Facebook helped Filipino dictator and his death squads kill drug users

Facebook helped Filipino dictator and his death squads kill drug users

CultureApril 19, 2018 By Reilly Capps

Facebook's evil influence crosses oceans.

In the Philippines, Facebook helped a bad person become president. Then it helped him kill.

Rodrigo Duterte hates drug users and "pushers." He's killed between 4,000 and 13,000 of them. Imagine being killed just for having weed on you. 

He has popular support for this. Nearly 9 out of 10 Filipinos approve of his war on drug users. 

How did this happen? How did regular people in the Philippines come support murder for marijuana?  

Partly: Facebook, experts say. 

The social media site is huge in the Philippines. The President is huge on Facebook, with dozens of fan pages and millions of loyal followers. And he's used Facebook to manipulate his followers into hating a minority group. Only it isn't Mexicans and Muslims, it's drug users.  

"Rodrigo Duterte was elected six months before Trump, and he literally pioneered a lot of the crap that Trump is doing," said Sanho Tree, an international drug policy expert and opponent of the drug war who has studied the situation in the Philippines.

Before Duterte controlled a military, he had a "keyboard army" of militant trolls on Facebook, who would "like" and upvote and share all his horseshit: a lie that the Pope admired him, or that meth shrinks your brain to the size of a baby's or that tweakers suck up state resources. Trolls spread these wrong impressions like viruses on Facebook.

We used to think about social media as the outlet for regular people to speak their small truths. A democratizing force for the world. But, more and more, they've turned into propaganda bullhorns for the biggest iron-fisted dickheads in the world. Average people don't just speak for themselves: they parrot talking points from their partisan overlords. 

"Some of them are actually paid per engagement," Tree said. A few cents per retweet can earn a troll a fortune. The government pays trolls up to $2,000 a month, The New Republic said. It also turned out that a lot of the pro-Duterte pages were fake. 

Social media's echo chamber can make a crazy idea seem like genius — even putting bullets into brains just cause they're messed up on drugs.  

Tree himself has been trolled by Duterte supporters.

"Took me a while to figure out that these people were being paid when they were trolling me on Twitter. 'What do you know? Who are you?' Or they'll just keep asking these really simple questions, 'why, why, why?" Tree said. It takes them two seconds to type it, but sidetracks Tree from whatever he was doing.

The use of Facebook trolls to support the Philippines tough guy and drug war hasn't been reported much in the West. But the Philippine press is tracking it. The website Rappler wrote an interesting story this month: that the Facebook data breach, in which Cambridge Analytica illegally stole the information from millions of users, could have helped Duterte win the 2016 election. The South China Morning Post and the Straights Times had the same story. More than a million Filipinos had their data improperly shared, Facebook said; that's the second highest number behind America.

Cambridge Analytica saw in their Facebook data that Filipinos "liked" politicians with hard edges, according to their own documents.

A report from Cambridge Analytica said that they learned from Facebook data that Filipinos would rather have a president, like Duterte, who was "tough" and "decisive," rather than one who was "kind and honorable," like the old president. So they made ads that focused on the crime problem, and pushed Duterte and his death squad as the savior. 

So it's possible that a combination of clever marketing plus paid trolls plus illegal data mining — plus the awesome power of Facebook to warp minds — helped give the Philippines a dictator.

Or, put another way, maybe Facebook showed Cambridge Analytica who users really want in charge: not good people, but bastards.

"It's being used very maliciously," said Tree, the drug policy expert.

Facebook's motto, after all, is "Move fast and break things." The Philippines may be seeing what that looks like.

[Cover photo from the Associated Press, by Bullit Marquez.]