Just before 8 p.m. on the evening of August 17, Zara Alvarez and her two housemates stepped out of a market in a suburb of Bacolod, a city on Negros Island in the central Philippines. Alvarez, 39, wore black leggings, black basketball shoes, and a black T-shirt with the legend “From the Other Side.” In press photos taken later that night, the rain was so heavy that the streetlights diffused into the murk, each bulb looking like a swollen moon. The women hurried toward their home, a boarding house on nearby Santa Maria Street. In the dark and the downpour, they didn’t see that they were being followed. As they reached their road, a man approached and fired three shots into Alvarez, who fell. He fired three more times at her prone body and fled, jumping onto a waiting motorcycle.
“I’ve covered a lot of murders like that,” says Nonoy Espina, a veteran journalist from Bacolog, the chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and a friend of Alvarez’s. “But when it’s someone you know …” He trails off.
There were two versions of Zara Alvarez. There was the real Alvarez, a prolific human rights activist who worked tirelessly on behalf of communities on Negros Island, despite relentless threats and intimidation. And there was the version that appeared on social media — Zara Alvarez, Communist sympathizer and terrorist, a dangerous enemy of the state.
Her killer hasn’t been identified, but those who knew her say Alvarez was a victim of what is known in the Philippines as “red-tagging.” In 2018, her name appeared on a list published by the country’s Department of Justice of more than 600 people accused of being members of a violent Communist insurgency. The list, which includes journalists, activists, and opposition politicians, was repeatedly challenged in court and, over the next two years, dwindled to just two names. But even for those who had appeared on it only briefly, the lie was persistent. Accusations against Alvarez continued to circulate on pro-government Facebook pages, along with threats of violence. On the day she was murdered, a funeral had been held in Manila for Randall Echanis, an activist and left-wing politician — also on the DOJ’s list — who was tortured and killed in his home in Quezon City.
Under President Rodrigo Duterte, such falsehoods, emanating from the heart of his government, have become routine. The president, his spokespeople, his ministers, and his surrogates habitually make or repeat unfounded accusations against their opponents, while broadcasting inflated or entirely fabricated accounts of their own success. Those claims — in fact, almost the entirety of the country’s mainstream political discourse — are mediated through Facebook, which is used by 97% of Filipinos with internet access.
That has given the platform an outsize influence in Filipino politics, even as it tries to stay above the fray, declining to fact-check political figures and relying instead on its highly subjective “community standards” to police threats of violence.
This is a story playing out all over the world — and very visibly in the U.S., which is in the middle of a divisive election campaign that has been fueled by conspiracy theories and fought on the basis of wildly different interpretations of reality. But in the Philippines, Facebook’s equivocations are uniquely dangerous, as falsehoods feed back into an aggressive political culture that has encouraged the extrajudicial killing of thousands of citizens.
“I’m not sure what [Facebook] should do. I’m against censorship of any kind,” Espina says. “But, definitely, they’re not doing enough to prevent the spread of fake news. There’s just too many lies to expose. And some of these lies, like red-tagging, have proven to be fatal.”
Alvarez is the 13th member of the human rights coalition Karapatan to have been murdered since Duterte came to power in 2016. Their deaths follow a pattern. First, lies about them enter the public sphere. Their faces appear on posters and flyers, warning that they are terrorists or Communist sympathizers. Then the lies spread to social media, where they are amplified through pro-government accounts. Then threats start to come via SMS. It usually ends one of two ways: arrest on some tenuous charge or death.
“If you’re branded, it means that you’re fair game,” says Cristina Palabay, Karapatan’s secretary general. “It means that you’re a combatant. Even if it is not true.”
In Duterte’s Philippines — at least, the vision of it he has been broadcasting relentlessly since his 2016 presidential run — everyone is a combatant. It is the same fiction he began pushing in the campaign, that of a country in the thrall of violent drug dealers, Communists, and terrorists, which could be saved only by a strongman willing to take up arms himself.
Duterte, for nearly two decades the mayor of the city of Davao in the troubled southern Philippine state of Mindanao, fits the bill as a classic law-and-order strongman, strutting, aggressive, and constantly accompanied by rumors of vigilante death squads and extrajudicial killings. “He had two decades of perfecting [his persona] on the very frontiers of the Philippine nation-state,” says political analyst Richard Heydarian, author of a biography of the president.
Despite his age — at 71, he was the oldest person ever elected to the presidency — Duterte and his camp proved startlingly adept at using social media to project his version of reality. Thanks to “Free Basics” — gratis, limited access to data, provided through the Facebook app — tens of millions of Filipinos have come online, and in particular onto Facebook, which is at once their internet-service provider and the front page of their internet. While more traditional, technocratic candidates and their supporters coldly disseminated information on the platform, Duterte’s cheerleaders were able to reach something deeper in the electorate, creating then amplifying their fears.
“There’s something about the limbic resonance of what they do,” Heydarian says. “There’s something about the libidinal traction that their posts have. It’s more visceral. It’s even sexier, in a twisted way.”
It is likely that Duterte had expert help in his campaign. Strategic Communications Limited, parent company of the disgraced political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, boasted on its website that it had helped an unnamed candidate in the 2016 Philippines election by “rebrand[ing] the client as a strong, no-nonsense man of action.” But real people also propelled Duterte into Malacañang, the country’s presidential palace, caught up in the rage and fear that the candidate projected.
Once he got into office, Duterte set about deepening the narrative that he had created on Facebook and imposing it on the real world.
“In the election, Duterte used Facebook,” says Maria Ressa, cofounder and CEO of Rappler, a news site that has been chronicling online disinformation in the Philippines since 2016. “After he was elected and the drug war began, Facebook was weaponized.”
Some of Duterte’s trollish cheerleaders were brought into government. In 2017, he appointed Mocha Uson — a former singer whose pop-culture-and-sex-advice Facebook page pivoted to become a pro-Duterte blog ahead of the election — as assistant press secretary. Uson’s page has repeatedly been accused of spreading falsehoods.
(Uson subsequently resigned, ran for congress, lost, and then resurfaced in 2019, when she accompanied Duterte on a state visit to Russia, in a new government role. She is currently under investigation for allegedly breaching a law aimed at preventing the spread of misinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic.)
From inside government, Uson and others like her continued to pump out the same frightening and often fictitious narratives. In one much-criticized incident, Uson used a picture of a murder victim from Brazil as “evidence” of drug-related violence in the Philippines. The president’s campaign spokesperson, Peter Tiu Laviña, also shared the image.
It was a short step from advocating violence to enacting it; the killings began almost immediately after Duterte arrived in Malacañang. Having established that it was right to kill the drug users he said were terrorizing society, the president gave the people his blessing to go out and do it. Anyone who stood up to the policy faced a torrent of abuse.
“How do you normalize killing? You use Facebook,” Ressa says. “Anyone who questioned the drug war was pummeled on Facebook, so people became quiet. When people are quiet, the norm becomes the propaganda that was seeded, which was ‘It’s OK to kill.’ That’s something that I would never have expected Filipinos to accept, but I watched it happen.”
Officially, more than 5,500 “drug offenders” have been killed by police since Duterte took power. However, human rights groups estimate that, in total, 27,000 people have died in the wave of vigilantism, as security forces take the opportunity to settle scores with impunity.
With the lawless, brutal society that he had envisioned now firmly established, Duterte and his administration are turning the weight of his fictions on the people who have challenged or exposed them.
As in the election, Facebook is the platform on which this unsettling of Filipino reality has played out. The lies often come straight out of the official organs of state. Alex Monteagudo, the director general of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, routinely shares images on Facebook of opposition politicians, calling them “communist terrorist provocateurs” and “terrorist mafias.”
The Facebook page of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, a body created by Duterte in 2018, contains a stream of “reds-under-the-bed” paranoia. Among those it has falsely named as Communist provocateurs or terrorist sympathizers are politicians from the left-wing Makabayan bloc and an 80-year-old Benedictine nun.
In October, the task force’s spokesperson, Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr., was accused of red-tagging the actor Liza Soberano after she spoke at an event for Gabriela Youth, a women’s rights group associated with an opposition political party. Parlade warned that Soberano, a popular movie and TV star, could face the same fate as a Gabriela Youth activist who was killed in a firefight between the army and suspected Communist guerillas in 2017.
The accusations have inevitably led to murders. The Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, a local watchdog, is currently investigating the deaths of 89 human rights activists between 2017 and 2019.
“It started with the labelling of people as drug offenders. … And then he went after critics, tagging them with labels like terrorist, or communist sympathizers,” Karapatan’s Palabay says. “The climate of fear needed to be driven by something. There needed to be bogeymen to drive that narrative. Unfortunately, they needed us. They needed the journalists, they needed the opposition, to paint a picture of a dangerous atmosphere: to justify the violence.”
Last May, the President of the Philippines told journalists that Ellen Tordesillas, the co-founder of the investigative journalism outfit Vera Files, was “every inch a prostitute.”
Since 2016, Vera Files has been systematically fact-checking statements by politicians in the Philippines, wading through the flood of disinformation coming out of the government — that washing masks with gasoline would disinfect them; that Duterte’s political opponent, Senator Trillanes, had overseas bank accounts stuffed with ill-gotten millions; that a signature economic policy had created 4.5 million new jobs.
“He keeps us busy, Duterte,” Tordesillas says dryly.
Debunking the lies coming out of Malacañang has put Vera Files and Tordesillas in the firing line. The Duterte administration has worked hard to delegitimize the organizations that hold him to account, using regulatory attacks, libel charges, and naked threats of violence to shut down critical media. In 2019, Tordesillas was named by Duterte as part of a sprawling “matrix” of conspirators trying to oust him from office.
Tordesillas is tough, having cut her teeth as a reporter under the Marcos administration, when journalists brought toiletries to work so that when, inevitably, they were arrested, they would be comfortable for the first few nights in jail. But even she finds it hard to brush off being painted as a coupist by the president.
“It was hilarious, in a way. It was a complete falsehood,” she says. “But the fact that it came from Malacañang means it’s not something that you dismiss.”
Since 2018, Vera Files, along with Rappler, has been an official partner of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking operation in the Philippines.
Under that initiative, organizations certified by the International Fact-Checking Network, a unit of the Poynter Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit, independently verify or debunk contentious statements posted on Facebook, rating them according to a scale set by the social media platform. Their findings are displayed via tags placed next to posts, warning users if the content is entirely or partly false, missing context, or has been manipulated.
Bringing independent media organizations into the fold was part of Facebook’s public effort to be more accountable for its social impact, prompted by growing pressure from civil society, regulators, and governments.
Days before Rappler and Vera Files were announced as partners, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had been called to testify before Congress over claims that the personal data of millions of Facebook users had been harvested by Cambridge Analytica.
Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook dramatically reduced third parties’ access to user data, potentially preventing another leak but also limiting the ability of independent academics and organizations like Rappler to monitor trends on the platform. To get access, researchers now have to jump through hoops, applying for conditional Facebook grants before they get access to any data.
“Every time you talk to Facebook, you sign an NDA,” says Aries Arugay, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, who researches populism and social media. “I think a lot of academics and researchers are now put in a place where they have to appease Facebook in one way or another to get the data.”
In background briefings to journalists and activists, Facebook employees talk in broad and idealistic terms about creating free and open spaces for public discourse and giving users the tools to hold those in power to account. They talk in corporate-inflected Davos-speak about accountability, responsibility, and cleaving to human rights standards. However, the company almost never agrees to give on-the-record interviews, such as might allow an unfiltered interrogation of those values.
Facebook has made very visible efforts to identify and dismantle organized misinformation networks and more systematically address hate speech. In September, the company removed several hundred accounts linked to individuals in China and the Philippines, which it said were interfering with Filipino politics. Some were allegedly operated by the military and the police and had been involved in red-tagging of opposition politicians.
However, activists and journalists in the Philippines say that these moves are largely symbolic, since Facebook declines to formally fact-check politicians or government officials, so that it doesn’t interfere with the democratic mechanisms — an approach that did not anticipate that a government could come so untethered from reality as to become a fountainhead of misinformation itself.
Repeatedly spreading falsehoods will not lead to an official page’s being blocked. Instead, regulation of what leaders say rests on Facebook’s Community Standards, a mechanistic and rigid set of guidelines that is more “a list of things that are wrong” than a set of ethical standards, according to Ressa.
That list leaves many gray areas for hate speech “dog whistles” and coded calls for violence to flourish. An account that disputes the efficacy of vaccination or plugs a false cure for Covid-19 could be removed — although suggesting that you use gasoline to disinfect a mask doesn’t cross the line. Anything that “incites or facilitates serious violence” is in breach of the guidelines, but the threat has to be directed rather than general. Calling someone “a Communist” in an environment where Communists are considered combatants does not automatically break the rules.
“Their community standards are atrocious for policing the public sphere,” Ressa says. “Tech people, they have to deconstruct things to the atoms, and then reconstruct them. But guess what? What they’ve reconstructed is crappy.”
Via email, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Our Community Standards apply to everyone on Facebook and we will remove any content that violates these policies, including where there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety. We develop our policies in partnership with academics, safety and human rights NGOs, and activists, who provide us with essential local context.”
In May 2020, Facebook announced the formation of an Oversight Board, including journalists and human rights activists worldwide, that will advise on content moderation. None of its 20 members is from the Philippines. In September, with the U.S. elections looming large, Ressa joined the journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who broke the Cambridge Analytica story for The Guardian, in convening an alternative body calling itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board.
The “real” board was created to pressure Zuckerberg and Facebook staff to change course before the company irreparably wrecks the global public square. Already, Ressa says, it will take a decade to reverse the damage done in the Philippines.
“Facebook is our public sphere,” she says. “It is also the delivery [mechanism] for news. When these two things combine, and the gatekeepers abdicate responsibility, it is a formula for disaster. And that is exactly where we are.”
Echoing Heydarian, Arugay, Palabay, and Tordesillas, Ressa says that the same patterns seen in the Philippines — “ground zero,” according to Heydarian — have subsequently been replicated worldwide, in the U.K., Poland, India, Hungary, and the U.S.
“This country may be the best documented, in terms of charting the transition from Facebook as a force for good and then slipping into a force to kill democracy,” Ressa says. “But I think it’s existential … it’s the biggest problem globally. It’s like an atom bomb exploded.”