Poor Nic Gabunada. He is being crucified for being good at what he does. Gabunada, a former ABS-CBN research specialist, is credited with harnessing social media to help President Rodrigo Duterte win in the 2016 elections.
Recently, the administrators of the social media behemoth took down several Facebook and Instagram pages and allegedly fake accounts “for misleading others who they were and what they were doing.” Instagram is also owned by Facebook.
Gabunada has been linked to these accounts. According to media reports, “Facebook removed a total of 220 pages, 73 accounts, and 29 Instagram accounts. Among the pages taken down were Trending News Portal and Filipino Channel Online which had millions of followers, carried false information, including fake news against known opposition figures.
“It also announced the banning of Twinmark Media Enterprises, a digital marketing group from the Philippines for repeatedly violating the social media giant’s misrepresentation and spam policies, through actions that included ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior, the use of fake accounts, leading people to ad farms, and selling access to Facebook Pages to artificially increase distribution and generate profit.’”
At a media briefing, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said that the accounts and pages “were designed to look independent, but in fact we can see that they were coordinated on the back” and that they “work(ed) together to mislead others about who they are and what they are doing.”
Continued Gleicher, “What we saw is this cluster of these pages, groups and accounts — a combination of authentic and fake accounts — that were basically being used to drive messaging on behalf of and related to political candidates. They were designed to look independent, but in fact they are working together…They would post about local and political news, they will post about the upcoming elections, candidate views. A lot of the messaging were supporting candidates they were working in behalf of, some would be attacking political opponents of those candidates.”
Gabunada, while denying any connection with the questionable FB accounts, has complained that he and the group behind the accounts have been unfairly singled out because of their support for Duterte and administration candidates in the forthcoming elections.
Indeed, the question that deserves to be asked is: Aren’t the opposition or anti-Duterte social media postings equally questionable?
This brings to mind the only truthful statement that has been recently made by a politician, namely presidential daughter and Davao City mayor Sara Duterte to the effect that “all politicians lie.” (in the spirit of truthfulness, she did not exclude herself).
In this context, Malacañang spokesman Salvador Panelo denied having anything to do with the social media culprits. Said Panelo (with a straight face, we may assume): “I don’t think the President has anything to do with those Facebook accounts, which were initiated during the campaign or even during the assumption of his presidency. He doesn’t know anything about it.”
It makes you wonder who is more habitually truthful — Panelo or Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders.
With due respect to Gabunada, I don’t think there is any need for him to deny that he has anything to do with the questionable Facebook accounts and to insist that his name was linked to them without his permission or knowledge. He should hold his head high and declare with righteous indignation that anyone who wants to gain an advantage in politics has a right to be better than competition at harnessing social media. To use a cliché, it’s like building a better mousetrap.
Indeed, the administrators of Facebook will have more success cleansing the Aegean stables than strictly limiting the use of social media to positive, pristine, puritanical, truthful, benign and charitable purposes.
If they want to be absolutely strict about the truthful usage of social media, President Donald Trump should be forever banned from using Twitter. The Lying King and Lord of the Lies would probably have withdrawal symptoms if he were to stop lying in his tweets.
But Trump did not invent the Art of Lying. Nor was he the first to use the Internet and social media, as well as traditional media, as channels for punitive or self-serving political purposes.
The euphemism being used before was “communications management,” meaning the technique of managing and influencing the beliefs, attitudes and opinions of targeted publics through the “strategic” placement of messages in mass media. The advent of social media simply made the process easier to implement and the messages more widely and instantaneously disseminated.
In this regard, it may be assumed that the Russians have been experts in online “communications management” for some time, at least well before Trump ran for president. They simply spotted a likely asset in Trump because of his obsession with building a Trump tower in Moscow.
Like the Facebook administrators uncovering the questionable social media accounts in the Philippines, the team of special counsel Bob Mueller also exposed the Russian troll farm that had deployed moles and assets to influence the US elections.
But if you think that the US has been a helpless, hapless victim of the Russians, the Central Intelligence Agency will probably have a good laugh at that perception. Indeed, in this world of contending super powers, the name of the game is Spy vs. Spy.
There’s one more online trick that deserves to be uncovered. It’s Google bombing, the tactic of feeding a term or descriptive phrase online and associating it with a specific individual. During the incumbency of President George W. Bush, whenever one used a search engine and keyed in the words “miserable failure” or “incompetent,” the name George W. Bush would pop up. That was because these descriptions were purposely and maliciously associated with him.
Today, if you were to key in “mass killings in war on drugs,” the Philippines would pop up along with President Rodrigo Duterte. And if you key in “Filipina women,” unflattering entries pop up about our women (“for dating,” “5 reasons why Filipina women marry older foreign men”).
At any rate, it is one of life’s greatest ironies that such a marvelous development as the Internet and social media, with their ability to facilitate instantaneous communications worldwide and to wonderfully reconnect long lost friends and families, are being used to spread lies and disinformation, not just in politics but in everything else that people get involved in.
But the good outweighs the bad.
Wasn’t it social media that ignited the 2011 uprising against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak? Would the Arab Spring have been possible without social media?
If social media had been available during the long years of the Marcos dictatorship (instead of just the mosquito press), wouldn’t People Power have happened sooner?
And speaking of the Marcos dictatorship, during the period of martial law, only a few courageous media people, chief among them Joe Burgos, Jr. of We Forum and Malaya, had the capacity to air their criticism of the regime. But if social media had been available at the time, the flood of attacks against Marcos and his minions would have reached tsunami proportions.
Of course, we can assume that the Marcos information machinery would have gone into full gear and would have organized a battalion of trolls, as well as controlled social media accounts, pages and postings. Facebook would have become Fakebook.
Doubtless, such sharp minds as those of Kit Tatad and Greg Cendaña would have matched the brilliance of Nic Gabunada.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.