Body snatchers

By Reyshimar Arguelles

On Sunday, the country was caught off-guard when Facebook users found one or more accounts bearing their names. These duplicate accounts lacked profile pictures, friends lists, and content, indicating that they were created only recently. At first, students and alumni of the University of the Philippines reported instances of dummy accounts. Later, users who are not even affiliated with the UP system encountered the same problems.

The invasion of these ghost personalities came at the heat of resounding calls to junk the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which critics say could lead to the formation of a surveillance state where dissent however subtle could put someone in detention for a maximum of 24 days. Sunday came as a prelude to the risk of putting the wrong persons behind bars or placing law-abiding citizens (who happen to exercise their free speech rights) under the same category as actual rebel movements.

The affected users were quick to put up disclaimers and encouraged their friends to report the duplicate accounts. They fear that their names could be used for nefarious purposes, such as spreading false news or publishing posts that could become bases of violations under the Anti-Terrorism Bill still pending enactment as of this writing. Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate says that the proliferation of these dummy accounts could lead to “online tanim ebidensya”, creating all sorts of trouble for activists and even for anyone who wants to speak up against the current administration.

As though taking cues from the web series Black Mirror, the online sphere has morphed into a weapon at the behest of the surveillance state. And now people are worried over how easy it would be for hackers and trolls to access personal accounts and do all kinds of havoc. To liberals, the online world is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, and not a weapon for the suppression of dissent and for the promotion of higher forms of authoritative control.

Like print or broadcast media, the internet is not safe from being weaponized in ways that could make repression palatable to an entire population. Troll farms have been around since people started using comment sections and Facebook newsfeeds as propaganda vehicles. Obviously, people want nothing of that sort because they think of the internet as this progressive arena where ideas are freely promoted. But it has become acceptable to a certain degree, considering that we are in the age of big data and automation that allow certain groups to influence collective thought and action — depending if such groups have the upperhand in getting their message across.

Sunday’s invasion of the body snatchers is the result of practices that are widely accepted in the world of marketing and PR. Silicon Valley influencers continue to peddle the Internet-of-Things and big data as trends that revolutionize the way businesses make money. Using sophisticated prospecting tools, organizations are able to acquire individual customer data in order to push tailored messages. Moreover, such data can also be used to track the online behavior of individual users for future engagement campaigns.

These may all seem innocuous to marketers, but the impact of such phenomena as big data can set the template for online repression. And while the National Bureau of Investigation attributed the spread of multiple fake accounts to a “glitch”, it does not begin to explain how some of these fake accounts begin harassing original owners.

It’s disturbing how an online doppelganger is able to know about your stance on the Anti-Terrorism Bill and threaten you with incarceration as in the case of a student from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and a journalist from Rappler.

We can see now how big data can become a tool for repression. And for sure, it is not enough to keep reporting fake accounts judging from Facebook’s involvement in a data breach scandal in 2018. Instead, we need to criticize the current systems that are currently working to weaponize the online sphere and put people’s lives at risk.