Facebook has removed two networks, one originating in China and the other in Philippines, for foreign and government-backed interference, for violating its policies on coordinated inauthentic behaviour. 

What the network did: The network that originated in China used fake accounts to misrepresent who they are and mislead people, targeting users in Southeast Asia and the Philippines. The accounts posed as locals and posted in groups, amplified their own content, managed pages, and liked and commented on others’ posts, especially about naval activity in the South China Sea, including US Navy Ships. The campaign took “operational security steps”, including using VPNs, to conceal their identity and location. 

The accounts stole their pictures from real profiles but also used AI-generated profile pictures, which Graphika, an social analytics company focusing on disinformation, said has become more common practice. 

What the network posted aboutThe network posted content in Chinese, Filipino, and English about global news and current events such as: 

  • Beijing’s interests in the South China Sea and Hong Kong
  • Content supportive of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara Duterte’s potential run for the 2022 presidential elections 
  • Criticism of Rappler, an independent news organization in the Philippines
  • Issues relevant to overseas Filipino workers
  • Praise and some criticism of China 

The network showed particular interest in maritime security in the South China Sea, a hot potato geopolitical issue. The network reflected overt and covert Chinese messaging on issues such as the Hong Kong protests, Taiwan’s independence, and COVID-19, Graphika, which analysed some of the network’s behaviour, said. 

The activity began in late 2016 by posting about Taiwan, attacking the then president. In 2018, the operation posted content supportive of Philippines President Rodrego Duterte and argued in favour of Chinese regional influence. Around this time, it also created pages to focus on the South China Sea and defended China’s policies there. Throughout, it maintained the theme of maritime security. In the US, where this network focused the least and gained almost no following, they posted content both in support of and against presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Following: 133,000 accounts followed one or more of the pages, 61,000 people were in at least one group, and 150 accounts followed the Instagram accounts. Two pages that focused on the Philippines attracted around 57,000 and 40,000 followers, respectively. 

  • A page that mainly posted about security in the South China Sea attracted 16,000. None of the other pages had more than 10,000 followers. 
  • Similarly, a group focused on the Philippines had over 51,000 members, but none of the operation’s other groups had more than 2,000, and the one dedicated to Buttigieg had only two – both run by the operation.

What was removed, by the numbers: 155 accounts, 11 Pages, 9 Groups and 6 Instagram accounts

  • Advertising: About $60 in spending for ads on Facebook paid for in Chinese yuan.

Philippines network connected to Army, ‘red-tagged’ govt critics

What the network did: This network consisted of several clusters of connected activity which used fake accounts to post content, comment, and manage pages. This operation accelerated between 2019-2020. 

This network was brought to Facebook’s attention by the civil society in Philippines and Rappler, which itself has been targeted by disinformation networks. “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to Philippine military and Philippine police,” Facebook said. 

Although Facebook has maintained that its policy of CIB focuses on behaviour and not content of the networks or accounts, DFRLab, which studies disinformation, said the “content of this operation contributed to the assessment of possible harm”. Duterte has been widely criticised for extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations. 

What the network posted about: The network posted in Filipino and English about: 

  • 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.

DFRLab, which had access to a subset of these accounts, found that the first accounts were created in 2015, and posed as independent pages, posting anti-communist content, demonising leftist organisations. DFRLab also disclosed something Facebook didn’t: the group engaged in “red-tagging” of President Duterte’s critics and supported the controversial anti-terrorism bill. Red-tagging is the practice of branding opponents as terrorists. 

In the set of accounts examined by the organisation, multiple user accounts belonged to individuals who appeared to be serving in the Philippine military, including Alexandre Cabales, Chief of the Army Social Media Center. There was also evidence that several military-linked user accounts were coordinating campaigns in private Facebook groups, but their exact nature could not be determined.

In July, the Duterte administration signed an anti-terrorism billl into law that granted it powers to surveil and arrest those it suspected of being terrorists, while also broadly expanding the definition of terrorists. 

Following:

  • About 276,000 accounts followed one or more of these Pages and about 5,500 people followed one of more of these Instagram accounts
  • The largest page, Talahib, had 59,523 followers and garnered over half a million interactions by the time of removal
  • 77% of the content posted were photos, followed by videos (14.25 percent). Over a five-year period, the 374 videos posted by these pages garnered 25 million views, about 10 million of which were directly from the pages’ posts.

What was removed, by the numbers: 

  • Removed: 57 Facebook accounts, 31 Pages and 20 Instagram accounts for violating our policy against foreign or government interference. 
  • Advertising: Around $1,100 in spending for ads on Facebook paid for in Philippine peso.