Social Media Sites Have Banned Donald Trump. Can They Do the Same in the Philippines?

Experts discuss how the disinformation crisis is much more complicated in our region and offer supplementary solutions.

Social media has never been short of hateful and dangerous messages. Over the last few years, what were once niche movements of groups peddling false news and political propaganda existing only in the internet’s crevices have floated to the very top — amassing public attention and giving birth to dangerous situations.

Made worse by their algorithm, social media has served as host for organized chaos, with a slew of content that has effected the dilution of history, even manipulating elections and the recent events in the United States when a trove of Trump supporters stormed their nation’s capitol after being emboldened by right-wing influencers online. At least five died in the riots, and some participants have been charged with multiple cases. In the digital space, social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, and Reddit have suspended and banned several groups and users, including those directly connected to Donald Trump and the former US president himself, in what Evelyn Douek of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center referred to as the Friday Night Massacre.

The Philippines, however, is not new to this. In March 2019, Facebook already suspended some 200 pages linked to Nic Gabunada, the social media manager in charge of Duterte’s 2016 presidential campaign. Last year, Facebook also instituted a ban on a number of Facebook pages linked to police and military agencies in the country. Malacañang lashed out, demanding an explanation from the tech giant, and threatened it with strict regulations.

If we are to speak solely of social media’s responsibility, instituting such bans should be considered a work toward the greater good. Dishonesty, especially in politics, should have no place in a media platform, especially those with such a massive reach. But researchers in the field of digital media are wary both at the intentions of the heads in Silicon Valley and whether such bans will suffice in the rising disinformation crisis in other regions.

“One positive global consequence of deplatforming Trump, as well as his legion of QAnon supporters and extreme ‘conspiritualists,’ is that it would hurt the global supply chain for hateful propaganda,” Dr. Jonathan Ong, a Filipino associate professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts, said in an email to COMMONER. “Populist publics from India to Turkey to the Philippines, even activists in Hong Kong, found affirmation in the anti-elite and anti-mainstream media rhetoric peddled by Trump as well as by the YouTube conspiracists and Instagram influencers who support him.”

For so long, Trump has emboldened a horde of extremist supporters with his views on White supremacy and politics. In May 2020, he even tweeted a thinly veiled threat saying that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” alluding to the demonstrations for the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet he was only suspended by Twitter, along with other social media platforms, in January 2021 — a few days before his term ended and Joe Biden was inaugurated as his successor. The rationale offered by social media sites was sensical and overtly consistent with how they’ve instituted bans in the past (i.e., that the Great Deplatforming aligns with their community guidelines and was done to shield their users from dangerous messages). On one hand, this was a fantastical explanation for an awesome display of social media giants’ latitude in the political sphere. But, on the other, it came a few years too late.

The more realistic take then, according to Douek, is the one that we all know to be true: that they are businesses with an agenda they need to take care of. As such, the circumstances in the political sphere of the US backed them to a corner that they had to make editorialized business decisions, especially what would earn the favor of the democratic legislators who now compose the majority of the upper and lower houses of Congress. In a masterful stroke, Douek says, a small group of tech executives are “defining modern discourse,” and are effectively creating a state-like space where rules, though themselves not arbitrary, are “something in between democratic governance and journalism.”

As much as banning Trump is an exercise of their gatekeeping prowess, it is also a clear attempt at controlling how these platforms will be perceived in history, on top of creating alliances with the new administration. This is why replicating the Great Deplatforming is a tricky scheme for the Philippines. In Ong’s studies, he found out that the onus of disinformation in the country does not solely emanate from a few key actors. Instead, it involves multiple sectors in our society who are interconnected more by financial motivation than ideology. In the country, politicians hire public relations and advertising firms to handle campaigns. These campaigns may or may not employ tactics that sow disinformation. But some of these firms then employ influencers and paid trolls to roll out messages in a concerted manner to have stronger control over public opinion — overtaking the role that was previously reserved for more established media institutions. The press, on the other hand, are also hampered by their own financial situations, as they need to maintain relationships with firms who handle advertising money needed to rake in revenue. The structure of the disinformation ecosystem in the country and the fuel that keeps it running thus makes the task of addressing disinformation and its consequences all the more challenging.

The government will not be able to tackle disinformation either, or at least they shouldn’t be the one to do it. If a portion of control over content moderation is handed over to the government, they might be able to use it to manipulate narratives, impose bans of differing levels on the opposition, or curtail dissent online altogether. It has happened in democracies in Southeast Asia such as in the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, where incumbent officials were able to use existing laws on digital media to repress, sabotage, and derail the opposition’s moves down to the grassroots level.

“Governments in [Southeast Asia] have a long history of weaponing the law,” writes Ong in his piece about disinformation in the region for the Social Science Research Council. “From libel to blasphemy to monarchy defamation to media ownership — to harass or even jail journalists, media owners, and activists expressing dissent against state leaders.” Tackling disinformation in the country, then, requires a more specific approach. It’s no longer just the responsibility of social media platforms and the algorithms they employ, even if that’s an easier alternative. What is demanded is reform on the local level that is culturally and socially appropriate and takes into consideration political, economic, social, and technological environments.

The question on whether imposing bans or taking down content, especially of influential figures, goes against the dogmas of free speech has long been argued. But as per several court decisions in the US, the rules in this case apply differently. Even constitutionally protected speech may not escape the claws of social media sites, which are private enterprises who have their own sets of rules and regulations.

“What Twitter did to Trump and some of his supporters is responsible gatekeeping, not outright censorship,” says Danilo Arao, an associate professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines. “As a social media platform, it has a responsibility to ensure that the lies, misinformation and disinformation are not amplified to the point where the truth is drowned out.”

So what can be done against disinformation in the Philippines, where the biggest antagonists are government officials and political figures; where even the media are acting in ways that amplify lies and disinformation; and where firms who handle advertising money needed by a supposedly independent press are involved in promoting politicians who use disinformation to their advantage?

As a solution, Ong derives from media researcher Joan Donovan, who suggests that media institutions in a networked ecosystem employ strategic silence and amplification when dealing with messages from influencers. In Donovan’s study, she says that what an organization chooses not to cover is just “as significant as what they do cover,” and so, media organizations and platforms should consider creating a more collaborative editorial approach that takes into account both news content and algorithms. Until then, established media institutions can take a more active stance in deciding not to give the opportunity for disinformation to occupy space in their own platforms, or at least without the immediate contextualization and corrections required to establish what makes a statement a lie.

A huge responsibility falls on other segments as well, especially on private individuals who wish to partake in diminishing disinformation in the country. Academics, researchers, civil society groups, corporate businesses — these groups have respective roles to perform.

“We will need to pay attention to whether production economies for hateful propaganda become more local, thus increasing urgency for more robust platform governance at the country level,” Ong said. “We will also need to watch for how countries with much weaker institutions could pass government regulations that might deal even greater harm than platforms’ lax policies.”

Deplatforming Trump and others in the US did real damage to the assembly line of disinformation. But this is not a one-size-fits-all solution, especially in other democracies where the game has evolved to become more inventive. As Douek said, banning Trump should not appear as an end of an era. Instead, it should be the start of a new one. While the US has already toppled the notorious former head of state, there are still others, like in the Philippines, who thrive in a landscape infested by fake news, paid trolls, and attempts to undermine history. And for as long as involved sectors fail to adjust, the crisis is only bound to get worse.