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Philippines: Facebook Removes China-based Fake Accounts

2020-09-23 -- Social media giant Facebook said it has taken down more than 150 fake accounts that originated in China over interfering in Philippine politics, including those that promote Beijing's interests in the South China Sea and that back President Rodrigo Duterte's daughter as his successor in 2022.

The accounts, which have a vast following in the Philippines, were traced to individuals from Fujian, China, who were operating using virtual private networks (VPN) to hide their identities, Facebook said.

"In Southeast Asia where this network focused most of its activity, they posted in Chinese, Filipino and English about global news and current events including Beijing's interests in the South China Sea; Hong Kong; content supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte and Sarah Duterte's potential run in the 2022 presidential election," Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook's cybersecurity policy, said in a statement issued late on Tuesday.

The accounts also ran posts against Rappler, an independent Philippine online news organization that is critical of the Duterte administration.

"In each case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts as a central part of their operations to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing," Gleicher said.

The Facebook official said the accounts were removed after they were found to have violated the company's foreign or government interference policy through coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity.

"We identified several clusters of connected activity that relied on fake accounts to pose as locals in countries they targeted, post in groups, amplify their own content, manage pages, like and comment on other people's posts particularly about naval activity in the South China Sea, including U.S. Navy ships," he said.

"This campaign took operational security steps to conceal their identity and location including through the use of VPN. Some of this networks' pages were previously removed for violating our inauthentic behavior and spam policies," Gleicher said, adding the accounts also interfered in U.S. politics.

Facebook said 155 accounts, 11 pages, and nine groups linked to this cluster were taken down from its main social media platform, while another six accounts were removed from Instagram. These accounts paid Facebook U.S. $60 [2,900 pesos] for advertising.

Army, police accounts removed

In addition to China-backed accounts, Facebook also found that the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines were linked to accounts that actively campaigned against the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed-wing, the New People's Army.

"We also removed 57 Facebook accounts, 31 pages and 20 Instagram accounts for violating our policy against foreign or government interference which is coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity. This network originated in the Philippines and focused on domestic audiences," the statement read.

This cluster, which used "fake accounts to evade enforcement," was most active in 2019 and 2020. The accounts posted in Filipino and English about local news and events including domestic politics and military activities against terrorism.

They spent "around $1,100 in spending ads on Facebook, paid for in [53,400] Philippine pesos," Facebook said.

"Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to Philippine military and Philippine police," Facebook said.

These accounts targeted youth activists and the opposition. They uploaded several posts on the controversial anti-terrorism bill. More than 30 petitioners have questioned the bill's constitutionality before the Supreme Court.

The Philippine military denied that accounts maintained by them were removed.

"The AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] upholds truth and accountability of network and SocMed [social media] account managers as to the contents of postings in our websites, pages and accounts," military spokesman. Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Facebook's Philippine policy team led by Clare Amador met with Philippine military chief Gilbert Gapay in what was described as an "opportunity" to establish how the armed forces could work with the social media platform.

"We are pleased to inform you that we have similar advocacies with FB, among them the fight against drug trafficking, child exploitation and counter terrorism," the military said.

In March 2019, Facebook took down a cluster of 200 fake accounts operated by Nic Gabunada, the man identified by news reports as the strategist behind Duterte's social media campaign. Facebook said the accounts violated rules on fraudulent activities.

Facebook said at the time that the accounts linked to Gabunada were "designed to look independent, but in fact we can see that they were coordinated." These accounts spent at least $59,000 (2.86 million pesos) on advertisements.

An estimated 74 million people used Facebook in the Philippines as of 2019, official government statistics showed.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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