The Philippines’ Violent President Is Inspiring A Hostile Online Army

Political polarization is manifesting itself online under controversial new leader, Rodrigo Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. — REUTERS
Dec 07, 2016 at 1:07 PM ET

The Philippines elected controversial president Rodrigo Duterte this year. Along with him rose an increasingly familiar army of hyper-partisans who use social media to vehemently support their candidate — and make life as unpleasant as possible for any who dare to voice dissent.

Duterte assumed office on June 30 on a platform of reducing crime and ruthlessly weeding out drug users, dealers, and addicts. Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, made strides in lessening corruption and introducing economic reforms in the country, but his political maneuvers, opponents say, did little to impact the lives of ordinary Filipinos. Duterte, the former mayor of Davao City and a Trump-like figure in the country’s political arena, was the perfect antidote to Aquino III’s establishment-happy image, and his outsider, rough-around-the-edges style gained him support among the Philippines’ working class. Currently, Duterte is riding a sky-high approval rating.

But his extreme pledge to clean up the country’s crime and drug issues — the Philippines consumes the most methamphetamine in Southeast Asia, and has become a major transit hub for drugs going to China and elsewhere — has led to a mountain of corpses: somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 suspected users and dealers have been killed in the 140 days since Duterte came to power, by police and vigilante death squads. “Do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you,” Duterte told officers on July 1, the day after his inauguration.

Duterte’s violent, divisive style of rule has caused a political schism in the archipelago nation: you’re either with him or against him. For human rights workers, local and international journalists, and civil liberties advocates opposing Duterte, that has meant being on the receiving end of social media threats from an online mob that is fiercely defending its populist demagogue of a president. It’s part of a rising trend seen around the world, including in the United States, where journalists and critics of the president-elect face daily the threat of being persecuted for their work and beliefs.

“What we noticed is that there is an extremely aggressive, well-resourced and extremely willful social media presence that basically seeks to shout down, harass, and intimidate any individuals or groups who challenge the official government narrative of the so-called ‘war on drugs,’” says Philim Kine, the deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.

Duterte’s opposition focuses partly on the shadowy forces at work in the government’s bloody drug war. Kine noted that out of the roughly 5,000 people killed, about 2,000 have been killed by actual police officers — all of them reportedly ‘fought back’ against the cops — and the other 3,000 were gunned down unidentified hitmen.

“I don’t care about human rights, believe me,” Duterte was quoted as saying in August. More recently, on Thursday, Duterte even threatened human rights advocates with violence. “The human rights [defenders] say I kill. If I say: ‘Okay, I’ll stop’. They [drug users] will multiply,” he said., according to “When harvest time comes, there will be more of them who will die. Then I will include you among them because you let them multiply.”

Online, Duterte’s digital army of sympathizers takes after their leader and gangs up on those who speak out against these atrocities, including Kine. “I get daily, really hateful and threatening comments via both Twitter and Facebook,” he told Vocativ. “I’ve had people imply that my health or my safety was at risk for taking the position of asserting the primacy of due legal process and universal human rights and freedoms with regards to how this abusive war on drugs is being prosecuted.”

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The army of supporters is a grassroots network with no clear top-down leadership. Duterte himself benefited from an organic network of “Twitter warriors” to get the word out about his presidential bid. And much like in other countries, hashtags and memes reign supreme. Kine pointed to a popular meme, “Stop destabilizing the Philippines” — essentially a backlash by Duterte supporters against media and human rights organizations. A Google Image search turns up thousands of pictures of Filipinos holding up signs with the phrase written on paper.

“This message is absurd in the sense that it suggests that anyone who challenges this narrative and is in support of due legal process, universal rights and freedoms is actually posing a threat to the stability of the Philippines,” Kine told Vocativ. “It’s a dog whistle for aggressive forces that are now off the leash in the Philippines.”

And it’s an effective deterrent, particularly for domestic Filipino journalists and civil society actors who endure harassment and manipulation by political cyber bullies. Tonyo Cruz, a columnist at the Manila Bulletin newspaper who blogs on the side, told Vocativ about the intricate attacks that have sought to smear his image online.

Cruz said the attacks started after he published a column critical of Manuel “Mar” Roxas, the former secretary of the interior and the Liberal Party’s presidential candidate in the most recent election. The Liberal Party was formerly in power under former President Aquino III. As such, supporters of opposition parties, including those backing Duterte, enthusiastically circulated his article, Cruz said — though they also trolled him online.

During the last few weeks of the country’s presidential campaign, Cruz told Vocativ that “unknown persons” created a Reddit account in his name (“tonyocruz”) and posted as if he was Duterte’s actual social media director. “The poser account supposedly had me recruiting people and making all sorts of statements that depicted me as an unethical and unthinking person,” Cruz told Vocativ in an email. “[For] example: The poser account posted that I supposedly was openly using my Manila Bulletin column to support Duterte.”

Cruz put his stance on Duterte like this: “I strongly oppose extrajudicial killings and the wrongheaded war on drugs, his continuing of the neoliberal economic policy, and his alliance with the Marcoses [the family of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos].” In addition to his father Vincente serving in Marcos’s cabinet, Duterte gained the support of Marcos loyalists during his campaign and promised to rebury the late dictator in the national Heroes Cemetery — a pledge that has outraged countless Filipinos.

Cruz informed Reddit and his readers of the phony situation and the page was taken down, though the minor victory hardly represented the conclusion of his woes. Cruz said he’s been accused online of being of just about every political affiliation in the Philippines — “depending on who’s talking. I don’t mind, as long as they don’t directly threaten me or my family.”

But it seems as if Duterte’s internet attack dogs are happy to cover large swaths of the political arena, and the president’s ties to the Marcos clan — a family that to this day wields immense political power and popularity in the Philippines despite Ferdinand’s vicious reign — mean that even critics of the late dictator are fair game.

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Noemi L. Dado, who goes by the Twitter handle @momblogger, is another social media activist who has been the subject of political attacks, and she is someone who is well-skilled in navigating the minefield of trolls in the Philippines. Her feed has lately been filled with anti-Marcos hashtags such as #MarcosNOTaHero and #MarcosBurialProtest, as well as invitations to trolls to engage with her online:

But Dado’s criticism isn’t limited to Marcos: she has thrown barbs at Duterte, Aquino III, and countless other politicians. Dado told Vocativ via Twitter direct messages that her use of certain hashtags, such as those focusing on Marcos’s burial as well as #PartnerForChange — a hashtag used by Duterte’s backers to promote his murderous drug war — have led to her being labeled an adversary by many political actors in the Philippines. “Those who accuse me as such don’t me,” she said.

Dado added that she tends to get more abuse on Facebook than on Twitter (the Philippines counts more than 47 million active Facebook users, after all), and that Duterte’s followers aren’t even the harshest critics she’s come across online, which is odd considering the populist passions he’s incited since he’s taken power. “Actually the most vicious ones are the yellows, the pro Noynoy supporters,” she told Vocativ, referring to the popular nicknames given to the former ruling party and former President Aquino. “I have been sharing opinions since 2006 so most know me. The ones that get the most flack are the hyperpartisans.”

Kine, of Human Rights Watch, argues that Duterte’s online forces are effectively winning the current “information war” being waged in the Philippines and seeking to “flood the zone” by ensuring that only their message gets out while shutting down, intimidating, and harassing people that challenge that. “The scary thing is, given the current reality of rule of law on the ground in the Philippines right now, this type of aggressive, intimidatory rhetoric via social media is effective – it works,” Kine told Vocativ. “People think twice before seeking to put out messages that they fear might draw the attention of these types of forces.”

But like others, Dado said that she will continue to blog and speak out against injustices in her country — no matter who tries to intimidate her online or in the real world. “I am not scared because I present both sides. I am known to call out good and bad deeds,” she told Vocativ. “My hope is simple. A better future for my children even if I am just one voice among the noise in social media.”