MANILA — As the messages poured into the spam folder of my Facebook Messenger account, the feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach was oddly accompanied by a sense of irritated amusement: “Here we go again.” Another campaign of harassment had begun.
It was election season in the Philippines and I had just worked on a report about the long-running, well-funded online historical distortion campaign that helped propel Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late, disgraced dictator, to a landslide presidential victory on May 9. He will be inaugurated on June 30.
The thing about a candidate with a well-organized social media presence is that it’s not long before you get a reaction to anything you have written. The angry comments immediately poured in through my post about the article on LinkedIn (not the usual site for such battles), and then on Facebook.
Pro-Marcos bloggers claimed I made up my reporting about the money being paid to online trolls and propagandists to promote certain politicians. Many of the messages implied that by reporting on the disinformation machinery, I was discrediting Marcos’s real supporters.
“I drive a 2022 Maserati Levante from my own toil,” one self-identified Marcos supporter wrote. “This, I guess, gives me the right to say PUTA KA SA LAHAT NG PUTA [you are the puta of all putas] for fabricating stories out of your demonic mind. Kakarmahin ka rin puta ka [Hope karma gets you, puta].”
“Lots of us here in Europe earn a minimum of 2,000 Euros, from our blood and sweat,” wrote another. “And we’re not like you, an imbecile prestitute.”
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. Part of me doesn’t want to, because if I do then it feels like I’m giving up and accepting that this sort of online abuse is normal. I also recognize that this hate is manufactured and there are people out there getting paid full time to curse and threaten us — so to be honest, these paid-for campaigns make me really angry.
This is the third harassment campaign I’ve experienced under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. I say “campaign” because, having covered troll farms, I know these attacks are well organized. The first two happened in 2020 and 2021, and had to do with our critical coverage of Duterte’s pandemic response.
Since Duterte’s rise to power in 2016, the Philippines has become a hub for online influence campaigns, whether to sell products or support political candidates. Harassment of opponents and independent journalists is common in many places around the world, like India, but experts describe the level of organization — and disinformation — as particularly advanced in the Philippines, which is one of Facebook’s biggest markets.
A whole political strategy and public relations industry fuels the work of influencers and troll farms. The worst operations spread disinformation and harass critics, the opposition and the independent press. Women are particularly vulnerable.
Here’s how they typically work. A hyperpartisan personality sees the journalist’s work and blasts them on social media. Then comes the flood of messages. Some are sent at certain hours — which could mean the accounts are on a work shift — and the words, phrases and thoughts used are often similar. This is because troll attacks follow a script composed by a moderator, according to political strategist Alan German.
So I heard pro-Marcos propagandists put me on blast. Here's a walkthrough of my Messenger inbox after, not counting tags and other spam.— Regine Cabato (@RegineCabato) April 21, 2022
If anything, this demonstrates the machinery we described in our report, which is free to read until tomorrow: https://t.co/nZYNVD4DYI pic.twitter.com/2DeqIE5PTO
The messages generally claim my reporting is fake and lacks sources — though the sourcing is clear in the articles — and use a lot of insults. Across campaigns, I’ve been called a liar, a pig and, most recently, a “whorenalist” — a cruder variation of the more common presstitute.
The advice is always to ignore the messages and not engage, but they kept calling out to me from my inbox like a haunted item in a horror film. I had to know if it was something worse than insults like being doxed or some horrific deepfake video with my head attached — the machineries supporting Marcos and Duterte have manufactured sex scandals against their opponents before.
Sometimes, my hands shake in either anxiety or anger when I have to comb through these messages, and I’m almost relieved when someone calls me a slut or some other generic slur, because I’m always expecting something worse.
The first campaign against me was for a short news item about how Twitter confirmed taking down hundreds of accounts defending Duterte because of the accounts’ inauthentic behavior. When I shared the news, a barrage of hate flooded my notifications on Twitter — some are still visible in the replies here — and one user claimed, wrongly, that The Post had retracted the story. The second time was for tweeting about the overcrowded hospitals during the covid-19 surge. In both cases the harassment lasted around two to three days.
The attacks on journalists in the Philippines are pretty constant and go beyond just insulting messages. One colleague’s Facebook account was hacked, and began posting nude photos and spewing pro-Marcos propaganda.
After BBC correspondent Howard Johnson was able to doorstep Marcos and ask him how he could be a good president if he wasn’t meeting with the press, Johnson started receiving death threats.
Nothing, however, can compare to the campaigns against the Philippines’ most famous journalist, Maria Ressa, founder of the online news site Rappler, 2021 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and relentless Duterte critic.
At the peak of one campaign against her, she was receiving 90 harassing messages an hour. Analysis of these attacks showed that they were roughly split between discrediting her work and tearing down her spirit, often in sexist and violently abusive terms. I noticed a similar trend in the attacks toward me.
When I spoke to her last year, Ressa said that disinformation was melting into behavior modification. “The data tells me it has gotten worse, not better,” she said. “Far more action has to be taken, otherwise we won’t have integrity of elections.”
It’s not just journalists, of course. Politicians like Leila de Lima, an imprisoned senator, or Leni Robredo, the incumbent vice president, are seen as opponents of Duterte’s and have been constantly harassed and maligned online, often in a very vulgar fashion.
Covering the elections, I witnessed firsthand what Ressa was talking about with people succumbing to the barrage of disinformation. Following volunteers for the opposition doing door-to-door canvassing, I saw how Marcos supporters heckled them and slammed doors in their faces, refusing to believe “fake news” about their preferred candidate.
On election day, for half an hour at a single polling station, I had four straight interviews where people said the same thing — using the same words — “I don’t believe in the ill-gotten wealth” about the Marcos family’s very well-known history of plundering the country.
On the campaign trail for Marcos, there were unprecedented restrictions toward the media. His security swarmed around him, and female reporters were shoved away while trying to ask questions. In one video, supporters began chanting “Protect BBM!” — the initials of his nickname Bongbong Marcos, and drowned out reporters.
I was one of at least a dozen foreign press reporters denied accreditation for his campaign, and his camp routinely did not respond to requests for comment. After the election, his spokesman ignored questions from Rappler reporter Lian Buan in the middle of a news conference.
The naked animosity toward the independent press has raised alarm bells over what Marcos’s administration will be like, especially after Duterte’s strongman rule. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines — where I sit as a board member — released a statement expressing its concern.
A colleague on the board contacted me about my experiences and asked me to name some of the worst messages directed against me. I suddenly burst into tears, and I had to explain that I just couldn’t face going through my inbox again. That was when I realized how stressed and frustrated I really was, because it became clear in the run-up to the elections that these attacks would only get worse under Marcos.
“All these restrictive actions undermine a critical and free press in an Asian bulwark of democracy,” the association’s statement said, “and sparked fears of how independent media would be treated under another possible Marcos presidency.”
The following day, Marcos’s spokesman Vic Rodriguez responded, “I don’t know what the basis of journalists is to say that they’re being attacked or given death threats.” He added it was Marcos who is the “victim of hate campaigning.”
Marcos previously denied using troll farms, insisting that his social media presence was organic. “We have no trolls … not a single one,” Marcos told CNN Philippines.
The evidence says otherwise. Marcos has registered zero spending for Facebook advertising, but research by the fact-checking initiative Tsek.ph shows he is still somehow the biggest beneficiary of online disinformation. Data has shown Marcos has the most expansive online network among local politicians.
The night of the election, my colleagues in the local press and I watched tensely as results poured in and turned into a landslide victory for Marcos. After it was all over and we’d done our last interviews, it was 3 a.m. and we hit a 24-hour restaurant to split a pizza. Unable to sleep, we cracked deadpan jokes about the future.
If the campaign was anything to go by, for journalists the next six years would be very difficult, and the hostility we had experienced so far was just the beginning.