A US-based human rights watchdog has claimed that the Philippine government has been employing what it called a "keyboard army" that is specifically paid to make it appear the Duterte administration's controversial and deadly war on drugs has been gaining widespread public support.
A study of internet freedom in 65 countries by human rights group Freedom House found 30 governments are deploying some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year.
These efforts included paid commentators, trolls, "bots" — the name given to automated accounts — false news sites and propaganda outlets.
"Reports of commenters paid to manipulate the online information landscape increased during the coverage period. News reports citing individuals involved said the commenters, which they characterized as part of a ‘keyboard army,’ could earn at least PHP500 (US$10) a day operating fake social media accounts supporting President Rodrigo Duterte or attacking his detractors," read the report.
"Other reports put the figure at PhP2,000-3,000 ($40-60) a day.48 Some reports noted the use of automated accounts or bots to spread political content.49 Similar content was also posted by volunteers," it added.
The report quoted several news reports detailing the Duterte campaign's use of paid commenters to create the impression of widespread support for his candidacy and his eventual policies.
The report said similar accounts remained active in 2017, "amplifying the impression of widespread support for his brutal crackdown on the drug trade."
"Many of the accounts ‘continue to spread and amplify messages of support of [Duterte’s] policies now he’s in power,’ though it is not clear whether they are working with official government channels," read the report.
The report also noted the cyberattacks on websites run by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
The report, however, noted that under the DUterte administration, internet access continued to improve as President Rodrigo Duterte announced an ICT infrastructure investment that is expected to expand services over the next decade.
The report also cited Turkey's use of an estimated 6,000 people to counter government opponents on social media.
The human rights watchdog said more governments are following the lead of Russia and China by manipulating social media and suppressing dissent online in a grave threat to democracy.
GMA News Online is still trying to reach the Palace for its comment.
The 2017 "Freedom on the Net" report said online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States.
"The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
"The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating."
Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project, explained such manipulation is often hard to detect, and "more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking."
The organization said 2017 marked a seventh consecutive year of overall decline in internet freedom, as a result of these and other efforts to filter and censor information online.
China is worst, again
Freedom House said China was the world's worst abuser of internet freedom for a third straight year, due to stepped-up online censorship, a new law cracking down on anonymity online and the imprisonment of dissidents using the web.
Meanwhile, as Russia sought to spread disinformation to influence elections in the US and Europe, the Kremlin also tightened its internal controls, the report said.
Bloggers who attract more than 3,000 daily visitors must register their personal details with the Russian government and abide by the law regulating mass media -- while search engines and news aggregators are banned from including stories from unregistered outlets.
The study also found governments in at least 14 countries restricted internet freedom in a bid to address content manipulation. In one such example, Ukraine blocked Russia-based services, including the country's most widely used social network and search engine, in an effort to crack down on pro-Russian propaganda.
"When trying to combat online manipulation from abroad, it is important for countries not to overreach," Kelly said.
"The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary. Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline."
Freedom House expressed concern over growing restrictions on VPNs — virtual private networks which allow circumvention of censors — which are now in place in 14 countries.
It said internet freedom also took a hit in United States over the past year. — Agence France-Presse/MDM, GMA News