The Billion Dollar(s) Business of Social Media Trolling in the Philippines, and what it means for Public Relations globally

Social media trolling is big business in the Philippines. And that business is about to go global (image source: When in Manila)

If there’s one article you should read today, it’s this piece in the Washington Post by Shibani Mahtani and Regine Cabato. Titled “Why crafty Internet trolls in the Philippines may be coming to a website near you”, the article explains what has happened over the past couple of years in the Philippines in relation to the business of social media troll farms.

If you’re not familiar with the idea, I’ll explain. A troll farm is described as an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments. Traditionally, troll farms were state-led/sponsored (think Russia in the 2016 US elections). This has also happened in other countries. In the article by Mahtani and Cabato, they describe the rise of social media manipulation as an extension of Filipino politics (another great article to read is here, from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba).

As I’ve mentioned, the concept of social media manipulation isn’t new. We’ve had countless reports into what state actors such as Russia, Iran and others have tried to do online, through mass social media manipulation. What’s fascinating about the Washington Post article is how the Philippines is redefining this concept and turning it into an industry (there’s now both negative and positive trolling), how those who provide the troll farm services are now looking not just to politics but to business as well, and, most worryingly for everyone who works in our industry, is how PR firms are quietly offering the service to their clientele.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Philippines is leading the way in the area of troll farming. The country has a young, English-speaking population, a large service industry, and a tough economy. And Facebook is everywhere, controlling what people read and think when it comes to news, politics and business. To quote from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba:

If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines. What happened there — what continues to happen there — is both an origin story for the weaponization of social media and a peek at its dystopian future. It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result — half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world.

Facebook launched “Free Facebook” in the Philippines in 2013. The idea was to partner with a local carrier to offer a portal of free, basic internet services (Free Basics) that would fuel Facebook’s aggressive global expansion. To Zuckerberg, at least, the experiment was successful. “What we’ve seen in the Philippines is … a home run,” he said in a speech at a 2014 conference in Barcelona. Last November, Facebook partnered with the Duterte government to build an undersea cable system that would connect Philippine internet systems to the rest of Asia and the US.

In 2012, 29 million Filipinos used Facebook. Today, 69 million people — two-thirds of the population — are on Facebook. The remaining one-third does not have access to the internet. In other words, virtually every Filipino citizen with an internet connection has a Facebook account. For many in one of the most persistently poor nations in the world, Facebook is the only way to access the internet.

Social media trolling took off in the Philippines during the 2016 Presidential campaign. And many saw the business opportunity. Washington Post spoke to one PR executive who claims his agency is paid anywhere from about $38,000 to $57,000 — “depending on their needs” — on a month-long retainer for up to eight months.

Others are seeing the possibilities too. The authors of the Washington Post article claimed that “several paid troll farm operations and one self-described influencer say they have been approached and contracted by international clients, including from Britain, to do political work. Others are planning to expand overseas, hoping to start regionally”. One opinion quoted in the story claims that social media trolling in the country is a billion dollar business.

There’s no doubt in my mind that social media trolling will have an impact not just on politics in every democracy around the world (if it hasn’t already), but that these services will be turned towards business, especially the notion of positive trolling, of using fake accounts to talk up a business and their activities. I am also in no doubt that Facebook and the other internet giants will do nothing to stop this (Facebook’s efforts to stop what’s going on in the Philippines have been derisory at best).

So, what can we do as PR practitioners? There’s not that many options on the table. The most obvious one is to both act ethically, and speak up publicly about why ethics matters. We’re not vocal enough about this issue, and we need to change that. Another way to push back is to be more vocal about what we want the tech firms to do. We’ve got to stop treating the likes of Facebook and Google as champions of public relations, and rather as companies who are not doing enough to fight for and on behalf of our publics online.

If you have any ideas on the above, please do share them. This is an issue that’ll affect us all. And we have to take collective action to fight back. The real me is signing out for now…

Trump’s CEOs: Why they felt having a dialogue was better than taking a moral stand

Trump-Merck-CEO

The CEO of Merck, Kenneth Frazier, was the first executive to quit President Trump’s business councils after the events of last week (Photo: Evan Vucci, AP)

For a moment, you could hear the sighs of relief in boardrooms across America. The CEOs of blue chip firms such as General Motors, IBM, Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo are no longer under the microscope for their response, or lack of, to the happenings in Charlottesville, Virginia last week. These executives were part of President Trump’s business advisory groups. To quote more on the story for those who haven’t been following the news, here’s the report from The Guardian:

Donald Trump was forced to disband two White House business councils that were disintegrating around him on Wednesday in the wake of his controversial remarks about the weekend violence in Charlottesville.

The Strategic and Policy Forum and the White House Manufacturing Jobs Initiative were both dissolved as corporate leaders continued to resign.

Trump claimed in a tweet that this was his decision, writing: “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!”

The collapse of the advisory bodies follows seven different corporate leaders stepping down from the two councils in recent days including the CEOs of both Campbell’s Soup and 3M on Wednesday.

Trump had previously stated that resignations from both panels were of no consequence. “For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!” he said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Wednesday’s abrupt decision came after Trump confidante Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group, held a conference call for about a dozen members of the strategic and policy forum who decided to abandon it, the New York Times reported. Executives from the manufacturing council had been due to hold a similar call that afternoon, the paper added.

On Wednesday, corporate leaders who sat on the councils raced to denounce Trump’s comments about Charlottesville and to support the dissolution of the advisory bodies. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan and a member of Strategic and Policy Forum, said in a statement: “I strongly disagree with President Trump’s reaction to the events that took place in Charlottesville over the past several days.” He added that he agreed with the council’s decision to disband.

Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, who had previously said on Monday that he would not step down from the manufacturing advisory board, put out a statement on Wednesday afternoon announcing that he had resigned.

Three members of the manufacturing council resigned on Monday after Trump’s initial refusal to condemn the neo-Nazi and white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville by name. Two more followed on Tuesday after Trump defended some of the protestors in a press conference at Trump Tower. The president targeted one of the CEOs, Kenneth Frazier of Merck, in two tweetsincluding one where he mentioned Frazier, the lone African American CEO to step down, by name.

What is most striking about the events of last week was the slow reaction of these executives, particularly from firms who champion diversity and inclusion. Merck’s CEO, who was the first to act, felt compelled to leave the council due to a matter of personal conscience.

This was a minority opinion, and may CEOs were determined to remain, despite the President’s refusal to condemn extremist hate groups. To quote from the Washington Post, some, such as the four government contractors on the president’s advisory councils — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Harris Corp. and United Technologies — waited until after the councils had disbanded to publicly weigh in, if they did at all. Even then, several stopped short of singling out the president for blaming “both sides” for the violence at a white supremacist rally this past weekend in Charlottesville.

One example was Lockheed Martin, which offered no public statement. The firm’s chief executive Marillyn A. Hewson sent a note to employees on Wednesday, hours before the councils were folded, explaining that she would remain a member because the group’s mission “remains critical to our business,” even as she insisted that “white supremists, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups have no place in our society.”

Other, such as PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, personally condemned the violence, but failed to act beyond that.

Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies was unmoved, with his spokespeople telling the media that: “While we wouldn’t comment on any member’s personal decision, there’s no change in Dell engaging with the Trump administration and governments around the world to share our perspective on policy issues that affect our company, customers and employees.”

So, what was behind the inability to move? Did these executives believe that it was worth remaining to engage with a President whose position on the Charlottesville events has been condemned?

The best comment I read was shared by a communications colleague online (thank you Tim for this share). Corporate language consultant Michael Maslansky stated, “The era of the fence-sitter corporation is over. If you’re silent about an issue, then each side will assume you’re on the wrong side. You end up really having to choose.”

Corporate leaders have to choose; they can no longer sit on the fence. And they have to be prepared for the backlash, particularly from a President who takes anything and everything personally. Corporate leaders also need to act individually, as the CEO of Merck did – it’s telling that the CEOs who stuck it out decided to end the council via a conference call, preferring collective responsibility over personal ownership (which seems to be a habit of corporate life these days).

I hope those leaders who didn’t criticize what happened last week finally do so. Apple’s Tim Cook has been vocal about his position. It’s time to get off the fence people, and not only say what you believe in and advocate for as a company, but turn those words into actions.

What not to say on live TV – Qatar Airway’s CEO and the bull**** comment on CNN Money

There’s few things worse to do on live television than swearing. Unless you’re a CEO that is. After being accused of treating foreign workers, especially female cabin crew, with disdain in an article published in the Washington Post (the article is entitled ‘The surprising ways in which some flight attendants are still made to live in the 1960s’), Akbar al-Baker did the media rounds to defend his airline’s position and dismiss the claims. Watch the video and the offending comment for yourselves.

To say Akbar al-Baker is gaffe-prone would be an understatement. He has led the airline since 1997 through a period of unparalleled growth. However, when does a leader become a liability? Is Akbar al-Baker, of which much has been said by former staff, a liability to the airline and to Qatar?