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Facebook profile cloning onslaught latest move of trolls in Philippines

Manila, June 11 (efe-epa).- The Philippines has long been considered a breeding ground for internet “troll farms” on a mission to distort public discourse and in recent days thousands of fraudulent Facebook accounts have mushroomed, cloning profiles of university students, activists and journalists.

Most are still active as ghost accounts with no friends, photos, nor posts, but after the scandal came to light and thousands publicly denounced the mass trolling on social media, some of the cloned profiles began sending threatening messages or insulting those of the accounts they replicated.

“You are the son of a terrorist whore,” was the most common message sent to dozens of University of the Philippines students, although there were also death threats and accusations of belonging to the communist guerrilla.

A Facebook group created to report the duplicate profiles has documented more than 5,000 rogue accounts, with some users having had their profile cloned up to a dozen times.

The proliferation of these clone profiles is widely seen as the work of troll farms, which operate widely and with impunity in the Philippines. But this recent attack is a step in a different direction as until now activity has mainly focused on spreading fake news to prop up government propaganda.

“It’s a new phenomenon. This does not immediately strike me as having clear intention for political manipulation and influence. I’m most worried about the possibility of security breach and exposure of private information,” Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, United States, told EFE.

Last year, Ong published a comprehensive investigation into how troll farms operate in the Philippines and their influence on the country’s latest elections, the 2016 presidential poll and the 2019 legislative ballot.

According to the expert, there may be some Cambridge Analytica-style data handling company behind the operation, referring to a company that has been linked to the Brexit referendum and the US presidential race that sealed Donald Trump’s victory, as well as a data theft and online privacy violation scandal.

Cambridge Analytica’s parent company allegedly used the Philippines as a testing ground in 2015 and boasted on its now unavailable website of helping to build Rodrigo Duterte’s tough-guy image to help him win the nation’s presidency.

“Access to private data of voters is important now to get contracts to lead political campaigns of possible candidates. Presidential elections in the Philippines are just around the corner,” Ong added.

But these shadow accounts have emerged at a very tense political moment amid a contentious anti-terrorism bill backed by Duterte’s allies and widely criticized by legal experts, the opposition and activists.

The bill, approved by Congress and which only requires Duterte’s sign-off into law, broadens the range of crimes considered terrorism, including making it a criminal offense to “incite others” to commit terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations tending to the same end,” punishable by 12 years in prison.

Human rights activists fear the new law poses a danger to freedom of expression by providing an open-ended basis for prosecuting speech.

These clone accounts began emerging last weekend after nearly 100 activists and students called protests against the draft law across the University of the Philippines. In Cebu city, seven were arrested.

Opposition members fear the rogue accounts will be used to frame activists with alleged online criminal acts that would be punishable under Duterte’s anti-terrorism law.

In March, Duterte was granted special powers for the duration of the coronavirus epidemic, which included a provision to punish those deemed to be hindering the government’s virus response. Under it, dozens have been arrested and charged for criticizing the government’s COVID-19 strategy on social media.

Activists and left-wing groups are regular targets of trolls and critical journalists are facing growing online harassment in one of the Asian countries that boasted the most press freedom.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) has registered over 1,000 reports of cloned accounts among reporters, including foreign correspondents.

“I would venture the state going by the pattern of the cloning, which started with students before targeting media and seemingly random targets who appeared to have something in common: opposition to the terror bill or the government,” NUJP president Nonoy Espina told EFE.

The journalists’ union and other civil groups are mounting a collective complaint of cloned Facebook accounts to take to the multinational, since the majority of individual report responses have said that these profiles do not violate the platform’s rules.

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