Law in the Internet Society

Can the trolls be stopped? The Philippines as “patient zero”

-- By SamanthaBeatriceKing - 22 Oct 2021

From trolling to troll farming

Trolling as an internet term harks back to the late 80s-early 90s, when users in online forums would “troll” newbies by baiting them into discussions. Generally, “trolls” refer to a subgroup of online communities who create offensive posts to elicit reactions.

Fast forward to around 2014, and the idea of Russian “troll farms” began to enter the public consciousness. Troll farms are an organized breed of online agitators, spreading misinformation and sowing discord on a mass scale. The use of troll farms notably gained traction in the 2016 presidential elections—both in the United States and in the Philippines. A Russian troll factory was accused of trying to disrupt the US elections; spreading pro-Trump propaganda and fake news to voters. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte won the elections on a social media campaign carried and defended by trolls.

Since then, the Philippines was branded “patient zero in the global disinformation epidemic.” With the next presidential elections to take place in 2022, it’s alarming that the use of troll farms shows no signs of slowing down.

Trolls as normalized in the Philippines?

The Philippines has fully embraced the troll machinery. Where troll farms were traditionally state-sponsored, the Philippines has turned social media manipulation into an industry. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Presidential Communications Operations Office have hired “social media specialists” under public contracts approved by the Department of Finance. These so-called specialists are suspected to be trolls. Individual politicians, celebrities, and businesses alike have availed of the covert trolling services peddled by public relations firms. What’s more, Philippine public relations practitioners want to go global with the trolling: they imagine the Philippines as a center where foreign political and corporate entities can hire a troll army. As a poor country with a young, English-speaking, social media-savvy population, there is easy money in this endeavor.

The concept of trolling has also evolved to include “positive” or “white” trolls, meant to serve as a foil to the black trolls. White trolls supposedly influence people in a “proper” way by refraining from using hate speech, fake news, and copy-paste tactics, among others. Philippine “social media specialists” wield the white troll banner against the operations of black trolls. When it comes down to it, however, white troll social media accounts are still comprised of fabricated names and backgrounds.

The danger to democracy

Is it the troll themselves that pose a danger to democracy, or the platforms that allow them to operate in the first place? Can we count on the big technology companies to police themselves? Or should we rely on government regulation? What if the government itself is complicit to the propaganda and online attacks?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Among others, a flourishing democracy requires intellectual freedom, participatory politics, and a foundation of truth. Trolling threatens democracy by the spread of disinformation and discord. It is antithesis to free speech in this sense. And this is compounded by the algorithms on social media. Facebook’s custom-tailored algorithms tend to feed into its users’ biases, showing content that echoes their views or confirms their fears. Troll farms, which have the capacity to generate thousands of posts and comments on a divisive topic, only benefit from these algorithms.

Call to arms against fake news and trolls

In the Philippines, Facebook has partnered with third-party fact-checking organizations to fight the spread of disinformation. However, the fact-checking is limited to public posts, and does not extend to opinion and speech from politicians. Facebook explains that politicians are not eligible for fact-checking because of the company’s “fundamental belief in free expression.” The company claims that limiting political speech would leave people less informed and the officials less accountable. But, again, what if the elected officials themselves are the ones peddling disinformation? While Facebook may be taking steps to moderate content, it could surely do more to curb the proliferation of trolls. One simple way to do this would be the requirement of legitimate identification before allowing users to sign up. This would greatly quell the flood of fake accounts on the platform and perhaps affect the spread of disinformation.

There are some who espouse using white trolling methods to fight fire with fire. As trolls themselves, these cyber vigilantes would create scores of accounts to counter the narrative of black trolls through “proper” logic and reasoning. But this is a short-term solution which only feeds into the algorithm; boosting the post or comment and possibly creating more discord.

Despite the hand of government in the spread of troll farms, there is no denying that state regulation should come into play. For instance, the Philippines does not have any laws which criminalizes fake news. Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, while criticized by the Human Rights Watch as “overbroad censorship,” is a possible starting point for the Philippines.

Francis Fukuyama proposes the use of middleware to deconsolidate power from the hands of Facebook and its like. Again, Congress can provide a push for middleware companies by passing laws which mandate the use of middleware in social media. Platform users would be effectively holding the reins of what they see when they scroll down.

Ultimately, it would take the joint, collaborative efforts of big tech companies, government, and civil society, to quell the power of troll farms.

The way to make this essay better is to put your ideas front and center. The facts you set out here have been written about very widely, and for those of your readers who don't know about the particulars of the Philippine situation you can present everything you need (and I'm not sure what you do need) in a paragraph. It's surprising to read a draft on that subject which does mention Francis Fukuyama—who knows nothing—and not Maria Ressa, who does. (Fukuyama's "middleware" is what I spoke about in Freedom in the Cloud, which I assigned more than a decade before he got around to misdescribing it, by which time the late Jim Dwyer's book "More Awesome Than Money" had already described what happened once I did. Requiring people to use software government likes doesn't seem like a very good idea to me, but you don't actually analyze the suggestion, because you have only left yourself a paragraph in which to do so at the tail end of a draft choking on fact. Put your idea up front. Show briefly how you came by it, trying to take a global perspective if you can. Analyze the workings of tech, politics and law in relation to your idea. Give the reader a conclusion that is also a jumping-off point for her own thinking. Then you will have a really excellent next draft.


Why aren't these links placed in the text? You are writing for the Web, so use it as intended and make things easy for the reader, please. 98d4-844088d135f2_story.html

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r2 - 04 Dec 2021 - 15:36:05 - EbenMoglen
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