The Council for People’s Development and Governance (CPDG) joins the Commission on Human Rights in calling Facebook to review its takedown of the pages of civil society organizations.
Facebook unpublished the pages of several organizations and individuals in the Philippines without any explanation except that the pages and individual accounts supposedly violated community standards.
“Facebook unpublishing the pages of progressive civil society organizations Anakbayan, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) and locking the personal accounts of their page administrators is a case of Facebook shrinking civic spaces and enabling digital authoritarianism,” said CPDG spokesperson Liza Maza.
Online space is potentially democratizing for its accessibility and swift spread of information which has created new modes of political participation as well as new opportunities for organizing action among people’s organizations.
In 2013, the peak of mobilization against the pork barrel scam of the graft-tainted Aquino administration was the social media-driven and Facebook-fueled “Million People March” rally at Luneta Park which gathered hundreds of thousands of Filipinos to express their outrage. During the Duterte government’s protracted COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, online rallies on Facebook were used to pressure the government to take down posts by state security forces that red-tagged and threatened organizations.
Yet Facebook has also allowed itself to be used by authoritarian governments for disinformation and black propaganda, to collect personal data and conduct surveillance of its users, and for digital censorship including shutdown of sites and pages.
The removal of the Anakbayan Facebook page occurred at a time when the organization has been very vocal about issues affecting youth such as attacks on academic freedom, indoctrination through the proposed National Citizen Service Training (NCST) Program, and the worsening economic crisis in the Philippines.
KMU’s Facebook page is used as a platform for the organization’s unwavering stance to uplift labor conditions in the country. It was unpublished as KMU was preparing for the High Level Tripartite Mission of the International Labor Organization this January to investigate labor rights violations including attacks on their rights to freedom of association and to organize.
BAYAN’s Facebook page was unpublished following arbitrary accusations of violating “dangerous individuals and organizations” guidelines for its posts about Professor Jose Ma. Sison.
These three civil society organizations are not coincidentally among those that have been repeatedly red-tagged on Facebook and on-ground by different state authorities. Attacks on civic space and civil society organizations have intensified since the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) was created by former President Duterte in 2018.
In other countries, Facebook has allowed its platform to be used by vested interests and authoritarian governments to deplatform opposition, stifle dissent, and spread black propaganda. In India, Facebook removed 442 items between January and June 2021 upon censorship requests by the government.
Facebook has enabled hateful propaganda which incited violence against religious and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and India. It has also been accused of failing to curb the spread of content inciting violence in Ethiopia. In the United States, Facebook deliberately allows the posting of misleading, deceptive, and incorrect information which conservatives share as junk news.
In the Philippines, Facebook’s interlinkage to authoritarianism bolstered under former Pres. Rodrigo Duterte who combined traditional means of repression with digital tactics such as on-line harassment and disinformation. At least as early as his presidential bid, Duterte was manipulating social media and targeting opposition with a small cyber army of trolls and bots, according to a University of Oxford study. This included nationalistic and pro-Duterte government Facebook posts (also known as patriotic trolling), flooding of spam and fake news, and even harassing and threatening individual dissenters. Amid the bloody war on drugs and extrajudicial killings, the myth of Duterte and his allies such as Senators Bong Go and Bato Dela Rosa having an indestructible fan base was built on Facebook.
Social media manipulation has arguably reached even greater heights with Pres. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. who started his disinformation and propaganda campaign on Facebook as early as 2014. This campaign re-shaped the narrative of the Marcos family away from his father’s dictatorship, world-class corruption, and Martial Law era atrocities, human rights violations, and economic ruin. The Marcos regime was portrayed as a golden age of law and order and progress, and the Marcos family as a political clan with the best interests of the nation at heart. This proved sufficient to return the Marcoses to the presidency despite the economic ruin, secured a good crowd ranking despite the well-established and judicially-proven sins of the Marcos family.
A Facebook whistleblower has already pointed out how Facebook clearly and systematically prioritizes profitability over its impact on the wider world. Frances Haugen, a former employee, provided conclusive evidence that the social media platform’s concern for traffic and engagement overrides any consideration about the impact of false, harmful, and inciteful content on public safety. Her allegations have already prompted UK and US government proposals to regulate social media platforms and hold tech giants accountable for content on their sites.
CPDG asserts that the Facebook pages of civil society organizations like Anakbayan, KMU, and BAYAN should be brought back. Their unpublishing is baseless and their removal greatly diminishes information about and challenges to the status quo. Facebook can choose to provide high quality and independent information.
The communication space that Facebook created and profits is so wide that it has become a public space. As such, it should be open and accessible and used responsibly to enrich democratic life. Facebook should not undermine its democratizing potential by allowing authoritarians to use for their misinformation and disinformation, nor give in to state censorship and being used against dissent. Instead, though online it should become a real public space for the people that upholds freedom of expression and expands civic spaces.
Shahbaz, A. (2018). The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism: Fake news, data collection, and the challenge to democracy. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2018/rise-digital-authoritarianism
Lamensch, M. (9 July 2021). Authoritarianism Has Been Reinvented for the Digital Age. Centre for International Governance Innovation. Retrieved from https://www.cigionline.org/articles/authoritarianism-has-been-reinvented-for-the-digital-age/
Sarpong, G. (nd). THE FACEBOOK PAPERS: HOW AUTHORITARIAN GOVERNMENTS ARE PRESSURING PLATFORMS TO STIFLE FREE SPEECH. Open Internet for Democracy. Retrieved from https://openinternet.global/news/facebook-papers-how-authoritarian-governments-are-pressuring-platforms-stifle-free-speech