What to expect when you frequently criticize President Duterte’s government on Twitter

If you follow politics in the Philippines today, you will find a country deeply divided along political lines. Much of the conflict centers on how you feel about the extremely popular but controversial President Rodrigo Duterte. Regardless of where you stand in the political spectrum, one side accuses the other of manipulating social media using avatars, bots or “influencers” bought and paid for by funds furthering political agendas.

Now people who follow this blog know that I never write about politics (though my political views are no secret). I write this not to make a political statement but rather to share an observation from a digital media professional on the role that social media and technology play in modern politics.

I use Twitter to share media and, on occasion, air my sentiments towards developments in the Philippines, the country of my birth. Recently I tweeted the following:

Shortly thereafter, I noticed that my Twitter handle was added to a number of lists labeled “Duterte” by suspicious Twitter handles…

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Why should I consider them suspicious? After all, wouldn’t Duterte interest many people in the Philippines and all over the world? But what caught my attention was the similarity between these accounts…

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Now perhaps the Philippines political news followers’ proclivity for big cats is coincidental. Let’s assume for a moment the correlation between Duterte followers and CS Lewis fans is perfectly innocent…

I did notice that another similarity with these accounts: each had an unusually high number of tweets. For example, “rick” or @rickrick888 has tweeted over 415,000 times since his account was created in March 2009.

415k

How unusual is that? In order to accomplish this feat, @rickrick888 would have to tweet 153.4 times a day. That’s well over the average. (There are about 500 million tweets a day made by 300 million active twitter accounts, or an average of only about 1.6 tweets per day.) That either means @rickrick888 has been tweeting 8.5 times every waking hour (assuming a human needs to sleep at least six hours a day) for the past seven and a half years…or that “rick” isn’t human at all.

The final clue is the tweets made by these accounts themselves. Let’s take a look at some of “Bobbit” or @bobbit2266’s tweets…

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Notice how his tweets have been truncated? That indicates these tweets were not typed into Twitter but rather generated by another source, such as a Facebook page or other third party application using Twitter’s APIs. This is common in digital marketing and is often used by brands to automate social content distribution. (They were truncated because the original content exceeded Twitter’s 140-character cap.) That means either @bobbit2266 is really sloppy and doesn’t care about aesthetics…or that these tweets were not entered by a human but by software.

Of course the real question is: what is the motivation behind these accounts and their recent move to monitor my Twitter activity? Have I been put on some kind of “watch” list? Should I brace myself for a troll storm or cyber attack? Or maybe whoever is behind these accounts are simply interested in my dog, whose photos I frequently post.

Either way, this proves to me that there is some truth to the suspicion that social media machinations are actively at work in the Philippine political scene. For what end, who can really say?

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