Facebook strips fake account network of Duterte social media manager

President Duterte's 2016 social media campaign manager Nic Gabunada ... plans to appeal against the Facebook crackdown on the fake accounts network. Graphic: Rappler

By Gelo Gonzales in Manila

Facebook has taken down 200 pages and accounts organised by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s social media manager in his 2016 campaign, Nic Gabunada, the company has announced.

The 200 pages and accounts found on Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook groups were removed for their proliferation of fake accounts.

These fake accounts pushed political messaging that promoted their candidate or attacked political opponents.

READ MORE: The ‘amazing’ fake social media network of Nic Gabunada

The fake accounts behaved as if they were real people, and majority of the time, those who followed the fake accounts or saw the comments of these fake accounts believed that they were real, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, told news media.

“[The pages] frequently posted about local and political news, including topics like the upcoming elections, candidate updates and views, alleged misconduct of political opponents, and controversial events that were purported to occur during previous administrations. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that this activity was linked to a network organised by Nic Gabunada,” Facebook said in a blog post.

The pages are influential, with 3.6 million users following at least one of the pages.

The 200 pages include 67 Facebook pages, 68 Facebook accounts, 40 Facebook groups and 25 Instagram accounts. About 1.8 million accounts joined at least one of these groups and around 5300 accounts followed one or more of these Instagram accounts.

Political messaging
While Facebook says the network was run by Gabunada, and that the pages pushed political messaging, they call the network “a non-government actor”, saying they don’t have anything concrete linking the Gabunada-run network to the government.

Gabunada said he was surprised with the takedown, and called the move “unfortunate”, in a phone interview with ABS-CBN. He said he was just among the people who share content and invited to join certain groups, and also said he plans to appeal the takedowns.

The Gabunada takedown follows similar Facebook action in January when the company took down Twinmark Enterprises for similar violations on Facebook’s policies on what it calls coordinated inauthentic behaviour.

Gleicher notes that in the case of the Gabunada network, they noticed that the fake accounts operated more prominently in Facebook groups, misleading people to believe that they were interacting with real people with real political beliefs, when in fact they were part of social media campaign designed to influence and manipulate.

Gleicher adds that in the Twinmark case, traditional pages were used more as opposed to Facebook groups.

Gleicher, as the company has always emphasised in the past, said that when looking for violations against their policy on coordinated inauthentic behavior, it was the behavior they were looking for and not the actual content being pushed.

It was the fact that fake pages were created to appear as real that triggered the takedown, and not the messaging or the political content being pushed by the pages, he said.

Independent looking, but coordinated
“[The pages] were designed to look independent, but they were coordinated. They post about political news: pro-content about their candidates, while some attack the opponents of those political candidates. They conceal their identity,” said Gleicher.

One of the tricks used by the network used included combining authentic and inauthentic accounts.

The pages also made use of Facebook ads, spending a total of about $59,000, with the first ad appearing in January 2014, and the last, just this March 2019.

The ads were paid for in Philippine peso, Saudi riyal and US dollars.

Gleicher also said they would be working with policy makers after the takedown. A third-party report about the Gabunada network is also forthcoming from a US-based company, which Gleicher said should come out soon after their own report.

Gelo Gonzales is a Rappler journalist.

Facebook announces a takedown of 200 pages and accounts organised by Nic Gabunada,  Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s social media manager in his 2016 campaign. Video: Rappler

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