Test for Andanar: Can he stop fake news, hate speech from pro-Duterte accounts?

Pia Ranada
Test for Andanar: Can he stop fake news, hate speech from pro-Duterte accounts?
PCOO Secretary Martin Andanar has promised to talk to the 'communications core group' of President Rodrigo Duterte's campaign in order to reach rabid pro-Duterte bloggers

During the Senate hearing on fake news on Tuesday, January 30, Senator Benigno Aquino IV posed a challenge to Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar: Can he tell pro-Duterte bloggers to stop the use of hate speech and misleading information?

This will be a true test for Andanar’s leadership and effectiveness as a communications chief. Can Andanar rise to the challenge? 

At the Senate hearing, Andanar was hesitant to take it on. He at first denied knowing the people who run the pro-Duterte sites. 

Hindi ko po kilala ‘yung mga may-ari ng mga Facebook pages na ‘yon, but I can certainly ask people around kung kilala nila itong mga may-ari ng mga Duterte pages (I don’t know the owners of these Facebook pages, but I can certainly ask people around if they know who own these Duterte pages),” he told Aquino. 

Under Aquino’s persistent questioning, Andanar admitted that he did know the members of the “core communications group” of President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign. While he was not active in the campaign, he said he met them after Duterte’s electoral victory.

Aquino then rephrased his original challenge, this time framing it as being for the benefit of the PCOO.

“Maybe for the benefit also of PCOO, when you give presentations about your fight against fake news, that even the sites you are allied with, you can talk to the members who organized them in the 2016 campaign?” asked Aquino.

To this, Andanar was ready to say, “I will reach out to the original communications core group.”

Who are the members of this core group?

One of them is likely Nic Gabunada, the man who directed the social media team of Duterte’s 2016 campaign.

When Rappler spoke to him in June 2016, he admitted there were bad apples among the volunteer netizens they had tapped. These were the netizens who would threaten and aggressively insult anyone who dared oppose Duterte’s candidacy. 

Gabunada claimed then that the social media team would immediately respond.

“If there are people whom we thought are doing something that is no longer good, we call their attention,” he explained.  

At one point, he had even asked someone close to Duterte to tell the volunteer netizens “to stop bashing.”

With the current social media environment, did the team’s efforts work? Will Andanar be more effective?

Contradicting policies 

For too long, Andanar’s PCOO has relied on rabid pro-Duterte bloggers to promote the administration’s policies, but held them at arm’s length when they did anything controversial.

Case in point: Mocha Uson’s Facebook “blog.”

The Facebook page MOCHA USON BLOG, now with 5.5 million followers, is often touted by Andanar as the reason why she is an effective communicator of government policies. He has called her a “social media rockstar” who has built a following precisely because of her hardcore online support for the President.

This following and online support is synonymous to her blog.

When she participates in Duterte’s trips abroad, she goes live on Facebook to talk to overseas Filipino workers or to interview Cabinet secretaries.

In fact, it’s hard to say if she does any other work on these trips than go live on her blog or star in a social video also posted on her blog.

It would be absurd to say she is doing these things as a private citizen or blogger and not as a government official. Her status as a government official is precisely what gave her access to attend such events and talk to such high-ranking executives. 

The PCOO never questioned her use of government resources and time spent on these Facebook interviews posted on her private blog.

Yet when Uson uses the same platform to comment on a senator’s private parts or label journalists as paid hacks, Andanar is quick to say her page does not represent government. 

“Mocha Uson Blog is not an agency of PCOO,” Andanar told Radyo Pilipinas’ Erwin Tulfo the day after the hearing.

“So if they judge the PCOO, they should not judge it based on what comes out of that blog,” he added.

But he’s had to capitulate. Because he’s often asked to explain the gaffes of Uson,  his subordinate, Andanar has asked Uson to delete certain posts.  

“I have called her out a few times, and she has also taken down a few of her remarks,” Andanar said in the Senate hearing on Tuesday.

It’s obvious Andanar was smarting from the focus on Uson’s blog and how he was made to answer for the controversies hounding it.

“What the enemy is saying is, because of Mocha, everything becomes fake news, which is very unfair for the entire organization,” he said in a dwIZ radio interview.

At the time of the Senate hearing, Uson was in Milan on the request of Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, to attend a command conference of over 30 Philippine ambassadors to countries in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Andanar’s clout

If getting Uson to toe the line isn’t difficult enough, Andanar must now get other pro-Duterte bloggers, citizens who are not technically in government, to temper their language as well. 

This is not going to be easy. Any suggestions for them to stop using “offensive, inflammatory, or provocative language” have been violently resisted by bloggers. 

One blogger even said in a PCOO forum that it’s precisely this type of language that gives them “the reach we have.” 

But Andanar, during the Senate hearing, confirmed that aside from condemning the spread of false information, PCOO also does not accept hate speech.

“I just wanted to clarify, even hate speech, in your view is not appropriate in our society, is that right?” asked Aquino.

“That’s correct,” responded Andanar in Filipino.

If talking to the account owners won’t work, Andanar has only one recourse: to talk to Duterte himself.

Only a clear message from the President to stop ad hominem attacks against his critics could change the behavior of pro-Duterte bloggers – that is, if their devotion to him means they will follow his every word.

Andanar has his work cut out for him. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.