched assertions should have made clear that it was a counterfeit of Al Jazeera.
As it has around the world, the internet in the Philippines has become a morass of fake news and conspiracy theories, harassment and bullying. This has muddied public discourse and cultivated a populist attitude toward democracy. What is true, or legal, is no longer important as long as the majority supports it. Responsibility has been discarded for partisanship.
Since well before the presidential election last year, a multitude of dubious independent news sites, counterfeits of established news outlets and blatantly partisan blogs have supported Mr. Duterte. They have featured fake endorsements from leaders like Pope Francis (“chosen by God”), Emmanuel Macron (“role model”) and Angela Merkel (“a giant”). Celebrities who have offered praise, according to fake news, include Angelina Jolie, Dwayne Johnson and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was said to have called Mr. Duterte “a real starring fighter”). Even NASA purportedly named him “the best president in the solar system.”
The fake news isn’t always complimentary. An opposition politician was said to be “recruiting soldiers for a coup.” Vice President Leni Robredo, of the opposition Liberal Party, had supposedly met with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general at the time, to conspire to remove the president.
Mr. Duterte’s opponents have at times benefited from fake news, but a disproportionate amount of it favors him. Nobody knows for sure who funds these efforts, though a study by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project determined that the Duterte campaign paid $200,000 for as many as 500 dedicated trolls to attack dissenters and spread disinformation. (In response, Mr. Duterte called Oxford “a school for stupid people” — before admitting that he had in fact hired trolls.)
One of the most egregious employers of this tactic is an informal group that calls itself the Duterte Diehard Supporters, whose initials, not coincidentally, are the same as those for the Davao Death Squads, which killed crime suspects in Mr. Duterte’s hometown when he was mayor. These supporters spin circuitous defenses of Mr. Duterte’s administration, disseminate spurious reports and cast dissent as destabilization. The most dedicated have been rewarded with government positions or other employment with his allies.
I know well what it’s like to be targeted by this propaganda machine. My opposition to the president’s violent rhetoric and his disdain for democratic checks and balances has earned me attacks and threats. Usually Duterte Diehard Supporters will seize on one of my columns or Facebook posts, engaging in ad hominem assaults on their pages that they tacitly encourage their followers to continue onto mine. It has come to the point that I check every morning to see if something I wrote has prompted more abuse. (You can imagine what this essay will elicit.)
I am far from the only Filipino to get this treatment. The attacks come in waves from outraged trolls — with social media accounts and inboxes flooded with insults, promises of violence and memes made to expressly mock and disgrace — before they move on to the next target after several days. The duration and intensity seem directly correlated to the reach and influence of the person being attacked. Recently, an anonymous anti-Duterte blogger and the man who merely administers the server hosting her popular blog were publicly outed and threatened, and now face libel charges — a criminal offense that carries possible imprisonment.
A list of Mocha Uson’s fake news posts
Mocha Uson’s fake news hearing in the Senate had some quotable remarks from the blogger-slash-PCOO head. One of them was that she was also a victim of fake news. All the while trying to defend why she posted multiple falsehoods and photos on her social media accounts, and claiming that she merely shared them from other websites. Which raises the question on whether or not she verifies facts.
Although Uson has apologized and took down many of her posts, there are still receipts. Because you can’t hide everything from the Internet. So let’s look back on some of the times that Uson, or whoever’s running her page, was caught sharing and posting fake news.
#1 A dead body from Brazil
Screengrab from Ignore Rants’ Facebook page
Uson shared a post of a Duterte supporter which claimed that a young girl was murdered due to the drug problem in the Philippines. She was reportedly outraged as to why the Commission on Human Rights didn’t focus on the incident. However, the photo was of a nine-year-old Brazilian girl who was raped and murdered in 2014. BBC called her on it and she later took down the post.
#2 Attacking students of St. Scholastica’s College
When the Supreme Court greenlit theMarcos burial, protests started from across the nation. The high school students from St. Scholastica’s College were also part of it. Uson then shared a post,accusing the school of forcing the students to rally. This was then disproved by the college andthe studentswho were part of the protests.
#3 “When will you visit this policeman’s burial?”
In the middle of the controversy onKian Delos Santos’ shooting, Mocha shared an Inquirer.net article on a policeman’s burial. She asked Vice-President Leni Robredo, senators Bam Aquino, Antonio Trillanes, and Risa Hontiveros on when they plan on visiting him. This is in light of the fact that policemen were accused of murdering Delos Santos under the suspicion that he was a drug pusher. Turns out,the article was posted a year ago.
#4 Getting the Constitution wrong
A netizen called out Uson for citing “Article 263” of the Constitution, which allegedly states that a tax-evading company will pay 10 times the amount once they settle in court. “Walang 263 articles ang Constitution. Hanggang XVIII (18) lang!” (The Constitution doesn’t have 263 articles. It only has 18!) the netizen wrote.
#5 Honduran soldiers
Mocha recently asked for prayers for the soldiers fighting the Maute Group in Marawi. It seemed like a sincere post of soldiers kneeling and praying. But netizens later pointed out that the soldiers in the photo weren’t Filipino—they were from Honduras. When asked about it at the hearing earlier, Uson said that she was simply moved by the photo and didn’t claim that the soldiers were Filipino. (Yeah, right!)
#6 Trillanes’ hidden wealth
Recently, Sen. Trillanes filed a cyberlibel case against Uson because she accused him on her blog of having alleged hidden wealth. Trillanes debunked this and filed the complaint to the office of the Ombudsman, noting six criminal and one administrative offenses.
Updates as of Feb. 19, 2020
#7 ABS-CBN shutdown propaganda
When Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a quo warranto to the Supreme Court on Feb. 10 accusing ABS-CBN of alleged unethical business practices and foreign ownership, several pro-Duterte officials and citizens posted “#YesToABSCBNShudown.” Uson, an Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) official, weighed in with a tweet claiming that ABS-CBN serves oligarchs.
Aside from the fact that Uson’s accusation sounds like mere propaganda, she might have forgotten that she’s also supporting politicians who came from affluent families like Ilocos Norte Governor Imelda Marcos and former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Just saying.
#8 “Study Now, NPA Later”
On Feb. 16, 2020, Uson was accused of red-tagging four female students after posting a photo with the caption “Study Now, NPA Later.” She also implied that students from state universities are rebels of the New People’s Army (NPA), which is a common accusation against the youth who are protesting against the Duterte administration.
List shows many fake news sites bear Duterte’s name
Sen. Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV released Wednesday a list of websites and social media pages spreading false content, many of which he said “carry the name” of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Aquino told a Senate committee hearing on a bill seeking to penalize fake news that the 87 websites, 95 Facebook and 56 Youtube pages on his list were culled from the list released by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines in January, “plus our own research."
Presidential Communications Undersecretary Joel Sy Egco denied Malacañang’s involvement in the fake news sites.
“It’s so easy to put up a website, name it after Bam Aquino or the president, and then pagka nabuking ka na (when you get caught), you take down the site, and you put up another,” he said.
But he agreed with Aquino that it was “troublesome” that many of the sites carry the president’s name. “People would think that these websites are actually allied to the president’s camp,” Egco said.
Several Palace officials, including Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar and Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, who was present in the hearing, have been accused of spreading wrong information.
“Blogger po ako, hindi po ako journalist (I’m a blogger, not a journalist),” Uson said, despite being a regular columnist for mainstream broadsheet The Philippine Star, and formerly hosting a radio show before getting suspended.
Uson added that unlike the mainstream media, she is not c
ompelled as a blogger to seek balance in her posts. More, she said her opinions reflect her views as a private individual.
Sen. Nancy Binay, however, said that Uson is bound by the code of ethical standards for public officials.
“Baka it’s high time for you to decide kung gusto mo maging blogger o gusto mo maging Asec (It might be high time for you to decide if you want to be a blogger or an assistant secretary),” Binay told Uson.
Pro-Duterte blogger Rey Joseph Nieto, who puts out ThinkingPinoy and is now a consultant at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), said some people prefer fake news to “real news” from the mainstream media “kasi po minsan yung real news sobrang sabog, sobrang unbelievable din at sobrang slanted (because the real news is too messy, too unbelievable, too slanted).”
Nieto also repeated an earlier accusation that photojournalist Jes Aznar posted a live video of military operations in Marawi City, purportedly endangering the lives of government snipers.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) in a statement called Nieto out for what it said was an attempt “to resurrect his utterly discredited accusation” against Aznar.
“That Nieto did all this under oath should have earned him a perjury charge or a contempt citation at the very least,” the NUJP said.
“That he did so as a consultant of the DFA, paid with the people’s money, makes it a hundred times worse,” it added.
Andanar, citing unverified information, accused Senate reporters in February of receiving bribes.
“Sometimes people, even officials, say unverified statements,” said Assistant Communications Secretary Ana Maria Paz Banaag during the hearing, when pressed by Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV to comment on Andanar’s gaffe.
Uson, who takes charge of the Palace communications social media office, faces a libel complaint filed by Sen. Antonio Trillanes, who accused her of maliciously depicting him as being corrupt by sharing on her Facebook page fake details of his supposed offshore accounts.
Libel, a crime under the Revised Penal Code, is already an available remedy for persons victimized by fake news, said Sen. Franklin Drilon during the hearing.
“Avail of the libel law,” Drilon said, adding that any form of constraint on free speech is a “slippery issue.”
Yet, Sen. Joel Villanueva, the proponent of Senate Bill No. 1492 or the anti-fake news act, which proposes stiffer punishments for public officials, said the measure if enacted would be different from libel.
“Ang pinaparusahan sa fake news ay ang malisyosong paggawa, paglalathala, pagpapakalat ng maling balita (What the anti-fake news law seeks to penalize are the malicious creation, publication, and spreading of fake news),” Villanueva said.
“Sa libel, kahit totoo ang impormasyon, kapag napatunayang walang mabuting motibo para ipakalat, maari po kayong kasuhan (In libel, even if the information were true, if no good motive is found, one could still be liable), he added.
The definition of “fake news” could be left to the courts, the senator said.
At present, the National Bureau of Investigation cannot act on cases of circulation of fake news, said Cybercrime Division Chief Manuel Antonio Eduarte.
“If the fake news will result in libel or other cases, it will be actionable by the office. Otherwise, we cannot act on it,” he said.
Journalist Ellen Tordesillas said the country’s libel and cybercrime laws are already enough, with the real problem being government officials themselves who spread falsehoods and wrong information.
“A number of government officials, politicians and other public figures tend to play fast and loose with the facts in the process of misleading the public,” said Tordesillas, president of VERA Files. “These lies spread easily owing to the big following and wide reach of these public figures, including on social media.”
Lawyer Antonio La Viña, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, said the problem on fake news needs a smart solution, proposing to regulate online platforms, instead of publishers, so as not to curtail the right to free speech.
Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, meanwhile, proposed that Congress create an Institute for the Integrity of Information, which he described as “a sort of Ombudsman for public information provided by government, or an information police for government officials.”
Hilbay said the institute should be composed of academics, media practitioners, policymakers, scientists and information technology experts “of the highest credibility and competence” who should not be appointed by the president or any of the president’s alter egos.
In a statement, the human rights coalition Advocates for Freedom of Expression Coalition-Southeast Asia (AFEC-SEA) conveyed their “grave concern” over the fake news bill, and urged the Senate not to criminalize fake news.
“An anti-fake news law will present a serious chilling effect on freedom of expression,” said lawyer Gilbert T. Andres, chair of AFEC-SEA, which includes as members the Center for International Law Philippines, Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance and other nongovernment organizations from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines.
The proposed law “can be used to harass journalists and media organizations that carry news articles perceived to be critical of any ruling administration,” Andres added. “Ironically, an anti-fake news law might even actually protect fake news perceived to be beneficial to the ruling dispensation.” — with Maria Feona Imperial, Daniel Abunales, Arianne Christian Tapao and Jake Soriano
VERA FILES FACT CHECK: DFA, PCOO spread fake news about outcome of PH human rights report at the UN
Screenshot of the Sept. 23 DFA media release.
“Fake news,” more than being just news, is about the mis- and disinformation ecosystem, noted First Draft, a nonprofit coalition formed “to raise awareness and address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age.”
First Draft lists misleading content and false context among the types of fake content, and partisanship, political influence and propaganda among the motivations for fake content creation.
A Sept. 23 DFA media release, titled “Phl wins recognition for human rights record, pledges continued progress,” read:
“The Philippines scored a big victory in Geneva today when the United Nations Human Rights Council overwhelmingly adopted Manila's human rights report card.” Source: DFA, PHL Wins Recognition For Human Rights Record, Pledges Continued Progress
On the same day, the PCOO released a statement titled “Palace welcomes UN’s final and unanimous adoption of PH human rights report.” It said Malacañang:
“welcomed the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) final and unanimous adoption of the third Philippine Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Report, which reaffirms the government’s commitment to human rights protection.” Source: PCOO, Palace welcomes UN’s final and unanimous adoption of PH human rights report
The UPR is a process done every five years to review the human rights records of UN member states. Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano presented the rights situation of the country in May.
The PCOO media release, indirectly quoting Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella, further noted that:
“the unanimous adoption of the UPR Report in Geneva signifies the UN’s recognition of the country’s human rights record under the leadership of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.”
The DFA and PCOO media releases have made a mountain of the procedural adoption of the Philippine report.
“Lahat naman ng countries na nagre-report, ina-accept yung submission (All country reports that are submitted are accepted),” Lauro Baja, a former Philippine Permanent Representative to the UN, told VERA Files.
Calling this a “big victory” in Geneva, per DFA, or a UN “recognition” of the Philippine human rights record under Duterte, per PCOO, upends what has actually been a disappointing UPR outcome for the country relative to other UN member states.
The UN Human Rights Council, in an email to VERA Files, said:
“The facts are: The Philippines received 257 recommendations, of which they have supported 103 (committed to implement or already underway), or 40%. The average amount of recommendations posed to each State during these reviews is approx. 200. On average 80% of these are supported by States.”
The Philippines described the recommendations it could not support as:
“Beyond the sole control of any of the branches of the government”
“Perceived to insinuate, advertently or inadvertently, that the State has not taken any action whatsoever on the concerns raised”
“Sweeping, vague and even contradictory, especially in the context of the Philippines’ democratic processes”
“It means the Philippines will NOT act on those recommendations,” said lawyer Ruben Carranza of the International Center for Transitional Justice in an online message.
“That isn't a victory; it is a loss – of credibility, of face, of any claim to being a human rights-fulfilling State on the part of the Philippines,” Carranza added.
Screenshot of the Sept. 23 DFA media release.
More disinformation: that the Philippine report was “overwhelmingly adopted,” per DFA, or there was “unanimous adoption,” per PCOO.
Of the 14 countries that spoke during the adoption of the Philippine UPR outcome, at least four noted some issues:
Sierra Leone: Efforts aimed at eradicating the abuse of illegal drugs should not be detrimental to fundamental human rights and freedoms.
Sudan: Recommendation for the Philippines to accede to the Convention on Enforced Disappearances had not been accepted.
United Kingdom: Regretted that its recommendations were not accepted by the Philippines; remained concerned about the high death toll associated with the campaign against illegal drugs and statements questioning the universality of human rights; continuing threats against human rights defenders were also of grave concern.
United States: Remained concerned about ongoing reports of extrajudicial killings and called on the Philippines to ensure that investigations were conducted with respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Source: UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Council adopts Universal Periodic Review outcomes of Philippines, Algeria and Poland
Nongovernment organizations, which are allowed to submit information for consideration during the UPR review, also spoke.
Among the statements, unanimous and overwhelming in raising concern about the human rights situation in the Philippines, are:
Save the Children International, in a joint statement with International Volunteerism Organization for Women, Education and Development: Concerned that the war on drugs campaign of the Government had claimed the lives of 54 children.
Franciscans International: Concerned about the serious deterioration of the human rights situation in the Philippines.
Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Barely five months since the Government presented its report, parts of the country had become a virtual inferno, with incessant bombings by the military in Marawi and brutal killings by the police every day.
Source: UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Council adopts Universal Periodic Review outcomes of Philippines, Algeria and Poland
The DFA and PCOO fake news, by VERA Files’ count, is the fourth time the Philippine government has spread fake content around the UPR and the country’s human rights situation.
On Sept. 13, a DFA media release claimed that, “Many UN Member States, especially those from ASEAN and developing countries, expressed support for the efforts of the Philippines to address the drug menace.” Wrong.
On May 20, the state-run Philippine News Agency ran a fake news report claiming 95 countries in the UPR were convinced that there were no extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. Wrong.
On May 8, Foreign Affairs Secretary Cayetano, who represented the Philippines at the UPR, told the UN President Duterte “has a policy of zero tolerance for abuse of law enforcers.” Wrong.
UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Human Rights Council adopts Universal Periodic Review outcomes of Philippines, Algeria and Poland
OHCHR, Basic facts about the UPR
United Nations General Assembly, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Philippines
United Nations Human Rights Council, Philippines response to UN Human Rights Council recommendations in the 3rd cycle of the Universal Periodic Review of the Philippines, 8 May 2017
First Draft, Fake news. It’s complicated.
Interview with Lauro Baja, former Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations
Interview with Ruben Carranza, Director, Reparative Justice Program, International Center for Transitional Justice
(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative.)