MANILA, Philippines – After the Commission on Elections (Comelec) announced its partnership with Rappler for the 2022 Philippine elections, many newly-created Twitter accounts tweeted the hashtag #NotoComelecRappler, amplifying false information on the nature of the agreement.
Mostly made by supporters of the presidential and vice presidential tandem of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte, the posts supported Solicitor General Jose Calida’s moves to quash the memorandum of agreement.
Rappler scanned 13,287 tweets, retweets, and quote retweets containing the hashtag, and found them full of disinformation seeded by Calida and Marcos’ camp that could mislead voters.
On February 23, Rappler and Comelec announced that they were to sign a memorandum of agreement (MOA) for a series of election-related projects geared towards making truthful information more accessible to the public and promoting transparency and accountability in the electoral process. They signed the MOA on February 24.
Among the projects agreed are a fact-checking initiative, a podcast show and webinars, educational materials on the elections, and embedding Comelec’s online precinct finder on the Rappler website.
Comelec has similar partnerships with other media groups. Comelec Spokesperson James Jimenez said, “Rappler is not getting any special information, it’s not getting any special treatment, it’s not getting special information that would not be available to any other media networks.”
On February 28, the camp of Marcos and Calida both spoke out against the partnership and echoed each other in their statements. Calida threatened to file a case in court to void the MOA if Comelec would not rescind it by Monday, March 7.
They falsely accused Rappler of being a foreign entity and therefore the MOA is a violation of the constitution. Rappler is wholly owned by Filipino journalists and investors. (READ: Marcos and Calida in sync anew, this time vs Rappler’s Comelec deal)
On the same day, promotions for a #NoToComelecRappler Twitter party showed up on the platform, making use of a graphic bearing the username @UTLforBBM, with UTL meaning “United Twitter Loyalist.” The account has since been suspended by Twitter for violating platform rules.
It is a similar handle to @UTLoyalist, which was one of the accounts known to have started the #LabanMarcos Twitter party in January 2022. (READ: Marcos network tries to take over Twitter with freshly-made accounts)
One of the first accounts to spread the graphic was @mikemike_024, an account created in January 2022. Another account that reposted the graphic was @yourcoach_jaylo, which was created only in February 2022. Their two tweets were posted within an hour of each other.
Their tagline read: “We want clean election.”
Out of a sample of 2,869 unique users, which tweeted the hashtag #NoToComelecRappler or retweeted tweets with it, Rappler saw a spike in newly-created accounts in October 2021, as well as the first two months of 2022.
Disinformation on the MOA
Apart from the usual attacks and lies about Rappler – such as accusations of it being a “foreign entity,” “biased,” or it being the “least trusted” media organization in the Philippines – several false claims were also made on the nature of its agreement with Comelec.
One of the most retweeted posts using the hashtag was by @DuterteSara on March 1, which said, “Comelec should take back Rappler’s access to confidential voters’ information.” Hashtags for the Marcos-Sara Duterte tandem were also included in the tweet.
The agreement for Rappler to carry Comelec’s precinct finder tool doesn’t give Rappler access to the voters’ list or any other Comelec database. Rappler – and any other third-party website partnering with the poll body – is only provided an embed code. Other news groups may also apply to “host” the tool. (READ: FAST FACTS: Comelec’s precinct finder)
Users tried to connect the Comelec-Rappler partnership now with past election issues, such as the database leak in 2016 – the election where President Rodrigo Duterte won – and the vice presidential electoral protest filed by Marcos, which has been unanimously junked by the Supreme Court.
One user expressed concern that their name might get deleted from the list of voters. This is an unfounded fear since the precinct finder will only yield the precinct number assigned to the name that will be typed into the tool. It cannot access Comelec’s voters’ list.
The post, however, shows that disinformation may affect people’s willingness to participate in the elections. (READ: Unverified claims online have real-world consequences, voters warned)
A lot of tweets expressed support for Calida, without verifying the claims he made in his statement.
Attacking CNN, promoting SMNI
The MOA with Rappler was announced a few days before the CNN Philippines Vice Presidential and Presidential Debates, and some accounts used the #NoToComelecRappler hashtag to spread negative comments about CNN as well. Marcos and Sara were the only candidates absent from those debates.
In an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel on Friday, March 4, Rappler Maria Ressa said what the Marcos camp was doing was clearly a deflection.
“This was deflection. Ferdinand Marcos Jr is somebody I’ve known through the years. Go, run. But run honestly. Stay with the facts. The reason this was deflection is that this was used Monday, the day after the candidate did not show up at a debate,” Ressa said.
She also said: “Anyone running a campaign should know the difference between access to data and embed. P’wede naman mag-Google para ‘di naman nakakahiya ang sinasabi ‘nyo. That statement either shows, ignorance, incompetence or intent.”
Some of the Twitter users we scanned took the opportunity to promote Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), which is owned by Apollo Quiboloy, the preacher who is wanted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation for sex trafficking, among other alleged crimes.
SMNI had hosted its own presidential debate on February 15, which most candidates didn’t join. It was the only debate that Marcos had attended so far after Quiboloy endorsed him and Duterte.
SMNI has a track record of enabling the red-tagging of government critics, attacking the media, sharing misleading information, and giving a platform to hyper-partisan figures. (READ: Quiboloy’s SMNI fuels disinformation, online attacks on gov’t critics)
Planning Twitter parties is not a new tactic, but it raises concerns when conducted by dubious accounts. Twitter prohibits inauthentic engagements and coordinated activity, and has suspended over 300 accounts in January from Marcos’ supporter base due to violations of the same policy.
These manipulations pose a greater risk to voters, as these can be misleading and affect their ability to access truthful information on how to vote in the coming elections. – with reports from Dylan Salcedo/Rappler.com