In a bid to disrupt the country’s flourishing ecosystem of online disinformation, lawmakers in the Philippines yesterday approved legislation requiring social media users to register their legal identities when creating new accounts, Reuters reported.
Senator Franklin Drilon, one of the authors of the bill, described it to the news agency as a “little contribution to fight the anonymity that provides the environment for trolls and other malicious attacks to thrive in the age of social media.”
The Bill, which follows this week’s Senate committee hearings into online disinformation, would compel users to disclose their real identities and phone numbers when registering social media accounts, potentially allowing the authorities to trace those responsible for abusive behavior online. “This new provision will prevent anyone from making anonymous accounts online so they could attack anyone endlessly and viciously,” Drilon said.
The new legislation, which still requires presidential approval, reflects the challenges that the Philippines faces due to rampant misinformation, disinformation, trolling, and online abuse, all of which are facilitated by the anonymity of the large social media platforms. In October Maria Ressa, the CEO of Rappler and a recent Nobel Peace laureate, sounded the alarm on how tech giants “favor lies laced with anger and hate that spread faster and further than facts.” The country boasts the sixth-largest pool of Facebook users in the world.
During his triumphant march to Malacañang in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte was protected by an online “troll army” that attacked his critics and inflated his achievements. Social media manipulation now threatens to play en even more prominent role in the presidential election scheduled for May. As Ronald U. Mendoza, Imelda Deinla, and Jurel Yap wrote for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter in December, “it is likely that online campaign platforms will play an even more crucial role in shaping voters’ choices than at any previous election.”
Sure enough, online fact-checkers say that the bulk of the coordinated social media misinformation and disinformation has expressed support for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr, the son of the former dictator, who is currently leading the polls.
A fact-checking group told this week’s Senate committee hearing that among the leading presidential candidates, Marcos has benefited from the most positive messaging online, while the main target of negative claims is Vice President Leni Robredo, a staunch opponent of Duterte and the Marcos clan.
“There is a preponderance of negative messages against Leni and positive ones for Marcos,” University of the Philippines’ journalism professor Yvonne Chua told the Committee. “We see a substantial and significant volume of false or misleading claims about presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in which case, these are largely positive or in his favor seeking to promote him.”
In a 2019 investigation, Rappler similarly concluded that “disinformation, coordinated amplification, use of an extensive network of anonymously-managed pages and groups are part of the Marcos comeback playbook.” Many of the posts were aimed at “denying kleptocracy and human rights violations during the Martial Law years, exaggerating Marcos achievements, and vilifying critics, rivals, and mainstream media.” Just last week, Twitter suspended more than 300 accounts and hashtags promoting Marcos’ campaign, which it said had violated rules on spam and manipulation.
Marcos has denied making coordinated efforts to harness social media, claiming that most social media posts expressing support for him were “organic.” “I have no troll farm. I have never had a troll farm. I have never had a click army, I never boosted. Everything’s organic, and I never bought ads,” he said recently, ABS-CBN reported.
While policies aimed at tackling online abuses and disinformation efforts are clearly needed, some have argued that the legislation will arm the government with powers that potentially could be used to attack journalists and civil society. Michael Caster of the free speech group Article 19 tweeted today that while online trolling is a problem in the Philippines, “real-name registration is not the way to regulate. Anonymous speech & private communications are crucial for protecting civil society, & the rights to privacy & freedom of expression.”