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Philippine president threatens Facebook after platform removes disinformation network linked to army, police

Rodrigo Duterte

President of Philippines Rodrigo Duterte warned Facebook of overstepping in the country after the platform took down a disinformation network linked to the country’s police and military. “What is the purpose of you being here? Facebook, you listen to me. We allow you to operate here hoping that you could help us also. Now if government cannot espouse or advocate something which is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose in my country?” Duterte said in his weekly address to the nation.

You cannot lay down a policy for my government. I allow you to operate here. You cannot bar me or prevent me from espousing the objectives of government. No government in this wide world espouses killing or execution or what not.” — Rodrigo Duterte

The main aim of Facebook, as per Duterte, is to assist the government. “I really do not know but my job is to protect government interest. … If you [Facebook] cannot help me protect government interest, then let us talk. We may or we may not find the solution. If we cannot, then I am sorry,” he said.

“The President has also pledged to end the drug trade in six months, curb corruption, and stand up to Chinese incursion in our territorial waters. None of these has happened, so we’ve learned to take his pronouncements with a grain of salt,” Barry Gutierrez, the spokesperson for Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo told MediaNama. Robredo also chairs the country’s opposition Liberal Party.

Philippines is not the only country in South East Asia that has been critical of Facebook for taking down disinformation networks or violent content posted by authoritarian governments and their representatives or sought to pressurise Facebook into removing content critical of the government. Vietnam had earlier this year had reportedly taken down Facebook’s local servers to pressure the company to increase censorship of anti-state posts by local users. The Thai government had banned a Facebook group critical of the monarchy, an act that Facebook is challenging legally.

Content in question: Disinformation networks linked to police, army

Duterte took umbrage against Facebook’s takedown of accounts, groups and pages that were controlled by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). An independent research organization, DFRLab, had found that one of the groups that was taken down was involved in “red-tagging” of Duterte’s critics and opponents of the controversial anti-terrorism bill, that is, they were tagged as “communist” or “terrorist” irrespective of their actual affiliations.

However, AFP and PNP denied any links to the disinformation network even though one of the accounts was linked to Alexandre Cabales, the chief of the Army Social Media Center.

In July 2020, The Duterte administrated had signed an anti-terrorism bill into law that grants the government powers to surveil and arrest those it suspects of being terrorists. Predictably, the law has a very broad definition of “terrorists”.

Even in his latest weekly address, he threatened Facebook for siding with the “rebels” by thwarting the government’s efforts. “If you are promoting the cause of the rebellion which is already, which was already here before you came and so many of thousands of my soldiers and civilians dying, then if you cannot reconcile the idea of what your purpose is or was then we have to talk,” he said.

Duterte called the immense opposition to his government a “fight of ideas” and said that the government was “fighting a war” and an “insurgency”. “We are not advocating mass destruction; we are not advocating mass massacre. It’s a fight of ideas and apparently from the drift of your statement or your position is that it cannot be used as a platform for anything. It [Facebook’s takedown] is so convoluted that I cannot understand it,” he said.

Duterte’s comments came in the same address where he acknowledged that a “good percentage of students” already use Facebook for online classes.

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