TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Facebook’s deletion of accounts targeting the Philippines from bases in China shows that the U.S. internet giant wants a better reputation in Southeast Asia after letting things slide in the past, say analysts who follow the case.
On September 22, Facebook said it had removed 155 of its own accounts and six Instagram accounts for violating an internal policy against “foreign or government interference which is coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity.” The accounts originated in China and focused “primarily on the Philippines and Southeast Asia more broadly” as well as on the United States, Facebook says.
Facebook’s move will endear it to Filipinos, who use the service so fervently that it has become a de facto official homepage for businesses and government agencies but who also worry that it has become too permissive, scholars say.
For Facebook, “it’s more from a kind of a PR point of view – I do this at a particular time, somehow, it’s seen as positive and I can say, ‘look, I have done this,’” said James Gomez, regional director at the Bangkok-based think tank Asia Center.
Operators of the deleted accounts had posted in Chinese, English and Tagalog about naval activity in the South China Sea as well as Philippine politics and tried to cover up their identities, Facebook said.
China and the Philippines dispute sovereignty over a tract of the sea that’s rich in fisheries as well as undersea energy reserves. China has the upper hand militarily, frustrating officials in Manila and fanning debate there over whether the Philippines should ask Washington for more help.
The connection to Facebook goes back to 2015, when the California-based service joined domestic mobile service provider Smart Communications to offer an app that allowed free access to 24 heavily used mobile sites.
But Facebook has made eyes roll in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries by allowing relatively unfettered access by politicians, hate-speech spreaders and purveyors of fake news, Gomez said.
“We would welcome that there is self-governance on the part of Facebook,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Metro Manila-based advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. “There was a lot of that [problematic material] in the past up till now.”’
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte maintains an “online army” that was reportedly paid to pack Facebook with supportive material in the name of “grassroots activists”, Southeast Asian news outlet New Mandala reported in 2017, a year after Duterte took office.
Filipinos are starting now to eye the 2022 presidential election, motivating Facebook to clean up so it can avoid criticism, said Eduardo Araral, a Filipino and associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school.
Some of the shuttered accounts carried “content supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte and Sara Duterte’s potential run in the 2022 Presidential election,” Facebook said, referring to the current leader’s daughter. Presidents can serve just one term in the Philippines.
“They have to be active in showing Facebook is no longer used or can no longer be used as a platform for inauthentic behavior,” Araral said.
Duterte has pursued friendship with China despite the maritime dispute, but common Filipinos remain leery of Beijing’s designs for the surrounding seas.
About 74 million people use Facebook in the Philippines, where the total population stands near 109 million. Facebook’s statement says 276,000 accounts followed one or more or 11 deleted Facebook Pages belonging to businesses. The service took down those pages along with the 155 non-business accounts. Facebook said that about 5,500 people followed one of more of the closed-down Instagram accounts.
Facebook has removed accounts in Singapore and Myanmar as well, as both countries approached political milestones, Gomez said.
In 2018, for example, a U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights mission found that Facebook had helped spread “hate” speech against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar that has struggled to get along with the country’s government. Facebook took down a page authored by senior Myanmar military officials -- a long-time nemesis of the Rohingya -- after the U.N. findings appeared.