In Defense of Facebook

‘The shutdown of these inauthentic advocacy pages is one of Facebook’s most prudent decisions thus far. I give it my full support.’

In a move that was perhaps surprising to many, Facebook, in the last week, took down hundreds of coordinated fake accounts that were interfering in the politics of the Philippines and the US. According to a Guardian article by Helen Davidson and Carmela Fonbuena, one network that was shut down was found to have links to the military and police, and appeared to have accelerated its operations in the last two years. According to Facebook, the pages were removed for inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity. In one of its statements, Facebook said that this network consisted of “several clusters of connected activity that relied on fake accounts to evade enforcement, post content, comment, and manage Pages.”

Many of the accounts taken down, which reached upwards of 200,000 people, had posts mainly on the criticism of communism, youth activists, and the opposition, according to the Guardian article. A number of these accounts even red-tagged critics of the president, defined in our jurisprudence through J. Leonen’s dissenting opinion in Zarate v. Aquino III (G.R. No. 220028, November 10, 2015) as “the act of labeling, branding, naming, and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists, or terrorists…by State agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies of the State.’” 

It is to be noted that Facebook shut down these accounts because of “inauthentic behavior,” but their contents and the way by which many accounts have questioned the shutdowns are problematic as well. Many individuals and groups have contested the take down, which is valid, but what is not acceptable is the red-tagging that they have done against those who support such removal.

The links to said accounts have since been denied by the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines; however, the analysis of Facebook indicates otherwise.

In one of his late night addresses to the country, President Duterte made mention of the recent Facebook decison, and threatened to stop Facebook in the country, saying that the media giant cannot lay down a policy for his government, and that it cannot bar or prevent the President from espousing the objectives of government. In doing so, Duterte actually acknowledged the correctness of Facebook’s decisions – these Facebook pages are not what they say they are as these pages are in fact controlled by the government.

There are two questions that remain to be asked, therefore: first, does the President have the power to do this, and second, what does this mean for all of us?

Presidential power to shut down Facebook

Facebook said that it removed the accounts for violating its policy against foreign or government interference, defined as “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity.” President Duterte, in response to this shut down, asked Facebook, “If the government cannot espouse or advocate something which is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose here in my country?”

It is to be noted that this is not the first time a state leader has threatened to “strongly regulate” or completely shut down a social media company. In May of this year, President Trump said the same thing, citing “anti-conservative bias.” Legal experts say that he has “absolutely no legal authority” to carry out his threats, and the threats are simply a way for the US president to be continued to allow to broadcast “whatever he wants to, however false it is, with complete impunity.”

The Philippines is facing similar circumstances. Should the closure of Facebook take place, such will severely impinge on the constitutional rights of Filipinos to free speech and expression. In response to President Duterte’s question, then, the purpose of Facebook – and by extension all social media platforms and other forms of mass media – is not to advocate for the government.

In reality, these groups might have an easier way of having the take down revoked: by having government admit to its participation in these pages. That would make the behavior of those behind the accounts authentic. However, and this is why they hide behind fake identities, that would make them accountable for their contents. Red-tagging is harmful, and in my view illegal when it is done by government and especially when directed at legitimate critics of the government.

Closure of Facebook pages

One of the most controversial pages removed is “Hands Off Our Children,” composed of mostly mothers, whose mission is to prevent minors from being recruited “into organizations espousing violent extremism.” According to the AFP Chief of Staff, the group’s shutdown was arbitrary and “adds to the limited spaces afforded to” these parents. He also noted that the grievances are legitimate, and that communist terrorists “have been known to recruit and victimize students, conditioning them to become cadres and members of the New People’s Army (NPA).”

It is to be noted that a little over a week ago, the Supreme Court junked the petition for the issuance of a writ of amparo and writ of habeas corpus filed by one of the parent-members of “Hands Off Our Children” against Kabataan representative Sarah Elago, members of Anakbayan, and human rights lawyer Kristina Conti. 

According to the petition, young activist Alicia Jasper (AJ) Lucena was radicalized and indoctrinated by Anakbayan; that being a minor, she could not have consented to the activities done by the group; and that her life and security was threatened, and her liberty clearly restrained. The petition also said that her case was not a solitary one, as many minors have been “mentally-conditioned and recruited” by Anakbayan. 

The Supreme Court Public Information Office (SC PIO) said that the writ of amparo was “not proper” and that the prayer for the issuance of the writ of habeas corpus “lacks merit.” It also noted that “the Court said that there is not much issue that Alicia Jasper or AJ’s situation does not qualify either as an actual or threatened enforced disappearance or extralegal killing. It further said that AJ is not missing and her whereabouts are determinable and is staying with Anakbayan and its officers.”

The SC PIO also said that the petitioners, according the Court, failed to make a case that AJ was being detained against her free will.

This is just one of the potential issues that arise with these recently-taken down Facebook pages. Many of these pages conflate legitimate activism (including joining organizations such as Anakbayan) with violent extremism, and opposition with communism. This can lead to a myriad of other problems, such as the suppression of dissent. 

While it is understandable that parents worry about their children’s safety, particularly when they join political organizations, a Facebook page which potentially espouses a deep bias against activism is hardly the best avenue for these parents, especially since it is found that many of these pages red-tag groups and individuals, and can be dangerous for youth activists, especially for the activist children of these parents. 

Breath of fresh air

Everyone knows I am a big user of Facebook. I use it to connect to relatives and friends. I use it for teaching and advocacy. It is a research tool for me and a repository of my writings. Unfortunately, recent years have shown how disappointing Facebook has been: it has become a source of vitriol and hatred, and has – in other countries – even led to violence. I know good people – journalists, politicians, and other prominent people – that have been harmed because of Facebook’s irresponsibility. The defense that there is a free marketplace of ideas is not correct, as one colleague from the University of the Philippines College of Law has argued. Free speech and hate speech, such as red-tagging or attacks against journalists, that directly results in violence, are repugnant to each other. And so it is a breath of fresh air to see that Facebook is taking the proliferation of these pages seriously and acting against them. 

The shutdown of these inauthentic advocacy pages is one of Facebook’s most prudent decisions thus far. I give it my full support.

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