Anonymous cyber-assassins and the political economy of Internet and social media-based demolition

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

THE team of R.J. Nieto aka Thinking Pinoy, in collaboration with VOVPH and Sass Rogando Sasot, has revealed what could be the beginning of the unraveling of one of the most insidious and secretive business enterprises that have festered in our political landscape.

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It is an industry that inhabits the Internet, expressed in anonymous blog sites and social media accounts whose contribution to our political discourse rests on peddling fake news, writing hatred and assassinating characters.

The so-called “Cocoygate” exposé has revealed that several anti-Duterte sites share a common web host. These sites include Silent No More PH, ProPinoy, Madam Claudia, Thinking Millennials PH, Change Scamming, Backroom Politics, Pinoy Ako Blog and at least 10 other sites, two of which were somehow cast as pro-Duterte but appear to have either been abandoned or is dormant. What is interesting is that in addition to these, it appears that the same person hosts the We Support Bam Aquino site.

What led Nieto, Sasot and VOVPH to the suspect was their discovery that the person in question has consistently accepted Google Adsense advertisements in all of the sites mentioned above. In order for one to accept an Adsense advertisement, one has to register and reveal one’s identity, and has to sign an agreement that stipulates that the person availing of the Google Adsense facility is the site owner, or has acquired authorization from the site owner.

A web host or administrator doesn’t have to be the one generating the content of a site. However, this particular web host has facilitated the placement of Google Adsense advertisements on a dozen anti-Duterte sites, and not on other sites which he hosts, as revealed by a source whose site the same person hosts but which the team of Nieto did not discover as having his ad placements. In fact, Nieto’s team discovered that this web host owns one of the sites. This indicates that this person is no longer just a host leasing his space, but is in fact an active administrator of a well-organized anti-Duterte operation involving website accounts.

And it is an operation that has subsisted on anonymity to escape accountability, and has launched a coordinated attack not only on President Duterte, but also on his supporters. I have been victimized by several of these sites, with one even leading the charge to have my university fire me simply because I support the President and have been very critical of the Liberal Party.

What is appalling is that someone is profiting a lot from this anonymous propagation of vitriol and character assassination.

For example, the anti-Duterte site Change Scamming earns on average a daily income of $24, or roughly P1,000, from ad placements. This is way more than the earnings of an average Filipino. Pinoy Ako Blog earns more with a daily income of $73, or about P3,500. Its estimated value is $43,800, or about P2.2 million, which is about the same annual salary of a full professor in my university. And all of these are tax-free.

James Scott has valorized anonymity as a valid weapon of the weak when he posited that rumor and gossip are effective weapons by the oppressed against their tormentors. But certainly, Scott would not have imagined that such can be used to justify the existence of bottom-feeders who make money out of attacking the characters of people. And in this whole political economy of profit-taking, which is lucrative considering that the expenses are simply the annual fees one has to pay for registering a domain name, and for the Internet usage, those who make money out of this enterprise of anonymous hate are not the weak rebels which Scott has portrayed, but are in fact mercenaries and paid assassins doing the dirty job for a political master puppeteer.

They hide behind the mantle of anonymity, hoping that people like Florin Hilbay and John Nery would lend them a ready justifying hand, appealing to their entitlement to the basic human right of free speech, and turn any move to take down these anonymous hate-mongers and fake-news bearers into another human rights violation.

What Hilbay, Nery and the anonymous assassins they enable fail to take into account is that even the Commission on Human Rights has expressed its opinion when it chastised the President for his offensive speech that there is no absolute freedom of speech. And such is even made more legally untenable if the malicious intent is amplified by the attempt to escape accountability by hiding in an anonymous account.

And the fact that monies are now being earned from the libel committed anonymously makes this whole enterprise no longer a responsible act of criticizing but the action of mercenaries who render paid but untaxed labor.

And the entire picture does not end with the revelations of Nieto, Sasot and VOVPH. It is highly likely that this web administrator is only an agentwho is working for a person or a group that provides the funds used to register their domains for the site owners, to pay for the internet expenses they incur, and perhaps even to pay them a regular stipend. Hence, the monies earned from Google Adsense advertisement placements become mere commissions or added incentives, thereby turning this whole network into a well-oiled capitalist enterprise producing vitriol and manufacturing hate speech.

It would not be farfetched to say that at the top of this informal corporate ladder enabling these anonymous peddlers of hate are people serving the interests of disgruntled political elites. They invest in the production of anonymous hate not for the monetary returns, but for the political windfall that they anticipate in taking down a presidency.

And it is likely that when the dust settles, these master puppeteers, these investors in this industry of character assassination and hate-mongering, will eventually be revealed.

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