The Manila Times : Facebook acting like the truth police

28 April 2022

By Antonio Contreras | The Manila Times

I AM not new to the experience of being suspended by Facebook. In fact, I am still serving out my sentence of not being able to do a Facebook Live from my original account. This has taught me how to become creative. I now avoid sharing images and hyperlinks, except from "Facebook-friendly" pages like Rappler, Inquirer, ABS-CBN and CNN Philippines.

To avoid being flagged, I just use texts to describe images or what is contained in posts. When I use words or texts, I avoid controversial words, or I would mask them by inserting special characters. It also helps to post in Filipino, or other local languages, since the artificial intelligence used by Facebook algorithms to flag what are considered as offensive words have yet to encode a version in local languages.

It also helps to space posts in such a way that they are not frequent since posting successively can trigger the not-so-intelligent artificial intelligence to mistake your being a prolific poster for being a spammer. Never ever share the same content to multiple accounts. And if you think your conversations in FB messenger are private, think again. You are being policed and watched, even the pornographic images you send to your buddies or the juicy gossip you share with your amigas.

Indeed, Facebook has become a super-police force that curtails our freedom to speak. It is no longer just mechanically detecting patterns or words. It is now even taking down posts and accounts for their content, and for their politics.

When Facebook first appeared in our lives, it promised to deliver a platform that would increase our social bonds, strengthen our networks and reinforce our free speech rights. Indeed, it is true that Facebook has been abused by some, with its accessibility being taken advantage of by peddlers of disinformation.

Unfortunately, the steps it took to prevent it being abused by agents of fakery appear to have acquired the features of a dictatorial tyrant that suspends and takes down without the benefit of due process. And what makes this even offensive is that Facebook has been penetrated by political partisans, or if not, has been much influenced by them. The irony is that most of these are people who on ordinary days are bleeding-heart political liberals who march for free speech rights, but only when those are not inconvenient to them.

There is no argument that fakery on things like the pandemic, or things that would seriously undermine people's security and lives, have to be de-platformed. But not when the contested speech is about political personalities or are expressed as political opinions. After all, there are remedies found in libel laws, and in the open discursive contestations in politics where the remedy is not less, but more speech.

Unfortunately, the landscape has been framed by liberal academics who focus on social media disinformation, and whose studies have generated a list of accounts that espouse contrarian political discourse, which happen to be predominantly pro-Duterte and/or pro-Marcos. Most, if not all, of these academics have anti-Duterte and anti-Marcos biases. This is further compounded when Facebook hired the services of fact-checkers who likewise come from similar political backgrounds. They include people who subscribe to the political biases of those who read Rappler, ABS-CBN, Inquirer and CNN Philippines. What we therefore ended up with is a landscape where a post promoting a Marcos or Duterte narrative will be watched closely and would be more likely to be flagged, suspended or taken down. Meanwhile, nothing is done to flag pro-Robredo posts, where the likelihood of being suspended even if it contains false information is next to nil.

The idiocy of surrendering to mechanized intelligence in the business of judging human conduct was dramatized when Father Ranhillio Aquino's post was flagged for violating Facebook's community standards when he shared a novena about children. The not-so-intelligent algorithm thought he was promoting pedophilia. But what becomes politically suspect is when the posts of national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon, or of Commission on Higher Education chairman J. Prospero de Vera 3rd were flagged and tagged.

It is bad enough that a news network like SMNI was tagged as a bearer of disinformation. It was made worse when the Philippine News Agency was likewise tagged as such, and anyone who shares its news articles are flagged. There cannot be any doubt that what is targeted are pro-government and pro-Marcos posts. It is not only blatantly seen when the account of Vic Rodriguez, the official spokesperson of the Marcos campaign, was suspended. It is made more palpable when there is a high number of posts and accounts of Marcos supporters that are tagged, flagged or suspended.

This, while anti-Marcos and pro-Robredo posts are not being penalized even when they also contain inaccuracies and misleading information.

Facebook is doing a disservice to the candidacy of Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo. While it is busy flagging and taking down pro-Marcos accounts and posts, it is also fanning the anger that seethes in the Marcos political base. The organized takedown of pro-Marcos accounts and posts has transformed Facebook's supposedly assiduous efforts to clean social media of disinformation into a largely indiscriminate partisan cultural purge. Marcos followers are now spinning this as part of the elitist agenda to silence them, a dictatorial usurpation of the sole power of the state to punish abusive speech.

Liberal activists protest the taking down of rights without due process. When Facebook takes down accounts without the right of a hearing, what comes out clearly is the hypocrisy and the elitism that Marcos supporters have come to effectively deploy against Robredo. These acts of Facebook could not have come at a worst time for her, effectively undermining further her chances on May 9. Marcos loyalists deploy a warning — this is what they can do when they would be in power. And this derails any hope for Robredo to convert votes in these final days of the campaign.