Media and journalism issues

Iglesia ni Cristo’s NET25 spreads hate with vlogger-style ‘reporting’

Pauline Macaraeg
Iglesia ni Cristo’s NET25 spreads hate with vlogger-style ‘reporting’

Janina Malinis/Rappler

‘They lowered themselves to the level of internet users, whose desire is to generate attention through hate and in the process earn money,’ says a journalism professor
At a glance
  • NET25, the TV station of the religious sect Iglesia ni Cristo, has been fueling hate and propaganda in the guise of news reports.
  • The top targets of NET25’s attacks are Vice President Leni Robredo, her supporters, and other members of the media.
  • These attacks have led to more hateful posts from other social media users.
  • The network has been mimicking the style of vloggers, who try to hijack the news genre on social media by using partisan content, vulgar language, and poor sourcing.
  • The network ramped up its attacks after the INC endorsed Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s presidential candidacy in early May. Data showed that this earned them more page likes and followers on Facebook.

MANILA, Philippines – “Kulang sa pansin” or begging for attention – that’s how NET25’s news program Mata ng Agila characterized Vice President Leni Robredo’s daughters in a report aired on May 23, 2022.

NET25, the TV station of Eagle Broadcasting Corporation owned by the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), called Robredo’s daughters “celebrity wannabes” for their social media posts that chronicled their trips and shared memories with their friends and followers.

The screen showed a banner that said, “Kulang sa pansin: Mga anak ni VP Robredo, panay pasikat sa kanilang mga social media account.” (Begging for attention: Daughters of VP Robredo keep showing off on their social media accounts.)

The segment earned praises from supporters of the religious group and of then-presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., but was heavily criticized by media watchdogs and other journalists.

This is not the first time the network used its platforms to attack others. An analysis of the content NET25 shared on its official Facebook account showed that the network has repeatedly spread false information and attacked critics, particularly after the INC endorsed on May 3 the tandem of Marcos and his vice presidential bet Sara Duterte. The INC is known to practice bloc voting, where church leaders endorse candidates and expect members to follow them.

Data showed that some of NET25’s reports even resulted in a domino effect, where their targets received a higher volume of online attacks after the questionable reports.

What’s the problem?

In NET25’s May 23 report on the Robredos, NET25 staff Vin Pascua said in the voice-over: “Mahilig si VP Robredo at ang mga anak niya sa pag-post sa kanilang social media ng images of photos (sic) of humility and goodness upang i-display ang kanilang pagiging karaniwan at simpleng mamamayan…. Subalit, ang ipinapakita nilang imahe ng kabutihan ay taliwas sa smear campaign ng kampo nila laban sa mga Marcos.”

(VP Robredo and her daughters like to post on their social media accounts photos that depict humility and goodness by displaying their lifestyle as simple and ordinary people…. But the image of goodness they’re projecting contradicts their camp’s smear campaign against the Marcoses.)

Pascua then compared the Robredo sisters to Marcos’ three sons, who he said were all humble and simple.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), a nonprofit media watchdog in the Philippines, released a statement five days later, condemning the segment, saying that “it isn’t journalism” and was “nothing but baseless opinions brazenly presented as news.”

Danilo Arao, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, also called on his students to file a complaint against NET25 with the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), an association of broadcast media organizations in the Philippines that provides its members (including NET25) broadcasting standards.

The KBP told Rappler in an email on Wednesday, June 8, that it had received complaints about the incident, but wouldn’t comment on alleged violations “until the KBP Standards Authority has taken final action on the matter.” Lawyer Rudolph Steve Jularbal, KBP legal counsel, said that the possible penalties to be imposed on a member found to have violated the KBP code include reprimands, fines, suspension, or expulsion.

For Felipe Salvosa II, head of the journalism program of the University of Santo Tomas and editor of news website PressONE.PH, NET25’s report did not only breach the KBP code but also journalistic canons.

“It’s not news and it will also never qualify as opinion. I wouldn’t classify it as an opinion because it will debase the responsible practitioners of opinion journalism. It is also not news because the entire thing was basically editorializing…. That’s something that you would see in a Facebook comments section and not in an honest-to-goodness TV news program… It was in bad taste,” Salvosa said in a Zoom interview on Tuesday, June 7.

He explained that the report lacked the basic standards of news reporting, such as data gathering and interviews. “It’s merely the conjectures of whoever wrote that script…. It was basically a partisan attack on the Robredos,” he said.

As of writing, the report is no longer available on NET25’s official Facebook channel and was tagged as “removed by the uploader” from its verified YouTube account. But copies of it are still accessible to the public through several social media users that reposted the clip.

One of the reposted videos with over 1.6 million views, 132,000 reactions, and 12,000 comments, as of writing, was from a page called “Kabagis.” Its post was shared 63 times by 57 pages and groups, the majority of which were either pro-Marcos or pro-Duterte.

AMPLIFIED. Facebook page “Kabagis” reposted the deleted clip from NET25. Rappler screenshot

The 10 sharers of this video with the highest total interactions were:

  • PGMC FINANCE (group)
  • 👊SOLID DDS DUTERTE👊 (group)
  • BICOL FOR BBM (group)
  • SOLID BBM / DU30 CHAPTER Marikina and Cainta (group)
  • Team Philippines (page)
  • The PATRIOT (group)
  • Motorcycle Mechanic Group (group)
  • sandro marcos (group)
  • BBM 2.0 Mindanao (group)
  • Attorney Glenn Chong-Cagayan Valley (group)
Mimicking vloggers: A new style?

A study by UP researchers released in April said that YouTube channels had been posing as legitimate “news” channels to deliver disinformation through conventional news styles that viewers were familiar with. These channels often tried to fabricate journalistic authority by using vulgarity and pushing partisan content.

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NET25 appears to be doing the same, except that it already owns a broadcasting license. Starting in May, the network shifted to using captions, headlines, and text on video cover photos that mimic hyperpartisan vlogs.

A look at the content pushed on NET25’s official Facebook account showed that Pascua’s report on the Robredo sisters was not the first time the network used its platform to attack others or release sensationalized reports. Rappler’s analysis showed that the network appeared to have used this tactic particularly after INC announced its political endorsements on May 3.

The way NET25 packaged its reports that attacked others in May 2022 included insults and incendiary language. This is different from how legitimate media organizations typically present news.

“I haven’t done an analysis of [all] the content, but what they did, basically, they’re trying to mimic the vloggers,” Salvosa said, referring to NET25’s segment on the Robredo sisters. 

“They made the content sensational and below the belt. It’s like they’re cultivating the audience to that kind of content – when in fact you’re supposed to do better because you own a broadcast license. And the broadcast license, the airwaves, those are public goods,” he added.

A common insult that NET25 has used in its reports is the term “pinklawan,” a word play on “pink” and “dilawan,” to belittle the supporters of Robredo. Pink was the color of Robredo’s campaign, while yellow was associated with her Liberal Party.

INSULTS. Screenshots of posts where NET25 used insulting words against supporters of Vice President Leni Robredo. Rappler screenshots

Rappler reviewed the posts shared on NET25’s verified Facebook page from January 1 to May 31, 2022, and found that there were at least 22 other times the network used loaded and derogatory words to either praise the Marcoses or attack other members of the press, Robredo, and Robredo’s supporters. 

These reports were all posted in May. Before this, NET25’s Facebook posts had a more neutral tone that promoted its various shows and programs.

NET25 has also released inaccurate reports that would hurt Robredo’s reputation. When a Cebu Pacific pilot accused Robredo of causing a flight to be diverted at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, NET25 falsely reported on May 17 that the company “confirmed” the claims of the pilot. In reality, Cebu Pacific clarified that the claims were baseless and “purely speculative.” (READ: FALSE: Robredo diverted flights at NAIA in April)

The video that contained the false claim is still up on NET25’s social media accounts, as of writing. NET25 released a follow-up report about the incident, this time airing the official statement of the Robredo camp. However, there was no correction made to the initial report.

In April, VERA Files also fact-checked NET25’s report that claimed Communist Party of the Philippines founder Joma Sison was funding Robredo’s presidential campaign.

SENSATIONALIZED. Screenshots of posts where NET25 used its platform to attack others or release sensationalized reports. Rappler screenshots

When News5, the news division of TV5 Network Inc., released a report on May 5 about supposed INC members who were not following the bloc voting orders of the church leaders, NET25 aired a segment that maliciously claimed that TV5 had connections with the Robredo camp.

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In its Facebook caption, NET25 used the derogatory words “FAKE NEWS5” and “ABIAS-CBN” (a wordplay on ABS-CBN and “bias”), as well as the claim that Rappler is “US-funded,” to further undermine the credibility of these media organizations. (READ: Just the Facts: Foreign funding isn’t the problem)

NET25 also repeatedly pushed content that attempted to degrade Rappler and its reporter, Lian Buan, who was assigned to cover the presidential campaign of Marcos.

DIRECT ATTACKS. Screenshots of posts where NET25 directly attacked other members of the media for critically reporting about its religious sect. Rappler screenshots
Domino effect of attacks

Data showed that these repeated vitriolic reports from NET25 prompted more attacks from other online users.

A scan of the public posts on Facebook from pages, groups, and verified accounts showed that posts that contained attack keywords (e.g. “biased,” “bitter, “papansin,” etc.) and the names of Lian Buan and Faith del Mundo, the News5 reporter who produced the segment on INC, grew sharply after NET25 aired the questionable reports about them.

Data showed that there were virtually no posts that attacked Del Mundo before NET25’s report that singled her out, but these spiked on May 6, the day NET25 claimed that she spread “fake news.”

Buan, meanwhile, had been a target of attack posts several times before NET25 started targeting her – often because of her critical reports on the Marcoses. But a particular spike in the attacks against her in May happened after Marcos’ first “press conference” as president-elect that included only staff from three media outlets. By this time, NET25 had already posted four sensationalized reports about Rappler.

NET25’s attempt appears to work for them in terms of growth in page likes and followers. Data from the social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle showed that the page grew the fastest in May 2022. Its page likes grew by 10.26% compared to the previous month, while its follower count grew by 13.41%. These are the page’s highest growth rates since June 2017, the earliest data available from CrowdTangle.

Journalism is a public service

Before NET25, a separate Rappler investigation found that controversial preacher Apollo Quiboloy’s Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) has been fueling disinformation and online attacks against critics of the Rodrigo Duterte administration – all the while enjoying fast growth on its social media accounts.

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Asked why propagandistic media outlets seem to thrive in the Philippines today, Salvosa said that media partisanship is not unique to the digital age. “Of course, there will be partisans also who want that kind of news coverage. So they (media) will not be able to draw an audience from a broad spectrum if their news coverage is one-sided, biased, partisan, leaning towards propaganda…. And the market will decide if they want that kind of content,” Salvosa said.

He added that while media outlets like NET25 and SMNI will always have audiences, a variety of factors will decide their survival. He said that the quality of stories, the production values, and the quality of an organization’s journalism are some of the important factors that build an audience.

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NET25 and SMNI are broadcasting arms of two influential religious organizations in the country that have been rocked by scandals through the years: the INC and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ (KOJC).

In a statement published on June 5, CMFR said that it was “particularly wary” of NET25 and SMNI because of their “extreme partisanship during and after Marcos Jr.’s campaign.” It put the role of religious-owned media under the microscope and called on the public and the rest of the media to continue to act as watchdogs of such media organizations that spread disinformation.

“NET25 calls itself a ‘center of values,’ while SMNI is a self-proclaimed ‘nation-builder’ and truth-teller. But, unfortunately, these networks have allowed themselves to go against basic morals and values and spread disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech. They would do well to reflect on these self-descriptions and to practice what they preach,” CMFR said.

Salvosa also said that while any religious group is free to put up its own media operation, journalism authority and the respect that comes with it is something that is earned.

“I wouldn’t take it against the religious organizations if they wanted to put up their own media operation because maybe that’s part of their evangelical mission. But the news operations will only gain credibility if they are able to show to the public that they are able to independently cover the news, including their own internal affairs, which may present a conflict of interest,” Salvosa said.

Both NET25 and SMNI also hold television frequencies and were granted broadcasting licenses by the government.

“That was issued to you by the government to serve the public, and it is not part of public service to malign others. They lowered themselves to the level of internet users, whose desire is to generate attention through hate and in the process earn money. We do not pursue that kind of model in journalism,” Salvosa said. – Rappler.com

Pauline Macaraeg

Pauline Macaraeg is digital forensics researcher for Rappler. She started as a fact checker and researcher in 2019, before becoming part of Rappler's Digital Forensics Team. She writes about the developing digital landscape, as well as the spread and impact of disinformation and harmful online content. When she's not working, you can find her listening to podcasts or K-pop bops.