President Rodrigo Roa Duterte talks to the people after holding a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) core members at the Malago Clubhouse in Malacañang on September 28, 2020. (Robinson Niñal/Presidential Photo)

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture some of President Rodrigo Duterte’s officials shaking their heads or slapping their foreheads and muttering “why on earth did he say that?” when their boss of bosses blurts out something patently absurd, incoherent, or completely off during one of his late night television appearances. After all, not every last one of them is a dolt, an incompetent and an imbecile, or a retired police and military man. One was in a previous life even a human rights defender and a passable academic.

Last week’s September 28th late night Duterte show rather than its October 5 edition was certainly among those occasions that would distress anyone with any awareness of what’s going on in this country. In another episode of aimlessness punctuated with the usual profanities, the President of this rumored democracy babbled his way through what should have been a report on his administration’s latest means of arresting the spread of the coronavirus.

He did extend the General Community Quarantine in the National Capital Region, Batangas province, and Tacloban, Iloilo, Bacolod and Iligan Cities, and put Lanao del Sur under Modified Enchanced Community Quarantine and the rest of the country under Modified General Community Quarantine. But he spent more time on matters irrelevant to allaying the populace’s fears over the surging number of COVID 19 cases (over 300,000) and said, among others, three things that were sure to invite not only media and public attention but skepticism and outrage as well.

The first was his saying that he has thought of resigning because he has had enough of corruption. The second was a veiled threat to take down social media giant Facebook and to create a government social media fact-checking unit. A close third was that he would ask Congress to abolish the PhilHealth insurance system and to create a new agency out of it.

Mr. Duterte has several times said something about resigning. But he has never made good on that promise. Two years or so ago, he said he wanted to, but would not because he did not want Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, as the Constitution mandates, to assume the Presidency once he gives it up, and that he preferred Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. to succeed him. There was nothing new in that statement.

But his declaration about PhilHealth reminded everyone that the Senate had called for the inclusion of Health Secretary and PhilHealth Board Chair Francisco Duque among those to be charged in connection with the 15 billion-peso corruption scandal in that agency, and that Mr. Duterte and the Secretary of Justice had very quickly dismissed that suggestion.

Despite an earlier pledge to fire all officials should there be any “whiff of corruption” about them, Mr. Duterte has continued to support and even promote and appoint such odorous officials to another position in those instances when he did remove a few from their posts. Some media organizations and Netizens thus took note of that fact in reaction to Mr. Duterte’s supposed predisposition to resigning, and concluded that he is far from serious about giving up the Presidency and about fighting corruption.

The usual “clarifications” to that effect were on the very next day issued by Palace spokespersons. They said Mr. Duterte is indeed not resigning despite the corruption that has metastasized throughout his government, and neither is he going to take down Facebook, in which 60 million or more Filipinos have accounts. However, what they did not deny is his threat to organize his own social media fact-checking group.

Facebook has fact-checking partner organizations and it was they and some civil society groups in the Philippines that alerted it to the existence of a network of accounts guilty of “inauthentic behavior.” Those accounts misrepresented themselves, and artificially boosted the popularity of what they were posting by sharing them with each other. FB traced the false accounts to China, and to Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) personnel. The China-based account was campaigning in behalf of the candidacy for President of Sara Duterte in 2022. The others were similarly Duterte regime partisans. But Facebook took them down not for their content, which included spreading false information and red-baiting social and political activists, but for violating FB community standards.

But what Mr. Duterte concluded from the takedown of those accounts was that FB does not allow government advocacy in its pages. By implying that FB was supporting the Philippine Left, and criticizing it for supposedly not allowing his regime to propagate its anti-communist and other views, Mr. Duterte practically admitted that the false accounts were indeed government accounts. But the usual “clarification” from Spokesperson Harry Roque denied that they were, most probably because Roque knows that FB is aware that its pages have been clandestinely used by authoritarian governments to further their agendas and harass dissenters, and thus frowns upon and bans the “inauthentic” practice of creating false accounts — which in the Philippine case were maintained by PNP and AFP functionaries paid out of public funds.

Mr. Duterte said he doesn’t understand Facebook’s standards of proper behavior, but they’re actually quite simple. Governments have the funds and resources and even their own media systems to speak for them and their advocacies, while your average citizen has only limited means, among them social media, in which to express himself. What that suggests is that Facebook is essentially there for the latter, and not for governments to create false accounts for use in furthering whatever sinister agenda they may have. What governments can have in Facebook are accounts clearly identified as theirs, and which conform with those community standards.

For all its lapses, and the abuses that trolls and even well- meaning folk have perpetrated by generating and sharing false information through its pages, Facebook has become an accessible vehicle for free expression, and a source of information and opinion about public issues. Some governments — those of China, Iran and Syria among others — block access to it by their citizens. But the Internet and the new communication technologies being what they are, they have only been partly successful.

Should Mr. Duterte, despite his Spokesperson’s assurance otherwise, choose to block Facebook, he would again be denying millions of Filipinos a vehicle for free expression and information. But like the countries mentioned above, he would only be partly successful or worse, given the Jurassic state of the Philippines’ information and communication technology, and the existence of techno-savvy groups that could quite handily go around whatever means of blocking FB the government devises. Just like his threats against corruption and corrupt officials, Mr. Duterte’s threat against Facebook would be just as empty.

But his plan to organize the government’s own social media fact-checking group is something else. If he makes good on it — with, of course, the usual provisions penalizing the authors and sharers of social media posts such a bureaucracy would claim to be false — it would mean that in addition to already ongoing police and military surveillance of Facebook and Twitter accounts, the regime would be empowered to arbitrarily label critical social media posts as “false” and those supportive of it “true” to the further detriment of the already challenged public interest need for accurate, relevant and reliable information. A government-based and -biased social media fact-checking unit would be one more threat among many to free expression and the people’s right to know.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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