(UPDATED) MANILA, Philippines – Racking up more than 5 million subscribers on Facebook and 150,000 followers on Twitter, Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, without a doubt, leads President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s army of supporters online.
There’s one thing Uson always tries to make clear: she doesn’t like the mainstream media. According to her own musings on social media, many news organizations, both local and international, have biases against the President and are out to “destabilize” the country.
She even calls the press, “Presstitutes” – a wordplay on press and prostitute.
Several posts of Uson have been deleted, but the internet keeps receipts.
Is Mocha Uson a victim of fake news, or is she at the center of disinformation campaigns? Rappler took a look at her page and here’s what we found:
What Asec Mocha Uson likes to post
We have been able to gather 1,937 link posts from her Facebook page, Mocha Uson Blog, posted since July 1, 2016 to October 5, 2017. All these came from 85 websites, some of which are no longer accessible.
Uson has shared content from only 30 mainstream media outlets, most frequently the Philippine Star where she has a column. Of the 1,937 posts, only 244 were linked to these websites.
Uson has also shared links to official government portals: PNA, PTV, PIA, and the AFP newsletter. This is a total of 15 posts allotted for government channels.
A big chunk of her posts come from trendingnewsportal.net.ph (TNP), which is now tnp.ph. This is followed by verifiedPH.blogspot.com, KingDomingo.blogspot.com, PhilippineNewsNetwork.com, and pinoytrending.altervista.org.
Uson, who is a government official, shared 555 reports from TNP alone – way higher than the number of content she shared from mainstream media and official government websites combined. (READ: ‘What is Mocha Uson’s top source of news?‘ )
During the hearing on fake news, Uson claimed she runs her blog on her own. But Rappler reported on October 5 that the Mocha Uson Blog was “live” on Facebook while Uson herself was seated in a 5-hour Senate hearing on fake news. She then admitted she has “staff” helping run her blog.
First Draft is a nonprofit coalition addressing challenges to trust and truth in the digital age. It’s a network of several news and technology companies worldwide which Rappler is a part of.
According to them, there are 7 types of misinformation and disinformation:
First Draft’s Clair Wardle said that the term “fake” is not enough to describe the complexity of misinformation and disinformation. The first one is the “inadvertent sharing of false information” while the latter is the “deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false.”
As a network aimed at improving skills and standards on sharing information online, First Draft provides “practical and ethical guidance in how to find, verify, and publish” content from the internet. Together with its partners, they work on ways on how to simplify the news verification process, improve reader’s experience on online content, and increase media literacy.
Misinformation and disinformation are disseminated in different ways: shared (without verifying) by people on social media, amplified by journalists, and pushed out as part of sophisticated disinformation campaigns.
In the Philippines, Rappler has recorded many disinformation campaigns since the election period: social media campaigns meant to shape public opinion, tear down reputations, and cripple traditional media institutions.
The media, church, and civil society groups have long been trying to counteract the spread of false information online.
In June 2017, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) published a list of websites peddling fake news. Media organizations like Rappler have started their own initiatives that fact-check and debunk deceiving social media content.
This problematic content often comes from dubious websites and is funneled to social media by connected groups of accounts, including the Mocha Uson Blog.
A question of accountability
A big chunk of the websites whose content are being shared by Uson have a common characteristic: there is little to no information about the people behind them.
As opposed to legitimate news organizations where names of owners, members of the editorial team, and writers are publicly disclosed, people behind the websites shared by Uson are mostly unknown. They also have vague, if not zero, descriptions of their organization and what they do.
‘Therein lies the problem: they’re not producing news that are verified and vetted by an editor – but their content is packaged as such’
For example, verifiedph.blogspot.com and kingdomingo.blogspot.com which are some of Uson’s most shared websites do not reveal the writers of their posts nor the people who created the websites.
In its About page, verifiedph.blogspot.com says they “provide updated news articles that matters (sic)” and “reliable news all the time.” They also have a contact page with only a link to the Facebook messenger of their now inaccessible Facebook account.
This poses a problem in terms of accountability. When legitimate news organizations mis- or disinform, the people behind them can be called out and held liable – both by authorities and media watchdogs. The same is not applicable to these websites whose owners and writers are unknown.
Some may argue that they are blogs, not news organizations. In fact, several of these websites are hosted on popular blogging platform blogspot.com. Mocha herself, during the hearing on fake news, made the distinction, saying that she’s a blogger – not a journalist – and therefore exempted from the rules on fairness and transparency applied to journalists.
Therein lies the problem: they’re not producing news that’s verified and vetted by an editor – yet their content is packaged as such. The way that these websites’ content is headlined and posted on social media also follows the same format of actual news content, making the distinction blurry.
Most of the websites being shared by Uson have been producing content with false or misleading information. In fact, some of them – like trendingnewsportal.net.ph and asianpolicy.press – have or had disclaimers on their websites that say they can’t vouch for the accuracy of their reports.
Many of the websites shared by Uson are guilty of producing content with “false context”, which First Draft described as sharing genuine content with “false contextual information”.
For example, a report by trendingnewsportal.net.ph that Uson shared on September 12, 2016 was headlined: “Lea Salonga Gave a Meaningful Message to Filipinos: Unite Behind Duterte.”
The story cited a Facebook post by the singer from September 2016. But Salonga never said her message was about the President.
In fact, Salonga later clarified that she was speaking in general terms. In a couple of tweets, she said that her post was “getting twisted” to fit a political agenda.
Please don’t twist the posts I write to fit your own specific political agenda. It makes me sick and angry. #NoToFakeNews— Lea Salonga (@MsLeaSalonga) October 6, 2017
Another report by the same website shared by Mocha Uson on January 17, 2017 bore the headline, “Pinky Webb Defended Pres. Duterte from International Media! Must Watch!“
The same story was reported by pinoytrending.altervista.org – also shared by Uson.
The video that the stories were referring to, however, didn’t actually show veteran television reporter Webb defending the President from the international media. Instead, it was linked to a video of a CNN report where Webb shared with CNN International what transpired during her one-on-one interview with the President.
Some of Uson’s posts also have headlines, visuals, and captions that do not support content.
Case in point: In October 22, 2016, Uson shared a report posted on verifiedph.blogspot.com with the screaming headline: “PANOORIN: MARAMING PULIS NA ANG NAGSASACRIFICE NG KANILANG BUHAY SA WAR AGAINST DRUGS.” (Watch: Many police have already sacrificed their lives for the war against drugs)
If one reads only the headline, it’s easy to assume that many police officers have already lost their lives for the war against drugs.
But the story contains zero details about, or support for, this claim, and merely cites a case of an “untoward incident that happened in Caloocan” where a policeman was allegedly shot by a drug dealer.
The apparent video report, which is actually from GMA News, was also not embedded on the page. Instead, a reader would have to click a link to another website.
Verifiedph.blogspot.com has the same content format as other websites like kimdomingo.blogspot.com and thecalibrenews.blogspot.com.
They use the phrase “we overheard that” – possibly to be clear that the information didn’t come from them but from reports of legitimate news organizations. Their source video reports are embedded in another website, so readers have to go through 3 layers – Facebook, website, and another website – before being able to verify if what’s written is true.
In another post, Uson shared a misleading report from the same website, with the headline: “PANOORIN KUNG ANO ANG SURPRISE NI PRES. DUTERTE NA MAGLILIKHA NG 37,487 JOBS!” (Watch President Duterte’s surprise that will create 37,487 jobs!)
Verifiedph.blogspot.com said they “overheard” that there “will be a lot of jobs expected this year this and on early next year” because of investments coming into the country. Their source, a video report from PTV, was embedded in another website.
But PTV’s actual report refers to investment pledges from January to July 2016. Duterte became president only on June 30, 2016.
Uson also likes to share content from pinoytrending.altervista.org which says they “deliver the freshest news on the Internet.”
A report shared on Uson’s Facebook page alleged that “members of the opposition” asked the parents of slain 17-year-old Kian delos Santos to “parade” his body on EDSA.
Their source? A bit from a video report by ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol where Kian’s father, Saldy delos Santos, said that some groups asked if they could bring Kian’s body to EDSA.
But the report never mentioned who these groups were, nor did Saldy say that they were members of the opposition.
Many dubious websites have also been producing 100% fabricated content. And sadly, some are convincing enough to fool even news organizations.
On September 24, 2017, a Manila Times columnist wrote a piece quoting United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley as saying the President should be given “space to run his nation.”
But there’s a problem: It was fake. (READ: ‘Manila Times columnist falls for fake news‘ )
Uson however shared the Manila Times piece quoting Haley, and admitted during the Senate hearing on fake news that she deleted it immediately after realizing it was fake.
The day after the ASEAN Summit came to a close, Uson also shared a post by fellow pro-Duterte blogger RJ Nieto calling out Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the trash shipped to the Philippines from Canada.
It appears however that neither Nieto nor the Assistant Secretary, both present at the ASEAN Summit activities, bothered to double check the quote, which, from the video clip of Trudeau’s press briefing, was inaccurate. (READ: ‘Mocha Uson shares graphic on Facebook misquoting Trudeau’ )
The online mob
Uson’s blog has tremendous power to boost these websites’ reach on social media. The examples posted above were all shared by the thousands.
In another example, on November 12, 2016, pinoytrending.altervista.com posted content with a lengthy headline: “Child Abuse? parent of one of the student of St Scholastica said that they were forced to join the Anti-Marcos rally”.
Uson’s Facebook post on the report was shared more than 8,000 times and got 28,520 reactions and 3,694 comments.
But the report is misleading – and even dangerous.
The story was based on Uson’s own Facebook posts where she claimed that a parent from St Scholastica’s College (SSC), whose identity she didn’t reveal, said their daughters were required to attend rallies against the hero’s burial for dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Uson also had a series of posts where she included photos of the children during the said rallies. In one of the posts, Uson wrote: “We respect your opinion but please don’t involve the children to gain sympathy.”
But while Uson did blur the children’s faces, she made them and the school the target of an online mob. Many flooded the photos of the children on Uson’s and other Facebook pages, hurling insults and attacking the school and the parents.
Eighth grader Shibby Lapeña de Guzman was one of the students who participated in the protest and is the one seen holding a microphone in the photo above.
According to Shibby’s mother, Melay Lapeña, an alumna of SSC, the students and parents were not forced to participate. A circular had been issued the day before, requesting that parents allow their children to attend the noise barrage.
Shibby also defended herself amid the criticism. To one Facebook commenter, she replied: “Please do not underestimate the youth. We completely know and understand the injustice we are protesting against.”
After the incident, concerned alumnae of SSC said they were eyeing legal action against online commenters who have threatened students.
Uson, of all people, cannot play the victim anymore. She, after all, has often bragged about her blog, whose reach and engagement rate are even higher than most local news organizations.
Now an appointed government official working for the Palace’s official communication arm, Uson has to accept that she has a bigger responsibility to make sure that she doesn’t, whether deliberately or not, participate in the spread of false news. – with reports from Kaye Cabal/Rappler.com
EDITOR’S NOTE: In a previous version of this story, we inadvertently added UNTV in the list of government portals shared on the Mocha Uson Blog. This has been corrected in the current version.