Philippine Army Captain Alexandre F. Cabales has been identified as one of the operators of a network of pages taken down by Facebook for “coordinated inauthentic behavior" that targeted activists and legal organizations, according to the US-based The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).
DFRLab analyzed 42 user and 28 Instagram accounts from Facebook, majority of which were personal accounts.
Many had “extensive posting histories and appeared to belong to individuals serving in the Philippine Army,” the research lab said, adding that “several open-source traces indicated that Cabales played a key role in the administration of the network."
A reverse WHOIS search conducted by DFRLab showed that Cabales was the registered owner of Kalinaw News, a website publicly owned by the Civil-Military Operations Regiment of the Philippine Army to which he belongs and which his busted Facebook network repeatedly shared. Kalinaw News regularly publishes posts attacking the communist New People's Army.
Cabales was also linked to the Hands Off Our Children (HOOC) group, whose Facebook account was apparently one of those taken down. His Facebook account was among the administrators of a private Facebook group linked to HOOC's page.
According to the DFRLab, while the HOOC presents itself as an independent organization led by concerned parents of radicalized youth, “it may be more closely linked to the Civil-Military Operations Regiment than it publicly lets on.” (READ: Facebook removes fake network linked to AFP, PNP)
The Philippine military has pledged to wipe out Asia's longest-running communist insurgency by 2022, at the end of President Rodrigo Duterte's term.
Duterte himself has singled out the communists as the biggest security threat in the country, blasting them often in his weekly public address that's meant to discuss how government is addressing the coronavirus pandemic.
Activists, journalists, and progressive lawmakers have been red-tagged by the police and the military on social media even as suspected communist sympathizers and rebels are killed outside the battlefield.
At a recent budget hearing, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was asked about soldiers' Facebook accounts that have been spreading disinformation, and he defended them.
In the early years of the Duterte administration, however, military officers were taken to task for spreading fake news on social media.
In 2017, then AFP chief Eduardo Año slammed retired and active officers of the military for spreading fake news about Rappler CEO Maria Ressa. Año ordered a “thorough investigation,” but the problem persists.
Based on his LinkedIn profile, Cabales is the “Chief of the Army Social Media Center."
He wrote in his profile that his "primary task is to conduct activities in social media that will manage and enhance public perception of the Philippine Army as well as facilitate the delivery of information to the Filipino people about the Army and the government in general. He leads the social media team that manages the brand Kalinaw News at different platforms." Rappler messaged him there but he has yet to respond.
While Cabales’ Facebook account used a slightly different name, Andre Calabes, the DFRLab, using his photos and personal blog, identified him to be the same person.
There was also additional evidence suggesting that Cabales and several other military-linked accounts in the network were running the military's official social media campaigns. They were also supposedly coordinating with one another in closed Facebook groups.
According to the DFRLab, Cabales was an administrator of a private group called “SOCIAL MEDIA OPERATION TRAINING CL-02–18,” along with two other profiles included in the takedown: Bruce G. Mayam-o and Ricky-Boy Castro.
DFRLab's report hinted that Mayam-o and Castro are also soldiers, but we could not independently confirm this yet.
The report said: "Mayam-o’s profile showed him in military uniform, wearing a name plate. “Ricky-Boy Castro,” meanwhile, was also an admin of two other groups: a group called “SOCIAL MEDIA OPERATION TRAINING FOR CMOSET JOLO SULU” and the “Official Civil Military Operations Regiment” closed group, which indicated that he served in the same regiment as Cabales."
Rappler could no longer search the Facebook accounts of Cabales, Mayam-o, and Castro, following DFRLab’s report.
Philippine Army spokesperson Colonel Ramon Zagala confirmed that Cabales manages the Army's Kalinaw Facebook pages, adding they will ask for more details from Facebook regarding the report against him. (READ: AFP, PNP deny hand in busted Facebook accounts)
He stressed that the Army "holds its personnel to the highest standards of discipline and professionalism" and "does not condone the use of fake accounts as a matter of policy."
"As chief of the Army Social Media Center, Cpt. Alex Cabales manages the Kalinaw News Facebook page which delivers news about the activities of different Army units nationwide. We hold him in high regard and his efforts to inform the public on important issues that matter to the security of our country," Zagala said.
When asked if they will investigate Cabales and the others identified in the report, Zagala told Rappler: "If there is a complaint of wrongdoing then we will do so. That's why we asked Facebook for details of alleged wrongdoing."
Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr, the military's chief propagandist against the communists, said he knows the people behind the HOOC movement and denied they're affiliated with the military.
Another public official, Joel Sy Egco, head of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFoMS), even defended the HOOC.
“It is revolting when FB took down the page of Hands Off Our Children and other legitimate advocacy pages as a result of a 'witch hunt' it launched against supposed accounts with 'inauthentic behaviors.' It did so with obvious foreign interest behind it,” Egco said in a public Facebook post.
“When I received a death threat last year, FB refused to help, citing their "standards". WTF moment. But it was ok for me….I guess, maybe, it is about time to bring this matter to court as a matter of civic duty. A class suit is at hand,” he added.
Parlade said the HOOC "should file a case against Facebook" for taking down its page. "What's their basis in assuming that? It's not only the military who is anti-communist," he said in a text message to Rappler contributor Carmela Fonbuena.
He argued that it's the right of the group "to post what they want, especially those who have children who are victims of communist terrorist exploitation."
"What they are sharing are authentic experiences that they had with their radicalized kids. They also feel it's their obligation to their country and fellow parents to inform them of how the [communists] managed to destroy their families," Parlade said.
Parlade is the spokesman of a government task force that was created to end the communist insurgency by 2022.
The task force has come under attack for red-tagging activists, lawmakers, and journalists. For 2021, it is asking for a staggering P16.4-billion budget.
In its separate report linking the Philippine military and police to fake accounts, Facebook said the disbanded network "consisted of several clusters of connected activity that relied on fake accounts to evade enforcement, post content, comment and manage Pages." (READ: With anti-terror law, police-sponsored hate and disinformation even more dangerous)
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to Philippine military and Philippine police,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s Head of Security Policy.
"This operation appeared to have accelerated between 2019 and 2020. They posted in Filipino and English about local news and events including domestic politics, military activities against terrorism, pending anti-terrorism bill, criticism of communism, youth activists and opposition, the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines," he said.
The DFRLab said in its report: “There was also evidence supporting Facebook’s attribution of this operation to individuals linked to the military. Multiple user accounts in the set belonged to individuals who appeared to be serving in the Philippine military."
Malacañang cautioned Facebook to "exercise prudence in all its actions to remove any doubt of bias given its power, influence and reach."
"Facebook’s recent action of taking down over 100 fake accounts is a matter we leave to the sound judgment and discretion of the popular global social networking company. However, we are one in advocating the truth and dismissing disinformation, lies or hatred," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement. – with a report from Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler.com
Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email firstname.lastname@example.org