1a. Case Study: How investigating a set of Facebook accounts revealed a coordinated effort to spread propaganda in the Philippines
Written by: Vernise Tantuco
and Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza
A professional journalist for roughly 20 years, Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza is the head of research and strategy at Rappler. She leads the fact-check unit as well as Rappler's research into online disinformation and misinformation.
Vernise Tantuco is a member of Rappler's research team, where she works on fact checks and studies disinformation networks in the Philippines.
In the fall of 2016, John Victorino, an investment analyst, sent Rappler a list of what he said was 26 suspicious Facebook accounts from the Philippines. We began investigating and monitoring the accounts, and quickly found the details listed in their profiles were false. Over the course of weeks of investigation, these 26 accounts led us to uncover a much more extensive network of pages, groups and accounts.
These accounts, along with a set of pages and groups they were connected to, were eventually removed by Facebook. They also inspired Rappler to create Sharktank, a tool for monitoring how information flows on Facebook. That work formed the basis of a series of investigative stories about how propaganda and information operations on Facebook affect democracy in the Philippines. The series included an investigation into the activities of the 26 fake accounts, and kicked off our continued coverage of how Facebook has been weaponized in the Philippines to spread political disinformation, harass people and undermine democracy in the country.
This case study examines how we investigated the original 26 accounts and used them to uncover much larger networks.
Verifying identities, exposing sockpuppets
Our first step in investigating the set of accounts was to try to verify if they were connected to real people. This part required good old fashioned fact-checking and began with our creating spreadsheets to track details related to the accounts, including the personal details they listed, the pages they liked and other information.
For example, Facebook user Mutya Bautista described herself as a “software analyst” at ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest television network. Rappler checked with ABS-CBN, who confirmed that she did not work for them.
Using reverse image search tools, we found that many of 26 accounts used profile photos of celebrities or personalities.
Another account, Luvimin Cancio, used an image from softcorecams.com, a porn site, as its profile photo. We identified this website as the source of the photo through the reverse image search tool TinEye.
The accounts also used similar cover photos on their profiles. Below, the cover photo of the account of Jasmin De La Torre is the same as that of Lily Lopez.
We also noticed one curious thing about the 26 accounts: These users had more groups than friends.
This was unusual because, in the Philippines, most people have friends and family abroad. Facebook basically serves as the communication channel through which people keep in touch with family and friends. So they tend to have many friends as opposed to being members of a huge number of groups.
Bautista’s friends list, which was public at the time, showed she had only 17 friends. In fact, each of the 26 accounts that we identified each had fewer than 50 friends when we discovered them in 2016.
Bautista however, was a member of over a hundred groups, including groups campaigning for then-vice presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a number of communities of Filipinos overseas, as well as buy and sell groups, each with members ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Altogether, these groups have over 2.3 million members on Facebook. Below is a list of some of the biggest groups, including their follower counts. Also included is a list of the posts Bautista made to these groups.
By combining all of these observations and associated data, we concluded that the accounts were sockpuppets: fictional identities created to bolster a particular point of view.
We could see from the dates associated with the first profile photos and early posts of these 26 accounts that they appeared to have been created in the last quarter of 2015, leading up to the May 2016 elections. We also found that they consistently promoted content that denied the widely documented martial law abuses that took place in the 1970s under the Marcos regime. The accounts also attacked the rivals of the former dictator’s son, vice presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
In the example below, user Mutya Bautista shared a now-debunked claim that Bongbong’s rival — then-newly proclaimed vice president Leni Robredo — was previously married to an activist before she married her second husband, the late Interior and local government secretary Jesse Robredo. Bautista posted the story headlined “Leni Robredo was married to an anti-Marcos teen before she met Jesse?” to the group “Pro Bongbong Marcos International Power,” with the comment: “Kaya ganun na lamang ang pamemersonal kay [Bongbong Marcos], may root cause pala.” (“That’s why it’s personal against [Bongbong Marcos], there’s a root cause.”)
Another suspicious account with the name Raden Alfaro Payas shared the same article to the group “Bongbong Marcos loyalist Facebook warriors” with the exact same caption — word for word, down to the last punctuation mark — on the same day.
Fake accounts are often used to spam groups with links, and you can sometimes catch them reusing the same text when they do it. At the time, it was possible to use Facebook Graph search to look at the public posts of users in groups. However, Facebook closed off many Graph search features in 2019, including this function. As a result, it’s now necessary to go into groups and search to see what specific users have been sharing.
By analyzing what content the accounts shared, we were able to see that the 26 sockpuppets were promoting the same websites: Okay Dito (OKD2.com), Ask Philippines (askphilippines.com) and why0why.com, among others.
OKD2.com has published a number of hoaxes and other propaganda material favoring the Marcos family and President Rodrigo Duterte. It now masquerades as a classified ads site. But in September 2016 we found that content from the site was shared 11,900 times on Facebook, thanks in part to the sockpuppets.
Through these websites, Rappler eventually traced the potential puppet master of the 26 accounts: someone named Raden Alfaro Payas.
Tracking the puppeteers
Like many sites that Rappler monitors, OKD2.com’s current domain registration records are private. The site also does not disclose its authors or owners, and has no contact information other than a web form.
Fortunately, we were able to use historical domain records to identify a person associated with the site. Using domaintools.com, we could see that as of July 2015, OKD2.com was registered in the name of one Raden Payas, a resident of Tanauan City, Batangas. We also found that OKD2.com shared the same Google AdSense ID as other websites, such as askphilippines.com and why0why.com, that the 26 accounts were sharing. We identified the AdSense IDs on these sites by viewing the source code of pages on them and looking for a series of numbers that began with the letters “ca-pub-.” Each Google AdSense account is given a unique ID that begins with “ca-pub-,” and each page of a site that is linked to an account will have this code on it.
Along with the domain record, we also saw that one of the 26 accounts was called Raden Alfaro Payas (Unofficial). We also found another account in his name with the username “realradenpayas,” which interacted with some of the sockpuppets.
For example, he commented on a post from Luvimin Cancio that linked to a story denying the martial law atrocities under Marcos. The “real” Payas account said he was in high school during the martial law years and he “never heard” of anybody being killed or tortured.
Jump-starting the Sharktank
These 26 fake accounts and their reach inspired Rappler to create its Sharktank database and automate data collection from public Facebook groups and pages. As of August 2019, Rappler has tracked roughly 40,000 pages with millions of followers.
What began as an investigation into a set of suspicious accounts turned into a continuing study of a network of thousands of fake and real accounts, groups and pages that spread disinformation and propaganda, distorting and politics and weakening the democracy of a nation.