Being Right


THAT we have China propagandists amongst us is practically a certainty. And coming at a time when we are locked in a struggle to keep our territories against China’s continuing aggressive tactics all the more emphasizes the dangerous nature of it all.

Just recently, “Facebook’s parent company Meta has removed thousands of accounts with alleged links to China’s communist government engaged in what it claims as the world’s largest known cross-platform covert influence operation,” said Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) in a story (“Meta removes China’s ‘online troll armies’,” UCA News, Aug. 31, 2023). The activities of those accounts usually involved “projecting a positive image of China abroad and targeted Taiwan, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Japan, as well as other countries with sizable Chinese-speaking audiences,” said UCA News.

This should not be a surprise to anyone. China has spent “billions of dollars annually on foreign information manipulation efforts,” using “false or biased information to promote views favorable to it,” said the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center in a special report released on Sept. 28. At same time, China “suppresses critical information that contradicts its desired narratives on issues such as Taiwan, its human rights practices, the South China Sea, its domestic economy, and international economic engagement.” (GEC Special Report: How the People’s Republic of China Seeks to Reshape the Global Information Environment — United States Department of State)

In a 2018 story from The Guardian, it said: “China has rolled out a more sophisticated and assertive strategy, which is increasingly aimed at international audiences. China is trying to reshape the global information environment with massive infusions of money — funding paid-for advertorials, sponsored journalistic coverage and heavily massaged positive messages from boosters.”

In its simplest form, “this involves paying for Chinese propaganda supplements to appear in dozens of respected international publications such as the Washington Post. The strategy can also take more insidious forms, such as planting content from the state-run radio station, China Radio International (CRI), on to the airwaves of ostensibly independent broadcasters across the world, from Australia to Turkey,” says The Guardian report (“Inside China’s audacious global propaganda campaign,” The Guardian, Dec. 7, 2018).

As The Guardian points out: China is “cultivating vocal supporters known as ‘third-party spokespeople’ to deliver Beijing’s message” and, in methods that are highly likely being done in the Philippines as well, bribing journalists or social media content creators “with all-expenses-paid tours and, perhaps most ambitiously of all, free graduate degrees in communication, training scores of foreign reporters each year to ‘tell China’s story well’.”

A known vehicle for Chinese propaganda are the Confucius Institutes, which have been pointed out as a “vehicle for industrial and military espionage, as well as for surveillance of Chinese students studying abroad”* and which the Henry Jackson Society (a trans-Atlantic foreign policy and national security think tank) declared to be “formally part of the propaganda system of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”

While giving the appearance of being “language and culture” centers, research from the Henry Jackson Society (“An investigation of China’s Confucius Institutes in the UK,” 2022) found that only “four of the 30 CIs were sticking entirely to language and culture” and that many are engaged in “noteworthy activity in other areas,” such as “payments to British politicians and political activity; involvement in the establishment of scientific partnerships between British and Chinese universities; and involvement in the production and dissemination of knowledge about China … [plus] a range of programs aimed at businesspeople, political networks, academia and the general public.”

The unfortunately perverse thing about this situation is that, as the Global Engagement Center itself pointed out, “while within China the press is increasingly tightly controlled, abroad Beijing has sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of the free press to its advantage.”

We cannot allow the malicious manipulation of our own laws to be used to limit our ability to defend ourselves. The Supreme Court has long been consistently clear that certain speech can and should be regulated. Child pornography is one, falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is another. There have been various standards laid down by the Supreme Court to determine if certain speech should be silenced: clear and present danger, and the balancing of interests test. There are relatively recent laws against joking about bombs at airports or spreading disinformation about the coronavirus.

We thus need to recognize confidently that, whether it be Philippine or international law, the right to free speech is not absolute. There are inherent limitations to it, of which blasphemy, libel, threats, sedition, and — quite definitely — treason are the obvious examples. And more and more, in these perilous times, we need to be able to ensure that our country’s resolve and purpose to defend itself and its territories remain unshakable.

We therefore need to act fast and act more stringently against anyone acting clearly on behalf of a foreign country, to sow confusion, propagandize in favor of that foreign country (e.g., China), and weaken support for the Philippines and its government.

More to the point: When someone receives the protection, rights, and privileges of Filipino citizenship, and yet declares allegiance or support to either a foreign country against the Philippines or even declares neutrality or non-support for the Philippines, is committing the very definition of treason and should be held accountable for such.

To be clear, the issue is not the expression of mere differing opinions regarding international territorial claims or foreign policy. That is rightly covered by free speech protection.

But when a citizen or local organization declares (impliedly or expressly) allegiance or support to a foreign country or receives funding, endowments, or substantial gifts (e.g., travel, education, promises of employment) from a foreign government (or its agent), with the express or implied purpose of exerting efforts or engaging in speech or activities against the Constitution, Philippine democratic values and principles, and declared State security policy (e.g., upholding the Arbitral Ruling on the West Philippine Sea), then such clearly should be punishable by law.

We need to legislate or amend our laws to meet the present contingencies. If amendments need to be made to the laws on espionage, sedition, and treason — particularly making the latter applicable even in non-war periods — then let’s do so. Another is to create a Congressional Committee on Un-Filipino Activities, previously suggested here (“Congress should investigate un-Filipino activities,” March 2019).

Finally, as also previously suggested here (“Time to end troll armies,” August 2020), it is time for Congress to take a serious look into enacting legislation criminalizing trolls. In this regard, two things need to be looked at: the individual troll and troll armies.

The Cyber Bullying Act needs to be expanded to protect every innocent person. Teachers, professionals, businessmen, writers — they all need to be shielded from trolls. And the law should have sufficient teeth to enable effective prosecution and imposition of the necessary punishment against individual trolls.

On the other hand, troll armies (which defines as when “a group of people assume false identities in order to participate in internet forums and social media to send — or suppress — a specific message”) are even more malignantly harmful, endangering not only an individual’s wellbeing but profoundly society itself.

The fact that troll armies are primarily organized to advance particular politicians’ interests and policies, while demonizing opposing ideas and harassing those they disagree with, makes inutile the very concept of free speech. Trolls and troll armies have no place in a decent democratic society.

To allow them to hide behind the very right they are corrupting, while at the same time denying that right to others, is utterly ludicrous. An avenue worth exploring is prosecution based on election law violations, particularly those requiring supporters or donors that engage in election advertising (which troll armies are crass versions of) to be named, identified, and reported. Another would be working along the same logical lines providing Constitutional rationale for legislation sanctioning conspiracies to commit sedition, rebellion, and terrorism, or business officials for their individual or their corporation’s illegal acts. Thus, Congress would be completely within its mandate to enact laws criminalizing and putting in jail:

• those organizing and paying trolls to bully, ridicule, or silence a person, whether public or private;

• organizing and paying trolls to engage in “virtual mobbing” whereby groups of trolls comment or contact a person, either using harmful or supposedly neutral language, designed to harass or silence that person; and

• individuals that received money to predatorily troll another person as described above.

Bottomline, this is not only a matter involving defense of Philippine rights. As the Global Engagement Center points out, China’s “global information manipulation is not simply a matter of public diplomacy — but a challenge to the integrity of the global information space. Unchecked, Beijing’s efforts could result in a future in which technology exported by the PRC, coopted local governments, and fear of Beijing’s direct retaliation produce a sharp contraction of global freedom of expression.”

* Fabrice de Pierrebourg and Michel Juneau-Katsuya, Nest of Spies: the starting truth about foreign agents at work within Canada’s borders, HarperCollins Canada, 2009. pp 160 – 162.


Jemy Gatdula is a senior fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence

Twitter  @jemygatdula