Facebook was once a hot startup looking to conquer the world. Today, my journalist friends in the Philippines grapple with threats and lies on the social network

rodrigo dutertePhilippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a news conference in Davao city, southern Philippines August 21, 2016.Thomson Reuters

  • Facebook was once a startup focused on convincing Wall Street that it could continue growing and making more money. They did this partly by expanding to pretty much every corner of the world - including my homeland, the Philippines.
  • But Facebook turned into a platform used to defend Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's campaign against illegal drugs which critics charge turned into mass slaughter.
  • Many of the targets have been Filipino journalists reporting on the carnage.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories

I covered Facebook when it was the hottest startup in Silicon Valley, when its biggest problem was not FTC probes or hate speech or fake accounts, but convincing Wall Street that it could make tons more money than it was already raking in.

Many have probably forgotten that its blockbuster IPO in 2012, one of the most high profile offerings of the decade, was a huge flop. Facebook's stock gained a dismal 23 cents in its Wall Street debut and subsequently sank on growing fears on the Street that it wouldn't make that much money on mobile.

Well, that turned out to be a non-issue. Facebook's stock has soared, as the social media giant made loads of dough, through targeted ads delivered to billions of users mobile and desktop devices.

Every corner of the world

It's been able to do that partly by trying to expand to pretty much every corner of the globe - including my homeland, the Philippines.

In 2013, Facebook announced that it was offering free or discounted messaging access to users in a dozen countries, including the Philippines. As I wrote a short item about it, I remember thinking, "That's pretty cool."

Only years later, after I left the Facebook beat and took a break from journalism, did it become clear that it was not. What happened next was summed by the headline of a New York Magazine article: "Facebook Used the Philippines to Test Free Internet. Then a Dictator Was Elected."

I returned to the tech beat recently as a harsh spotlight was turned on Facebook's record on hate speech.

A private Facebook group run by current and former US Border Patrol agents sparked an uproar over xenophobic and sexist posts. Two months ago, co-founder Chris Hughes pointed to Mark Zuckerberg "unilateral power over speech," calling it "the most problematic aspect of Facebook's power."

"There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people," Hughes wrote in the New York Times, in an editorial in which he called for the break up of Facebook.

Targeting journalists

In the Philippines, those conversations feature virulent posts that sometimes include threats of violence. Much of that hate has been directed against journalists, including some of my friends. And much of it comes from supporters of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the leader widely condemned for inspiring mass killings since he took power in 2016.

Duterte launched his presidency by declaring war on illegal drugs. But that campaign has led to the deaths of thousands of alleged users and dealers, most of whom were poor Filipinos slaughtered without due process. Many were killed by police who claimed they resisted arrest, and others were murdered execution-style by vigilantes supposedly aiding the anti-drug campaign, according to Human Rights Watch.

Philippines drug war crime vigilante justice extrajudicial killingsThe body of a man whom police said was killed during a drug-bust operation on &quotShabu" (meth), is seen in Manila, Philippines, August 18, 2016.REUTERS/Ezra Acayan

On Facebook, the Duterte-inspired bloodbath got a boost from an army of online supporters who defend the campaign, who deny the killings were happening or harassed critics of the anti-drug campaign. Some of the targets of this harassment include journalists simply doing their jobs.

They were reporting on the killings and how Duterte, at times, appeared to be celebrating the bloodshed. Duterte even openly declared once, "My only sin is the extrajudicial killings."

In 2016, Manny Mogato, a reporter with Reuters' Manila bureau, covered a Duterte appearance in which the Philippine president likened himself to Adolf Hitler.

In stunning public comments, Duterte noted that the Nazi dictator murdered millions of Jews, then added, citing a statistic that has been disputed: "There are three million addicts (in the Philippines). I'd be happy to slaughter them."

News reports of the speech predictably sparked outrage. But it also prompted Duterte supporters to hit back on social media, especially Facebook. Among their targets were journalists who were painted as being part of a conspiracy against the Philippine president.

Manny was vilified for reporting Duterte's comments.

"Some were calling for punishment like tokhang," he told me, referring to the name of the police anti-drug operation that critics charge have led to summary executions.

The harassment escalated as Manny continued reporting on Duterte's presidency. His Facebook account was hacked, forcing him to change his name on the social network.

"It was the first online attack on Reuters journalists so my editors were concerned and sent a security team to look into our safety," he said. "We were advised to take a vacation for a week. My family got scared."

But Manny kept reporting and documenting the abuses under Duterte. Last year, he and two other Reuters reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for Duterte's War, a series on the killings in the Philippines. (The previous year, the New York Times won a Pulitzer for breaking news photography for a feature titled "They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals.")

Another journalist who's been targeted on Facebook is Glenda Gloria, managing editor of Rappler, the online media startup which has won praise, and has been the target of the attacks, for reporting on Duterte.

Glenda was on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard last year when trolls posted a photo of her family, including her daughter, and accused her of being aligned with the opposition political party.

Her Facebook Messenger inbox "was flooded with all sorts of hate messages," she told me. Trolls called her ugly, stupid and told her, "Your days are numbered." Facebook Messenger is "my least fave messaging app precisely because that's where I got trolled," she said.

Where Facebook IS the internet

In the Philippines, Facebook is the internet. And it's largely because the tech giant wants to be dominant, no matter the cost.

Maria Ressa, founder and CEO of Rappler, tried personally to explain this to Facebook's top brass, including Zuckerberg.

She was named one of Time Magazine's Persons of the Year for leading Rappler in a turbulent time. She is also the most vilified Filipino journalist on Facebook. She has received death and rape threats, and been taunted by Duterte supporters on the social network.

Partly due to her efforts, Facebook has been focusing intensely on the Philippines, identifying pages and accounts found to be engaged in "coordinated inauthentic behavior" including attacks against journalists and politicians opposed to Duterte.

Facebook also added Rappler and another Philippine news site, Vera Files, to its International Fact-Checking Network, giving them the ability to flag stories and posts suspected of being misleading or hoaxes. In fact, Facebook has turned to the Philippines for even more intensive, excruciating work, hiring Filipino contractors to flag gruesome images and video, including knife slashings and child molestation.

These moves have been welcomed in the Philippines. But Facebook has had such a huge impact on the country, many feel these are not enough and that Facebook has yet to fully reckon with how its influence in the Philippines. The ongoing harassment and threats Filipinos are experiencing on Facebook can only be resolved if the tech giant takes a much more muscular role policing the environment it created.

But Zuckerberg has, at times, suggested that that's not really a priority.

In a 2017 meeting, Maria asked Zuckerberg to visit the Philippines to "see the impact" the social network is having on her country, where 97% of the population are on Facebook, she recalled in an interview with Kara Swisher.

Zuckerberg responded: "What are the other 3% doing, Maria?'"

Got a tip about Facebook or another tech company? Contact this reporter via email at bpimentel@businessinsider.com, message him on Twitter @benpimentel. You can also contact Business Insider securely via SecureDrop.
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