Facebook takes down fake account network of Duterte campaign social media manager

 

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Facebook took down 200 pages and accounts organized by President Duterte’s social media manager in his 2016 campaign, Nic Gabunada, the company announced on Friday, March 29.

The 200 pages and accounts found on Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook groups were taken down for their proliferation of fake accounts.

These fake accounts pushed political messaging that promoted their candidate or attacked political opponents. The fake accounts behaved as if they were real persons, and majority of the time, those who followed the fake accounts or saw the comments of these fake accounts believed that they were real, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, told media at the announcement.

"[The pages] frequently posted about local and political news, including topics like the upcoming elections, candidate updates and views, alleged misconduct of political opponents, and controversial events that were purported to occur during previous administrations. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that this activity was linked to a network organized by Nic Gabunada," Facebook said in a blog post

The pages are influential, with 3.6 million users following at least one of the pages.

The 200 pages include 67 Facebook pages, 68 Facebook accounts, 40 Facebook groups and 25 Instagram accounts. About 1.8 million accounts joined at least one of these groups and around 5,300 accounts followed one or more of these Instagram accounts. 

Facebook showed a sample of the content posted by the pages: 

While Facebook says the network was helmed by Gabunada, and that the pages pushed political messaging, they call the network “a non-government actor,” saying they don’t have anything concrete linking the Gabunada-run network to the government.

Gabunada said he was surprised with the takedown, and called the move "unfortunate," in a phone interview with ABS-CBN. He said he was just among the people who share content and invited to join certain groups, and also said he plans to appeal the takedowns. 

The Gabunada takedown follows similar Facebook action in January when the company took down Twinmark Enterprises for similar violations on Facebook’s policies on what it calls coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Gleicher notes that in the case of the Gabunada network, they noticed that the fake accounts operated more prominently in Facebook groups, misleading people to believe that they were interacting with real people with real political beliefs, when in fact they were part of social media campaign designed to influence and manipulate. Gleicher adds that in the Twinmark case, traditional pages were utilized more as opposed to Facebook groups.

Gleicher, as the company has always emphasized in the past, says that when looking for violations against their policy on coordinated inauthentic behavior, it’s the behavior they’re looking for and not the actual content being pushed. It’s the fact that fake pages were created to appear as real that triggered the takedown, and not the messaging or the political content being pushed by the pages, he said.

“[The pages] were designed to look independent, but they were coordinated. They post about political news: pro-content about their candidates, while some attack the opponents of those political candidates. They conceal their identity,” said Gleicher.

One of the tricks used by the network used include combining authentic and inauthentic accounts.

The pages also made use of Facebook ads, spending a total of about $59,000, with the first ad appearing in January 2014, and the last, just this March 2019. The ads were paid for in Philippine peso, Saudi riyal and US dollars. 

Gleicher also said they will be working with policy makers after the takedown. A third-party report about the Gabunada network is also forthcoming from a US-based company, which Gleicher says should come out soon after their own report. – Rappler.com

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.

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