State-sponsored hate: The rise of the pro-Duterte bloggers

Natashya Gutierrez
Pro-Duterte bloggers receive unusual privileges from the Presidential Communications Operations Office to consolidate support for the popular president and silence critics

AT A GLANCE

  • The most high-profile, vitriolic pro-Duterte bloggers were given government positions or hired as consultants using public funds
  • Pro-Duterte propagandists are being given special treatment by the PCOO, according to insiders, which includes Malacañang accreditation, use of government resources, and cash allowances
  • An interim accreditation policy will allow pro-Duterte bloggers to continue using profanity in their posts, often targeting administration critics and media

MANILA, Philippines – “Leni, you are stupid. You and your whole staff are stupid. You’re all sons of bitches.”

These were the words of hardcore President Rodrigo Duterte supporter Mocha Uson during a national broadcast – directed toward no less than Vice President Leni Robredo, a leader of the opposition. Uson’s hateful comments led to the cancellation of her radio show.

Another pillar of the propaganda machine, RJ Nieto, author of pro-Duterte Facebook page Thinking Pinoy, speaks in a similar vitriolic manner. In a Facebook Live Video addressing what he referred to as “the fucking Malacañang press corps” – the group of journalists accredited to cover the President – Nieto cursed at the media, and repeatedly flashed his middle finger.

“You Malacañang Press Corps, you act like you’re for the Filipino people, but you’re sons of bitches!” he said to the camera. 

CURSING BLOGGERS. RJ Nieto, who is now a government consultant, has constantly cursed the media and Duterte's critics. Screenshot of Nieto's Facebook Live video.

Bruce Rivera, a lawyer and another staunch supporter of Duterte, does not mince his words either. Addressing the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), Rivera also used profanity to attack them.

“You sons of bitches, you are not above the President because he has the support of the people. So you have no right to speak to our constitutionally-elected President in such manner because we elected him and gave him the right to be bastos (rude) to the ills of this society, you included,” he said in a Facebook post.

Uson, Nieto, and Rivera are similar in various ways. Aside from their unwavering support for the President and their hateful tone and messaging, they are also bloggers that this administration has legitimized in various ways – profanity and all.

Uson has since been appointed assistant secretary of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) on the basis of her number of Facebook followers. Duterte himself has confessed that the appointment was payment for a “debt of gratitude” for her backing his presidential bid.

Nieto has also been hired as a social media consultant by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) now headed by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano. The former senator was Duterte’s running mate in the 2016 elections. 

While Nieto did not originally support Cayetano’s vice presidential bid, the former senator strategically courted Nieto throughout the campaign, and gave him an attractive consultancy post to win his favor.

As for Rivera, he and his group, Status: Hot, appear to be easy candidates for accreditation based on the interim policy of the PCOO. The policy is the latest move of Communications Secretary Martin Andanar to legitimize blogger-propagandists who support President Rodrigo Duterte. 

Under this administration, the bloggers, who refer to themselves as Diehard Duterte Supporters (DDS), are legitimized through various ways, including access to those in power, consultancy contracts, and “allowances” from the PCOO.

Sources familiar with PCOO operations said a budget has been set aside specifically for the bloggers, with priority given by Andanar to his DDS groups. The PCOO is also dependent on these bloggers to monitor and control online sentiment toward Duterte, the sources said.

It is a way to consolidate support for the popular president, harnessing influencers online much like what Duterte’s media strategists did during the presidential campaign. 

“Whatever the bloggers were doing during the campaign, they’re still doing the same thing now that Duterte is president. Except now they have government support,” said a communications strategist who worked during the 2016 campaign. “It’s propaganda.”

But this time, its sponsored and funded by the state.

Profanity welcome

The PCOO has also hired Carlos Munda, another Duterte supporter, propagandist, and administrator of the MindaNation website, as a communications consultant. 

The amounts of Nieto’s and Munda’s government consultancies and copies of their contracts have not yet been made public, despite these being paid with government funds.

“I shall publish my contract, including details regarding compensation, on Thinking Pinoy as soon as it is available,” Nieto posted on his Facebook in early July, while talks for his role were ongoing.

“Actually, halos pang-taxi lang ang compensation, P20,000 a month lang tapos subject to tax pa yata, pero ipapublish ko pa rin para transparent.” (Actually, my compensation can barely pay for my taxi rides. Just P20,000 ($400) a month and subject to tax, I think, but I will still publish it for transparency.)

Over a month later, Nieto has yet to publicize his contract, but sources who are knowledgeable about similar government consultancies said the amount Nieto mentioned is much too small for his role, and estimated he can be paid significantly higher.

SPECIAL TREATMENT. Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar has given bloggers special treatment, often using gov't resources. Photo by Toto Lozano/PPD

These insider-sources said the P20,000 amount is especially dubious since Nieto used to receive cash payments of P40,000 for past content creation jobs. 

Uson and Nieto still regularly post content online, which are often filled with hate and anger directed at critics of the Duterte administration. They have also spread false accusations, and typically don’t apologize for spreading disinformation. (READ: Inside Martin Andanar’s man cave)

As for its accreditation policy, the PCOO has said it won’t prohibit bloggers from using profanity online – yet another way to legitimize their hateful content and attacks. The policy will be tested over the next 6 months, managed by none other than Uson herself.

Backlash

Accreditation guidelines have already seen a backlash from non-DDS bloggers online.

“Apparently, the guidelines are meant as cover/justification for the formal entry and presence of DDS Media in functions involving PRRD (President Duterte),” blogger Tonyo Cruz said on his Twitter account @tonyocruz on August 9. Cruz is co-founder of @TweetUpMNL.

“As a blogger, I reject in absolute terms the PCOO’s implication that we bloggers are a cheap and unaccountable bunch,” he said in another tweet. “In Andanar’s memo, no effort is made to ensure that accreditation wouldn’t be denied on the basis of political standpoint of the applicant.”

Jane Uymatiao of Blogwatch, who has been invited to cover past government events, also tweeted through her @citizenjaneph account: “I am NOT applying for social media accreditation. Why? Bec it was not crafted with citizen engagement in mind.”

She added: “PCOO totally misses the point. We are after CITIZEN ENGAGEMENT, not tailing the President nor mere reportage. Traditional media does that already.” 

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) trustee Vergel Santos had earlier expressed concern about accrediting bloggers.

“Blogging is an individualistic, free-wheeling operation – although some bloggers are known to follow common, if not collusive, lines of thinking. It’s the readiest, least discriminating (in fact, it’s open to anyone), widest-reaching, and therefore most tempting platform of free expression,” Santos told Rappler in February.

Journalism, on the other hand, is “both a profession and a trade governed by universal rules of practice and ethics and tradition,” he said. No such rules govern bloggers. 

Special treatment

The special treatment given by the PCOO to DDS bloggers becomes evident especially in events that promote government programs, and to which they are often invited. 

The expectation is for them to generate buzz online about government programs, and to make these trend on Twitter – a fixation of Andanar, and a measurement of success.

OPEN TO BLOGGERS. PCOO Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson's office is in charge of choosing bloggers who receive accreditation to cover President Rodrigo Duterte's events. Malacañang file photo

The DDS bloggers who faithfully attend these events and craft pro-government posts are treated well in exchange, insider-sources said. Andanar, according to a source who is familiar with his strategy, said, “He makes sure they are taken care of when they come to events.”

During the Dutertenomics forum hosted by the PCOO in April, for example, the favorable treatment accorded the DDS bloggers was apparent. Organized in partnership with the Department of Finance, the forum discussed the government’s infrastructure programs that seek to fuel economic growth.

In that forum, the bloggers were invited by the PCOO and were given a table to work from – unlike mainstream media. 

“They’re always separated from regular media,” said a PCOO insider. “They’re given tables and mobile or pocket wifi.”

At the end of the event, the bloggers were also given an “allowance” of a few thousand pesos each, said another source familiar with the transaction.

‘So much power’

“Internally, the budget is often referred to as ‘pampakain (food budget) for our online friends’ or ‘allowance for our online friends,” the PCOO insider said. 

“To be sure, these DDS bloggers will support the President whether they are paid or not. But some individuals have used them for personal motives and for political ambitions.”

GOV'T RESOURCES. Status:Hot bloggers use RTVM resources for their global DDS party. Screenshot of livestream from Status:Hot Facebook page

In China and Singapore, pro-Duterte bloggers were able to ambush-interview the President in his hotel while Malacañang reporters were prohibited by the Palace’s Media Accreditation and Relations Office from doing this. Flouting such Palace rules could get Malacañang members barred from coverage.

Even before the Dutertenomics forum, DDS bloggers were given accreditation by the PCOO to join the Philippine delegation to some of the President’s foreign trips – an unprecedented move.

Sources we spoke to repeatedly expressed concern over the growing influence of DDS bloggers in Andanar’s office.

“They have so much power with the PCOO,” one of them said. “It’s concerning.”

One insider agreed, “They also prioritize DDS bloggers over media.”

Just over the weekend, the PCOO even offered government resources for a DDS thanksgiving party, organized by one of the pro-Duterte bloggers. The event was led by Rivera, who posted on his Facebook wall: “Thanks to the PCOO, Martin Andanar and Pebbles Duque for helping us with the broadcast of the event to the Philippines.”

News of Rivera and his group using government resources triggered a backlash, to which Rivera responded, “I am asking this basic question. What authority did Status: Hot usurp?”

“And whose authority are we undermining? Si Martin Andanar ang head ng PCOO so sino ang sinuway namin? (Andanar is the head of the PCOO, so who did we defy?)”

Rivera himself admitted using government resources offered by Andanar for broadcasting purposes.

“And for the record, the only time we used government resources is when we used the PTV studio for the SONA (State of the Nation Address), the time we used the ASEAN studio in Conrad and the RTVM coverage sa DDS Thanksgiving,” he wrote.

PTV refers to Peoples Television, RTVM refers to Radio-TV-Malacañang. These, along with the ASEAN activities, are funded by taxpayers’ money.

Yet despite Riveras own admission of Andanars permission to use PCOOs resources for past events or panel discussions, Andanar denied it when asked by Rappler.

“It was a DDS worldwide event. It wasnt broadcasted, he said, referring to the event on August 12. 

He added, “We dont have a budget for bloggers,” also denying any allowances being given to bloggers, or any special treatment being accorded them.

But at the Philippines’ hosting of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary in early August, the influence yielded by the blogger-propagandists was most noticeable: pro-Duterte bloggers were given accreditation and access to cover the event.

ACCREDITATION. Malacañang offers media access to pro-Duterte bloggers under a 'DDS' organization. Photo sourced from Facebook

Early this month, photos of pro-Duterte bloggers’ ASEAN media IDs went viral online – raising questions about the PCOO’s vetting process for media qualifications. While veteran bloggers – even before the DDS came to be – have long asked for access to presidential events under this administration, it was the PCOO itself that willingly offered them access. With priority, of course, given to the DDS bloggers.

IDs issued to online supporters of the President identified bearers as “Media” with a more specific designation of “DDS Philippines” or “Social Media Philippines.” 

After the controversy blew up online, Andanar, in an interview on radio station dzRH on Monday, August 9, defended the IDs and said bloggers and “social media influencers” were told to register online through a system of accreditation which also applied to mainstream media.

What accreditation?

But in a post by Rivera, who was accredited with a DDS Philippines badge, Rivera said they didn’t really need accreditation.

“And why do we need accreditation. We are bloggers. As the name implies, we blog. We post opinions, commentaries and literary work. WE DO NOT PRESENT THE NEWS. We are not a news outfit,” he said in a Facebook post on August 7. 

“Hence we have no obligation to be impartial, objective and straightforward. It is about opinions. So why do we need accreditation?”

The accreditation, according to insiders, was pushed by the PCOO, and personally facilitated by the PCOO’s Pebbles Duque, who made sure DDS bloggers had access. Aside from ascertaining they received media badges by endorsing them to the ASEAN National Organizing Committee (NOC), she also directly assisted them in broadcasting live from the Conrad hotel. 

“The go-to person for bloggers is Pebbles Duque,” one of the insiders said. “She is Andanar’s trusted aide when it comes to social media operations.”

In another Facebook post, Rivera thanked Duque specifically for the unprecedented access given to DDS bloggers, specifically for his group, Status: Hot. 

PROFESSIONAL SET-UP. The broadcast set-up prepared by PCOO for DDS bloggers. Photo from Pebbles Duque Facebook page

He wrote on August 6, “Come to think of it…MJ Quiambao Reyes, Rocky Gonzales, Francis Manalo and Mamshies (aka Renewel Basa), we are officially the first social media bloggers allowed to broadcast a live video in ASEAN history. Times have changed. Pebbles Duque, you rock!”

MJ Quiambao-Reyes, also a self-identified Duterte supporter, commented on the post as well. She thanked Duque for serving as “exec producer, director, writer” of their live panel from ASEAN.  

The post was accompanied by a link to the livestream of the panel, wherein the group sat on a professionally set up, makeshift studio – built and run through government funds. with reports from Pia Ranada/Rappler.com 

READ: Part 2: Blogger-propagandists, the new crisis managers

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