Twelve senators have sought for a Senate probe on troll farms described as “dangerous to democracy and trolling considered as “lying and evil.”

Sen. Francis Pangilinan cited reports that public funds are oiling the operation of troll farms that spread fake news and misinformation on social media.

Aside from Pangilinan, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, and Senators Nancy Binay, Leila de Lima, Richard Gordon, Risa Hontiveros, Panfilo Lacson, Emmanuel Pacquiao, Grace Poe and Joel Villanueva signed the proposed  Senate Resolution 768 asking the appropriate committee to conduct an inquiry on the alleged state-backed and state-funded spreaders of fake information that affect millions of Filipinos.

“Filipinos should know why government spends public funds on troll farm operators disguised as ‘public relations practitioners’ and ‘social media consultants’ who sow fake news rather than on Covid-19 assistance, health care, food security, jobs protection, education, among others,” stated the resolution.

Pangilinan, who is the most trolled senator, stressed that misinformation and fake news do harm to the country grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We must not let pass the use of taxpayers’ money to malign and harass people who are critical to the government,” said Pangilinan.

Earlier, Lacson alleged that “a government undersecretary has been organizing internet troll farms across the country to target political rivals or those not aligned with President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.”

The senators said the allegation should not be dismissed because of the Filipinos’ heavy use of social media sites such as Facebook, making them vulnerable to the trolls’ fake information.

Advertising firms We are Social and Hootsuite, in their 2020 annual report, found that Filipinos spend an average of four hours and 15 minutes each day on social media – topping the world rankings for the sixth straight year. The Philippines is also highest in the world in internet usage with an average of 10 hours and 56 minutes.

 “Trolling is lying. It is evil, especially that we have an upcoming election. If people elect a president and other officials because of the fake information spread by paid trolls, then similarly we will have a fake president and fake officials,” Pangilinan said.

 “Invest in real farms of vegetables and fruits, not troll farms,” he added.

Villanueva said  trolls are weapons of mass distraction.  He said the seeds of falsehood they plant ripen into hate ready to be harvested by those who are harmed by the truth. 

“When they peddle anti-vaccine information, the repercussions are literally deadly,” said Villanueva.

“I believe all political groups should commit to a troll disarmament,” he further stated.

He said democracy can only flourish under the free and frank exchange of ideas, that may clash as they often do but they must always be anchored in facts.

Earlier, the  Department of Finance also awarded a PHP909,122 communications strategy consultancy contract to a public relations practitioner who was tagged by Facebook itself as the “operator behind a pro-Duterte fake account network which Facebook took down in March 2019.”

A social media troll is “someone who creates conflict on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit by posting messages that are particularly controversial or inflammatory with the sole intent of provoking an emotional response from other users,” the resolution said.

Meanwhile,  Lacson said the  Comelec’s regulation of political ads in social media on those who officially become candidates upon filing of the Certificate of Candidacy (COC) is fair for everybody. 

He said this is  fair especially for those who have less campaign funds.

He considered a welcome development the poll body’s decision since it won’t put the administration candidates at an advantage, as they are always presumed to have more than enough resources at their disposal.

Sen. Imee Marcos said she was perplexed by Comelec’s assertion, although they do have broad rule-making powers covering campaign finance. 

“While I am no election lawyer, my understanding is that toting social media expenses immediately upon the October  filing will be in violation of existing laws and jurisprudence,” she said.

Marcos noted that the campaign period is very well-defined, which is 90 days from day of election for national candidates and 45 days for local candidates. 

She said the Supreme Court also decriminalized premature campaigning. 

“To consider expenses of those who filed COC in October is to say that they are already candidates, which is not the intent of our laws and may have serious implications later on,” pointed out Marcos.