MANILA — In a white-walled room, a small cyber-army of four is furiously typing. And posting. And clicking. And scrolling.
This trolling mission was for a candidate running for the Philippine Senate. One aim was to cook up fake social media accounts to make it appear as if the candidate had a vast and fervent base of supporters. Another goal was to smear any critics, especially those who call them out for precisely the jobs they do.
Across the Philippines, it’s a virtual free-for-all. Trolls for companies. Trolls for celebrities. Trolls for liberal opposition politicians and the government. Trolls trolling trolls.
The world of Internet trolls — the gaslighting, the fabrications, the nastiness — is now a fact of life in the Web ecosystem nearly everywhere.
But something new is happening here: Experienced public relations experts in the Philippines are harnessing the raw energy of young and aggressive social media shape-shifters.
They are dramatically altering the political landscape in the Philippines with almost complete impunity — shielded by politicians who are so deep into this practice that they will not legislate against it, and using the cover of established PR firms that quietly offer these services.
It is also showing signs of going global — with the Philippines as a hub — as the United States and countries across the world move into another election cycle in the troll age.
“This is what disinformation will look like in the U.S. in 2020,” said Camille François, chief innovation officer at the New York-based social network analysis company Graphika.
Political manipulation, she said, does not need to come from an ill-intentioned enemy state. It can originate with those who have cut their teeth in the competitive worlds of advertising, media and marketing. Social media companies, she added, were caught off guard before — notably in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 — and could be yet again with this new iteration.
“The Philippines shows us trends that are headed this way,” said François, who led a report commissioned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigating Russian trolls in the United States. “And, it is 2019, the market is global — so they will find jobs outside of their own nation.”
These ambitious operators now want to turn their country into the go-to place to influence corporate and political campaigns worldwide — using the same young, educated, English-speaking workforce that made the Philippines a global call center and content moderation hub.
The Washington Post interviewed over half a dozen paid trolls, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity and illegality of their work. They offered a glimpse into how Philippine trolls are shaping politics in their country and possibly showing signs of things to come elsewhere.
For the Senate candidate, for example, the hired trolls worked round-the-clock to flood platforms such as Twitter and Facebook with seemingly organic messages of support. Fans leaped to his defense, debated his critics and sang praises of his leadership style ahead of crucial midterm elections that were held in May.
Except it is all an illusion, manufactured by hundreds of fake accounts all meticulously tracked on a spreadsheet.
“This one, she is a fan of K-pop,” said one female worker, pointing to an open Twitter page showing the fake profile of a young, pink-cheeked woman. Buried among her fan posts for bands such as BTS are messages in support of the Senate candidate. The more likes and retweets, the better she’s doing.
The candidate was not elected, but he came close.
Several paid troll farm operations and one self-described influencer say they have been approached and contracted by international clients, including from Britain, to do political work. Others are planning to expand overseas, hoping to start regionally.
“It has all become an enterprise,” said Yvonne Chua, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines who has extensively researched misinformation on the Internet.
“It has come to a point where you can rely on the Philippines for all sorts of things: trolls, click farms, whatever you want.”
'Get into your character'
He calls his operation a “white troll” farm, now an industry-wide term.
“Positive trolling” is another way to describe it, said the owner of a public relations firm that now specializes in these services. The idea, he said, was to counter the vitriol of the “black trolls” in the Philippines, linked to strongman President Rodrigo Duterte, whose supporters have turned online intimidation into an art.
The troll operator said he watched from the sidelines in 2016, when Duterte and his allies harnessed the power of self-declared patriots online and turned them into an organized cyber-mob — the Die-hard Duterte Supporters, or DDS. He was shocked to see female candidates and opposition leaders being humiliated on Facebook, threatened with rape and even death.
When Duterte assumed the presidency in 2016, the idea of a “white troll” farm took shape in the PR executive’s mind.
Duterte-linked trolls “use this power to peddle lies, concoct fake news, brainwash people,” he says in an interview. “I said, at least people should be influenced properly.”
His rules are strict: no harassment, no targeting of women or minorities, no fake news. Comments cannot be posted through a simple copy-and-paste job; they must always be new and original. Yet the online accounts that power his business are still largely fabricated names and backgrounds.
“We’re changing the landscape of trolling somehow,” he says.
His clients range from real estate firms looking to sell units in new developments to overseas Filipinos, companies battling a public relations crisis or celebrities looking to fend off black trolls.
He makes the most from politicians, who pay anywhere from about $38,000 to $57,000 — “depending on their needs” — to hire his company on a month-long retainer for up to eight months. He has worked recently for seven politicians, including the senatorial hopeful whose campaign office The Post visited.
“When I launched this two years ago, the idea was really to target politicians since it’s really meant for them,” he says. “They’re always targets of fake news. They’re always on the news.”
He likens the job to theater: “You assume different personalities. You should get into your character.”
Every campaign starts with a client presentation. Any client who asks for a “black operation” is turned away, he said. Once it is approved, the client has to provide SIM cards: one is needed for every Facebook or Twitter account.
He then asks for 15 days.
“I call it the cultivation period,” he said. “We just make accounts.”
His social media manager, who chose to be identified as Agnes, carts almost 1, 000 SIM cards with her, in case Facebook asks for a login code sent through text. Each SIM card stands for a fictitious character who “lives” on social media: He or she goes shopping, drinks a latte, poses at a popular tourist spot and shares gifts received.
“You really keep it alive” before you start posting messages of support or bashing critics, Agnes said.
Troll vs. troll
Then they get to work.
When a politician attacked Agnes’s client, her team went into overdrive. They pointed out, ironically, that he was merely using hired hacks to criticize the client. The rival ended up deleting his post.
Her terms to describe her trade evoke images of bloody war on the battlefield. She speaks of “invading” online chat groups and Facebook fan pages, and she talks of fighting her “enemies” online in real time.
“That’s how we look at our enemies if we’re fighting online. We check if the accounts are real,” Agnes says. “We know that could happen to us, too, so we keep the account ‘alive’. So if they see us, they’ll see . . . ‘Oh, this person was in [the resort town] Tagaytay. They were in Starbucks.’ ”
And if they are accused of being trolls themselves, “we stick to the statement that we aren’t,” she said — doubling down on a lie.
“We challenge them to look at our Facebook accounts,” she said.
These sparring matches — between live, paid social media operatives — are the latest evolution of this industry. It is also the clearest sign that inauthentic social media behavior has seeped into every layer of politics in the Philippines.
“It is really unique to the Philippines. We haven’t seen so many other countries that are using live moderators to battle it out,” said Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at Oxford University who has studied misinformation campaigns worldwide. “This idea of the troll versus the troll, it is quite new.”
The operator of the white troll farm is among those who, having perfected their craft at home, dream of growing beyond the borders of the Philippines. He is hoping for global expansion, even if he starts small by exploring the market in regional countries such as Singapore.
“Why not?” he challenged.
A lie 10,000 times
Filipinos spend the most time online in the world — more than 10 hours on the Internet a day — according to social media analytics firm Hootsuite. The country is also one of Facebook’s biggest markets. In some cities, there are more users on the platform than the population.
For Duterte’s trolls and social media operatives, this was fertile ground.
Among the targets of their most vile and aggressive troll campaigns are imprisoned Sen. Leila de Lima, an outspoken critic of Duterte’s war on drugs; former opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes, whose term ended in June; and prominent journalist Maria Ressa, named one of Time’s 2018 people of the year.
Ressa, ironically, was working with researchers like Graphika’s François, studying troll campaigns linked back to her government.
“One day, she called me and said, ‘It is me they are going after. I’m the target now,’ ” François said.
One trolling-services firm says planting and amplifying these falsehoods was deliberate.
“If you hear a lie once, you don’t believe it,” said a representative of the trolling-services firm, which is linked to the Duterte administration. “But if you hear it from 10,000 people, you start questioning what you know.”
Lima, Trillanes and Ressa are all fighting charges they say are politically motivated, and they have been the victims of fabricated news articles that allege corruption, involvement in the drug trade and an assortment of other crimes.
Ahead of the Philippines midterm elections in May, The Washington Post found a number of other senators using fake accounts to boost their popularity, one strongly allied with Duterte.
Some gave themselves away easily. In March, a Twitter account in support of Sen. Sonny Angara was found using a profile photo of a dead Filipino girl, murdered in the United States last December.
The account has since been taken down. But an image search by The Post also uncovered the same photo being used in accounts supportive of politicians Bong Revilla and Grace Poe, a former presidential candidate.
The Post also found Twitter accounts supportive of Angara and Poe misleadingly using photos belonging to a travel blogger, a software start-up founder, at least two beauty pageant candidates, “The Apprentice Asia” winner Jonathan Yabut, and Filipino American social media personality Bretman Rock.
Revilla, Poe and Angara all won Senate seats in the midterm elections. Poe led a Senate hearing on misinformation last year, and she described the problem as something that “plagued” society.
However, she pushed back on the idea that lawmakers should legislate it for fear of censorship.
All three denied that they utilize such services.
'We're determined, too'
The Philippines is one of the countries where Facebook offers its “Free Basics” service, providing free Internet access to a small number of websites and Facebook itself — essentially turning the platform into the de facto Internet. The main Philippine cellular providers also offer cheap Facebook data packages.
Facebook is now using the Philippines as proof that they can right their wrongs. After apologizing for not acting sooner, the company has staffed up a local office in Manila — a rare move for Facebook — and launched a digital literacy program.
Hundreds of Facebook pages linked to Philippine troll farms have been removed from the platform, including digital marketing group Twinmark Media. It controlled a so-called digital news website, Trending News Portal, that posted unverified and salacious articles critical of Duterte’s opponents.
In late March, the social media platform removed 200 pages, groups and accounts that they said were linked to Nic Gabunada, who was the head of Duterte’s social media strategy during the 2016 campaign.
The social media analysis company Graphika, which helped Facebook archive this content before its removal, said these pages glorified Duterte’s war on drugs, which human rights groups say has resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 people in police raids and extrajudicial slayings.
Gabunada, in response to questions from The Post, pushed back on the idea that he was running a trolling effort. He said he was merely sharing his views on politics and support of Duterte, and was consulting with Duterte supporters who wanted to start their own fan pages.
He also believes he was unfairly targeted.
“The vitriol we observe in social media conversations today are coming from both sides,” he said. “I have a feeling I was singled out, whereas the anti-Duterte and opposition pages were not.”
A separate trolling-services firm linked to Duterte said the Facebook crackdown was so dramatic that their clients considered cutting their budget by 70 percent, unsure whether the investment was worth it if pages kept getting taken down.
The firm has since evolved: investing more in making their pages look authentic and posting memes and photos rather than text, which are harder for algorithms to detect. Business has picked up again.
“We know this work will never be done. We have determined adversaries who will keep evolving their tactics to circumvent the new barriers we put in place,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook. “But we’re determined, too, and will continue to be focused on making it as difficult as possible for bad actors who want to abuse our services.”
Ellen Tordesillas, a longtime investigative journalist at Vera Files, a nonprofit media organization that also works with Facebook to fact-check in the Philippines, said a particularly nasty bout of trolls emerged after Facebook pulled down the hundreds of pages.
“It is not like they can post on Zuckerberg’s Facebook page and have any impact; their office in the Philippines is not exceptional,” she said. “So it is easier to attack us.”
Another wave came after the news organization published a commentary on a list of names supposedly linked with the drug trade, from a whistleblower who called himself “Bikoy.” Among them was Paolo Duterte, the leader’s son, who has denied the charges.
As she spoke to The Post, her phone rang. It was an unknown number, but she picked up anyway, thinking it might be the bank. She soon realized it was a troll.
“How’s Bikoy?” the person said. “You’re done for.”
She hung up, but the same caller tried again, and again, and again, until the phone stopped ringing.