By Corina Oliquino

MANILA — Opposition Sen. Leila de Lima filed on May 12 Senate Resolution (SR) No. 401 to direct appropriate Senate committees to “verify the veracity of several studies abroad explaining how the Duterte Government organized and operated troll farms to parrot political propaganda using fake or misleading information.”

De Lima noted that SR 401 will look into many studies from think tank groups which uncovered the existence of “covert on-line trolls funded by millions of pesos likely sourced from public coffers,” including Belgium-based Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index’s exposé on alleged call center hubs the Duterte administration have been using to “disseminate fake or maliciously edited content and fake memes” used for targeted harassment campaigns.

In a report by Rappler, the Philippines slipped two places at 136th in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index with the RSF citing the country’s “troll farms, the spread of political intolerance and the lack of appropriate regulation in the era of digitalized and globalized communication.”

The index also cited the government’s intolerance for critical journalism, particularly towards the Philippine Daily Inquirer, ABS-CBN, Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa, due to the country’s show of national-populism.

“The government, for its part, developed several ways to pressure journalists who dare to be overly critical of the summary methods adopted by ‘Punisher’ Duterte and his ‘war on drugs.’ After targeting the (Philippine DailyInquirer, the hot-headed President and his staff waged a grotesque judicial harassment campaign against the news website Rapplerand its editor, Maria Ressa. The leading TV network, ABS-CBN, has also been the target of threats and intimidation by government agencies and institutions that support Duterte,” it said.

“The persecution has been accompanied by on-line harassment campaigns waged by pro-Duterte troll armies, which also launched cyber-attacks on alternative news websites and the site of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, in order to block them. In response to all these attacks, the Philippine independent media have rallied around the call to ‘Hold the line,'” it added.

“(There is a need) to conduct an inquiry into the reports of public funds being spent to pay and maintain on-line trolls to distort and manipulate on-line information in various social media platforms in order to influence public opinion and political outcomes,” De Lima said in a press statement released by the Senate.

“It is against the interests of our country to fund on-line trolls who manipulate on-line discussions on national issues for political ends. These funds are better spent on education, alleviating poverty and improving our healthcare system,” she added.

SR 401 will also look into a 2017 report from the University of Oxford which claimed the Duterte administration “used a total of $200,000 to hire trolls to spread propaganda and to target Duterte’s political opponents,” as well as a report from US-based human rights group Freedom House which said the government has been paying individual trolls up to ₱500 a day to operate fake social media accounts supporting President Duterte or attacking his critics.

De Lima noted that some troll armies are being led by bloggers and social media personalities appointed in various government posts for their “rabid support” of Duterte, adding some of them remain “admins” of blogs and social media pages known to propagate fake news.

“With the seemingly consistent findings of various studies of state-backed ‘troll armies’ in the Philippines, it is imperative for Congress to verify the integrity of these reports and probe if any appropriated government funds are used to maintain and pay on-line trolls by various bloggers and social media personalities with their capacity as appointed officials in various government agencies or by the President himself under various discretionary budgets under his office,” De Lima said.

“Manipulation of public opinion through misinformation diminishes the level and quality of our national conversation and is ultimately detrimental to our democracy,” she added.