On 22 September 2020, Facebook removed some 212 accounts, 42 pages, 9 groups, and 26 Instagram accounts that were supposedly part of two separate networks engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on behalf of foreign (i.e., China) and/or government entities (i.e., Philippines). According to Facebook, there is proof to suggest that the local network was linked to the military and the police.
Understandably, the mass takedown earned a mix set of responses. For critics of the administration, it afforded an opportunity to resurface previous evidence of the Duterte government’s involvement in intricate networks of disinformation. Meanwhile, both the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) vehemently denied ownership of the affected accounts and pages. That may have been for naught, though, since Duterte himself appeared to confirm the link when, during one of his late-night speeches, he hurled warnings against Facebook for its action, which he perceived as “promoting the cause of [the] rebellion.” According to him, if the company wouldn’t let the government push its agenda on its platform, he is certain to have a word with them. His spokesperson would later comment that the President’s supporters will find other platforms for their information dissemination needs.
Allies of the chief executive were also quick to rally behind his threats. Alan Peter Cayetano, Speaker of the House of Representatives, announced that the lower chamber of Congress would launch an investigation into Facebook’s actions, referring to them as a “partisan move” against the Philippine government. Some supporters even echoed calls to completely ban or block Facebook in the country.
The renewed outrage against the social media giant comes on the heels of another movement calling for radical change in the tech industry, spurred by the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma. Told through alternating interviews and dramatic sequences, the film unpacks how digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are designed to manipulate users’ emotions and attention. It presents insights from former employees of these companies, which form the narrative that Big Tech has taken on a life of its own and has grown out of control. Digital platforms which were originally designed to build human connections now actually facilitate human rights violations and, quite possibly, the fall of democracy around the world.
While the problem is serious and daunting, banning a platform like Facebook is not the simple solution some people make it out to be—especially for a country with as many active users as the Philippines. A large number of Filipinos (particularly those in the lower socioeconomic classes) consider the social media platform as the most affordable gateway to the internet today. For them, Facebook is the internet. To take it away—especially during these times when access to basic needs rely on internet access—is tantamount to depriving them access to essential goods and services.
Certainly, proposals to ban or even just regulate social media are not new. In this 18th Congress alone, there are at least 25 House Bills and Resolutions on the subject, with proposals ranging from the inclusion of social media literacy in the primary and secondary education curricula, to the creation of a social media regulatory board, to mandating the authentication of social media accounts using identity cards or barangay certificate numbers.
The core and recurring issue, however, remains the same: should government be allowed to regulate social media platforms? And if so, where does one draw the line? How do we ensure that regulation doesn’t result in the curtailment of civil liberties like free speech? For rights advocates, the term, “social media regulation,” tends to be a red flag. When governments make references to it, what they’re usually after is “content moderation.”
The people behind The Social Dilemma have an idea. Despite the film’s mostly critical view towards Big Tech, the interviews it features end on a somewhat hopeful note. Many people agree that the core problem is that Big Tech companies are trapped in a flawed business model, compounded by a remarkable lack of regulation quite unlike other industries. The solution, therefore, requires a successful shift in thinking from regulating the content hosted by internet platforms to regulating the platforms themselves for the business entities that they are.
In the Philippine context, two relatively young regulatory bodies bear this potential: the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC) and the National Privacy Commission (NPC). On paper at least, the NPC has already made a couple of attempts to take Facebook to account for its exploitative data processing practices. The first one came in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica breach, while the more recent effort relates to the account takedowns. Unfortunately, the agency’s actions appear to be nothing more than press statements and reminders to comply with the country’s Data Privacy Act. Meanwhile, the PCC has had its fair share of work involving digital platforms like ride-sharing and e-commerce apps, but has not looked into social networks, thus far. That’s unfortunate since if there’s any market in the digital economy that’s dominated right now by a few big companies, it’s probably social media. There is also room to explore the relationship of Facebook with telcos and internet service providers, particularly the effect of their social media data bundles on the kind of internet access they provide.
Today, there is no getting around the fact that Facebook, for all its purported benefits, is afflicted with more than just a handful of issues. Most emanate from its possession of so much data about people’s lives, despite us knowing very little about how it actually works—what it does with those data, how it makes decisions that impact the way we view the world, etc. What recent events tell us, though, is that we need big platforms like Facebook to be regulated. It is not to give governments control over them, but rather to give people the transparency and accountability they deserve. Untangling the web of problems Facebook and other companies have created can and will often be intimidating, but charting new courses in data protection and competition law presents a good start towards solving this one major social dilemma of our time.
Jessamine Pacis is a Program Officer at the Foundation for Media Alternatives. While she works mostly in the areas of privacy and data protection, she also takes interest in related fields like digital labor, cybercrime, and freedom of expression.