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Exploitation of Social Media and its Offline Harm

By Annabel Cowan

“Autocratic government” is defined as the centralization of political power into the hands of one individual. Traditionally, autocrats use force and violence to suppress voices of political opposition, but in the digital age, autocrats have access to a new tool to carry this out: social media and the internet. In the Philippines - a country under the autocratic rule of president Rodrigo Duterte - social media has been used in this manner.

Illustrative of this has been Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’ - a disastrous government program that led to the deaths of 12,000 Fillipinos between 2016 and 2017 (Human Rights Watch 2017). Although angry and frustrated in response, Fillipinos have been unable to voice themselves on social media. Rather, Duterte’s ‘keyboard army’ - a network of internet users hired by the Duterte regime - routinely censor all mentions of the ‘War on Drugs’ on social media channels. Instead, this ‘army’ floods these channels with content vocally supportive of Duterte, attempting to create the impression of public support.

As it turns out, the Philippines is uniquely vulnerable to this type of manipulation, as access to digital media is centralized; Facebook is free, while other websites result in charges for users (Williams 2017). In effect, most Filipinos are reliant on Facebook for their news and information, making it an easy target for Duterte’s government.

Another function of Duterte’s ‘keyboard army’ has been to suppress voices of political opposition through the dissemination of hateful and violent online messages. Maria Ressa, a prominent Fillipino journalist with the reputation of being vocally critical of Duterte’s regime, is a victim of this practice. In addition to legal prosecution and arrest, her critical comments have led to thousands of hateful online messages and death threats over the past four years (Ressa 2019).

In The Los Angeles Times, Ressa describes this experience, reflecting how, “The destruction of our democracy began with a combination of violence and fear, where rampant lies and vicious personal attacks online pounded their targets into silence. These attacks were then followed by government actions and the use of the law to harass and intimidate perceived critics and dissenters” (Ressa 2019). In September 2020, Ressa was charged by the Phillipine state on account of her work in journalism. She now faces up to six years in prison. (European Parliament).

Unfortunately, the Philippines is not an outlier; Duterte is one of many autocrats exploiting the channels of social media to consolidate power. This trend is compounded by the global rise in autocracy: from 2016 to 2018, the number of people affected by autocratization increased from 415 million to a staggering 2.3 billion, or roughly 30% of the global population (Sloss 2019). A report from The Computational Propaganda Research Project confirms that for many of these new autocracies, digital media “is being used as a tool of information control . . . to suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opponents, and drown out dissenting opinions” (Bradshaw, Howard 2019).

Although they are tools meant to enable communication and access to information, the rise of autocracy suggests that the internet and social media can lead to the spread of disinformation. Instead of enabling transparency, accountability, and participation in politics, digital media has been used as an instrument of autocracy; a tool to censor discourse, to control opinion, and to curtail democratic rights and freedoms.

If you would like to learn more about this pervasive issue of disinformation campaigns, I strongly recommend watching the Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ and checking out The Computational Propaganda Research Project website for more information.


Works Cited:

Bradshaw, Samantha, and Phillip N. Howard. “Challenging Truth and Trust: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation.” The Computational Propaganda Research Project, University of Oxford, 20 July 2018,

“Dictatorship.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

“Online Defamation Law.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 22 Dec. 2014,

“Philippines' 'War on Drugs'.” Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch, 2017,

Ressa, Maria. “Opinion: Americans, Look to the Philippines to See a Dystopian Future Created by Social Media.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 25 Sept. 2019,

Sloss, David L. “Weaponization of Social Media by Authoritarian States.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, 5 Dec. 2019,

“Texts Adopted - The Situation in the Philippines, Including the Case of Maria Ressa - Thursday, 17 September 2020.”, European Parliament, 17 Sept. 2020,

Williams, Sean. “Rodrigo Duterte's Army of Online Trolls.” The New Republic, The New Republic, 4 Jan. 2017,

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