Comelec quick response foils site-hacking report from becoming a problem

So many things were not quite right in the Manila Bulletin news report about the alleged hacking of the Commission on Election (Comelec) website. The quick response from Comelec Spokesperson James Jimenez foiled further spread of that suspicious report.

Jimenez took the bull by its horn, a valuable lesson not only in fighting disinformation but also in preventing something from becoming a problem, or a crisis.

The report came to our attention late afternoon of Monday, Jan. 10. It said “sensitive voter information may have been compromised after a group of hackers was allegedly able to breach the servers of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), downloading more than 60 gigabytes of data that could possibly affect the May 2022 elections.”

“This was discovered by the Manila Bulletin (MB) Technews team, which found that the hackers’ group managed to breach the system of the Comelec last Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, and download files that included, among others, usernames and PINS of vote-counting machines (VCM),” the MB article continued.

The story had the byline “MB Technews,” indicating that not one person but members of the newspaper’s technews team worked on the story.

The report triggered concern because this was not the first time that government agencies’ websites, including Comelec’s, were hacked. And there’s the approaching May 9, 2022 elections that everyone looks forward to as the campaign heats up even as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 rampages, setting new record levels of infections.

Our fact-checkers’ training tell us to immediately do lateral reading, get out of the Manila Bulletin site and check if other news media sites carried similar reports. Nada!

We got Jimenez’ statement, which said they were “validating” the news report. He did not dismiss the report outright but pointed out red flags.

“With no independent verification that a hack has indeed taken place, one thing immediately stands out: the article alleges that the hackers were able to ‘download files that included, among others, usernames and PINS (personal identification numbers) of vote-counting machines (VCM).’The fact, however, is that such information still does not exist in Comelec systems simply because the configuration files – which includes usernames and PINs – have not yet been completed. This calls into question the veracity of the hacking claim,” Jimenez noted.

Further, he said: “ As for the rest of the allegations made, please note that the article offers scant substantiation for its assertions despite claiming that the authors had ‘verified that there was an ongoing hack.’ Indeed, the article does not even offer proof of such verification.”

As expected, several theories and comments already came out on social media. There were those who suspected those loyal to President Rodrigo Duterte of sabotaging the May 9 elections for a No-EL scenario to allow him to stay in Malacañang beyond June 30, 2022.

The seed of this suspicion could have been the proposal of Rep. Aurelio Gonzales Jr. (Pampanga, 3rd district), filed on Jan. 7, for longer term of office for the president, members of the House of Representatives and local officials on the argument that six years for a president and three years for House members are “too short.”

Later in the evening, we chanced upon this Twitter account @KimInar by someone who described herself as a “world traveler, lawyer, critic, hard-working, and independent woman.”
Earlier, @KimInar was at a Twitter party with the theme “Protect our Vote” and hashtag #ComelecHacked. It carried the Manila Bulletin headline report.

@KimInar tweeted: “Can we still entrust our vote with the Comelec?” and encouraged others to “RT.”

Jose@edsaisidro wrote: “So if not for the MB Technews team, we wouldn’t have known this hacking incident? Talagang nanakawin ulit ang mga boto natin?”

Anathema Crapolla@anathemacrapola chimed in: “This plus yung pang tatag team ni Jimenez at Guanzon ng tweets para hiyain si Bongbong sa dapat walang kwentang DQ issue, plus yung cryptic tweet ni Andy Bautista…… Ano ba ito? Harap harapang pangaggago? Eleksyon pa ba? Bigay nyo na kay Leni. Nahiya pa kayo.”

Did the Manila Bulletin news report have something to do with the petitions to disqualify presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. being heard by the Comelec First Division?

Comelec Commissioner Rowena Guanzon started the hearing Jan. 7, Friday. Marcos Jr. did not attend. His lawyer said he was not feeling well and that he was exposed to persons who tested positive of COVID-19.

Guanzon announced on Twitter: “On or before Jan 17 the @COMELEC First Division will promulgate its Resolution on the DQ cases versus Marcos Jr. If not too risky, we will read it in the Session Hall, on live stream.

This column appeared also in:

ABS-CBN online, Malaya Business Insight, and VERA Files

Is Bongbong Marcos peaking too early?

Latest election surveys showed that if elections were held today, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. would be the 17th president of the Republic of the Philippines.

It’s a nightmare in the making for those who have experienced the horrors of martial law and those who know how democracy was distorted and crushed during the Marcos authoritarian regime. Will the 50th year of the declaration of martial law on Sept. 21, 2022 be declared a national holiday by the Philippine president by then, the son and namesake of the man who signed Proclamation 1081 two days prior to its announcement, asked JB Baylon, columnist of Malaya Business Insight and VERA Files.

Pulse Asia’s December 2021 nationwide survey showed Marcos Jr. was the choice of 53% of Filipinos if elections were held now. Other candidates trail behind, with Leni Robredo, the political opposition’s muse, as the choice of 20% of the respondents; Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, 8%; boxing legend and Sen. Manny Pacquiao, 8%; and, Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, 6%.

Never has a candidate in the post-1986 people power revolution elections reached that high number consistently in pre-election surveys. Not even Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, who was catapulted into the 2010 presidential race by the massive public sympathy over his mother’s death a few months earlier. He led in all the poll surveys at 40-plus percent, never reaching 50%.

A favorite elections poll story is the come-from-behind feat of then-mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, who was No. 4 among presidential aspirants five months before D-Day. The SWS December 2009 survey had then-vice president Jejomar Binay and Sen. Grace Poe preferred by 26% of the respondents, followed by Liberal Party standard bearer Manuel “Mar” Roxas with 22%. Duterte had 20% support and then-senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, 4%.

Duterte’s national popularity manifested only in the April 2015 surveys. Pulse Asia’s polling sponsored by broadcast giant ABS-CBN two weeks before the May 9, 2016 elections had Duterte on top with 33%. He went on to win the elections with 16,601,997 (39.2% of votes cast).
The vice-presidential race was also a come-from-behind story with Robredo winning over Marcos Jr. by 263, 473 votes.

The come-from-behind stories are reminders that many things can happen between now and May 9, 2022. Can Bongbong Marcos continue expanding his numbers and convert them successfully to actual votes come Election Day? Or has he peaked this early and go downhill from now?
Bongbong Marcos’ advisers, having their bitter lesson in the 2016 elections experience, may be doing everything to make sure that their candidate maintains the lead.

There are calls for the opposition to unite behind Robredo against Marcos Jr. Maybe because his running mate is President Duterte’s daughter, Bongbong is identified with the current administration and his victory would be a continuation of Duterte’s policies: pro-China, low on human rights, etc.

Duterte’s badmouthing of Bongbong Marcos didn’t seem to have affected the latter’s popularity. This confirms two things: Duterte’s lame duck status (who gives importance to someone who will be out of power in a few months?) and that more than 50% of Duterte’s social media warriors, credited for his 2016 election domination, belongs to the Marcos online army.

It is doubtful, however, if Moreno, Pacquiao and Lacson would withdraw from the race. And granting they would, it is doubtful if the votes would go to Robredo, especially Moreno’s and Pacquiao’s supporters. They could even be won over by Marcos Jr.

This is one situation where Robredo’s strategists should think of the divide and conquer strategy -encourage Pacquiao to stay in the race to deprive the Bongbong-Sara full dominance of Mindanao. Marcos has the edge in Metro Manila over other candidates with 61% (Pulse Asia survey). If Moreno withdraws, his 17% might even go to Marcos.

The next surveys should be interesting. Leni’s graph has been a steady upward climb. Bongbong is clearly on top now. Where does he go from there?

The danger of eliminating anonymity in social media

A fake Facebook report quoting Sen. Francis Pangilinan fact-checked by VERA Filkes.

One of the attributes of Facebook (now called Meta) that attracted many to the platform, which is now the biggest in the universe (with 2.89 billion users), is anonymity.

One can be Maria even if she is Juana, or be a 35-year-old engineer from China even if he is a 25-year-old writer from the Philippines.

Officially, Facebook has a real-name policy, which requires users to “provide the name they use in real life.” In practice, however, those who are creative can go around that rule and hide their real identity.

Anonymity is not evil. It can be used for something good. However, as in all things in this world, malevolent minds are using it to do vicious acts while escaping accountability.

That has been the focus in the series of public hearings conducted by the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments and Revision of Codes, chaired by Francis Pangilinan: “to conduct a review, in aid of legislation, of the country’s existing criminal laws to consider the rise of social media platforms and the rapid advancement of technology.”

Pangilinan and Senate Minority Floor Leader Franklin Drilon shared their experience of having been subjected to “defamatory” posts on social media.

Drilon said there are existing legal remedies that the defamed can avail of, but they have to know the identities of the defamers. He wants to compel platforms to reveal the identity of the owners of the social media accounts that carry vicious posts.

“We are not asking you to sanction them. We will ask the court to make them accountable. But we have to know their identity to bring them to court, “Drilon said.

There was no commitment from Facebook representatives at the hearings. All they could say was, they have cooperated with Philippine authorities in a number of cases, especially those involving the exploitation of children.

During the second hearing last Dec. 15, retired Supreme Court justice Antonio T. Carpio made a number suggestions which should send chills down the spine not only of those who are fond of posting untruthful and defamatory posts but also of the platforms.

He said that unlike in the United States where online platforms can take refuge under the safe harbor clause in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 of the United States not to be accountable for the libelous comments of their users, in the Philippines, they can be held liable for libelous comments of their users, just like in any print, TV or radio media.

Online platforms are publishers, Carpio said. Thus, public officials or public figures libeled online by fake or fictitious persons can sue the online platform.

There is, however, the burden of proving malice for the libel charge to prosper.

“There is a gap between the existing libel law and what should be the ideal justice in case of online libel. The use of fake or fictitious names in online platforms to libel a person is per se proof of malice, and this should be written in the law,” Carpio said, and went on to propose “that existing law should be amended so that malice is presumed on the part of the online publishers if they allow fake or fictitious users to post on their platforms libelous comments against public officials or public figures.”

He continued: “We are all for freedom of expression, but we are also for the truth and for a level playing field. Anyone who imputes in social media a crime or derogatory act on another person must disclose his real identity to allow the libeled person a legal remedy against his or her defamer. The defamer must not be allowed to hide behind a fake or fictitious name. The burden must be placed on the online platform publishers to require those who post comments on their platforms to disclose their real identities.

Carpio noted that many posters with dubious aliases have been traced to China. He proposed further: “The online publishers should also secure the country of residence and addresses of those who post comments on their platforms. The country of residence and addresses of those who post comments can be given to the libeled person upon request to allow him or her to exercise his or her legal remedy.”

Another resource person, Jonathan Corpus Ong, co-author of “Architects of Networked Disinformation,” a definitive study on fake news production in the Philippines, sounded a note of caution on “legislation that will undermine online anonymity and privacy of users.”
He cited progressive movements such as #MeToo and #BLM which, he said, “were amplified by pseudo-anonymous accounts.”

“Unmasking low level ‘trolls’ allows the real masterminds to get away: the top-level political marketers and their political clients,” he said.

The disinformation expert added, “Overbroad legal frameworks to catch ‘cybercrime’ or ‘fake news’ vaguely defined have dealt catastrophic harms to vulnerable communities.”

Ong’s concern is reinforced by the recent decision of the Supreme Court upholding the repugnant Anti-Terror Act.

He suggested that instead of top-down legislation, the lawmakers must “provide infrastructure and funding to support bottom-up interventions done by journalists, civil society and academics who have already been doing the work of monitoring disinformation and engaging platforms in a thoughtful and responsible way.”

He said other approaches can include “funding research, creating media literacy initiatives and developing interventions that prebunk harmful speech and misleading narratives such as historical revisionism.”

It’s good that the committee is listening to many voices. What we should guard against in our search for a solution to the problem of a toxic social media is the possibility of coming up with a medicine that is worse than the disease.

This column appeared also in:

ABS-CBN online

Malaya Business Insight

VERA Files

Bobby Romulo’s urgent appeal goes viral

Photo from Zuellig Foundation

Former foreign secretary Roberto R. Romulo is supposed to take things easy for health reasons. He has even suspended his columns in Philippine Star until November. But he just had to send out an urgent appeal to his fellow members of the business community. And he was surprised by the reactions.

The appeal has gone viral. Someone translated it to Tagalog and Cebuano.

As expected, it has elicited the ire of Duterte fanatics.

Read what Romulo has written:

“This letter is about the sad plight of our country under the Presidency of Duterte which has been characterized by incompetence, brutality, corruption, incivility, abuse of power, and dishonesty. In a span of five years, he has reversed the gains that the Aquino Presidency has bequeathed him – a robust economy, a healthy balance sheet, shrinking poverty levels, the confidence of foreign investors, international credit rating agencies and corruption ranking institutions and the respect of other countries. He has squandered the weight of global public opinion in our favor following the ruling of the UN arbitration court invalidating China’s claim on the South China Sea by meekly standing by while she continues encroaching on our territory and denying our fishermen access to traditional fishing grounds. His brutal implementation of his anti-drug war has caused the lives of thousands with little success to show for it. His incompetent management of the pandemic resulted in unnecessary deaths and impoverished the poor even more. The simplicity, dignity, moral values and respect for democratic ideals that the under-appreciated Noynoy Aquino brought stands in stark contrast to Duterte. Do we really want six more years of this dark age in our history? Six more years of Harry Roque and Jose Calida?

“The next election will be fought in cyberspace – be it the social media trolls or even outright digital shenanigans by the side that have the means to do so or is friendly with those who have. Truth is the counter weapon of choice against those who will bend it to change the narrative. I strongly suggest that you highlight Aquino legacies to your family, friends, and acquaintances. If possible, provide moral and financial support to those who are in social media. It is my understanding that there are trolls on our side but regrettably weak in comparison to Duterte trolls.

“Do not put priority on the ‘winnability’ of a candidate but rather on someone who will bring back competence, dignity, civility and true love of country and her people. Together we can make that candidate winnable. But do not wait for that individual to emerge. Our primary objective now is to show our countrymen that Duterte and his anointed are unacceptable.

“At the age of 82, I assure you I have no personal agenda, political or otherwise. In truth, it is my fervent prayer for the return of democracy and its institutions, which the incumbent has trampled.

“Thank you for the messages and prayers. It is my hope that Divine Intervention will assist me in my medical challenge even as I devoutly pray that HE will bring enlightenment to our citizenry that will lead to the political demise of the incumbent President and his allies.

“ Feel free to send to others!!!”

Pacquiao is hindrance to Duterte’s staying in power beyond June 2022

President Duterte attended Sen.Manny Pacquiao’s 38th birthday celebration in General Santos on Dec. 17, 2018. Malacanang photo by Richard Madelo.

Boxing champ and Sen. Manny Pacquiao and President Rodrigo Duterte used to be allies.

Despite his being a born-again Christian, Pacquiao did not condemn the extra-judicial killings that became a daily occurrence as Duterte waged his war on drugs. He supported Duterte’s initiative to re-impose death penalty. He voted for the abhorrent anti-terror law.

He was silent when former senator Antonio Trillanes IV exposed Duterte’s bank deposits in hundreds of millions of pesos in 2016 which remain unexplained up to now.

Now, he talks about corruption in the Duterte government.

Duterte was in the audience at the Axiata Arena in Malaysia when Pacquiao won over Argentine Lucas Matthysse in July 2018 and called him an inspiration to “Filipinos not only in boxing but also in the public service.” Never mind that Pacquaio is known for his absenteeism in the Senate.

Now, Duterte is talking about Pacquiao’s absenteeism. A few days ago, during the inauguration of the Light Rail Transit extension, Duterte said: “Eh kung mag-report ka lang, dalawa, isang buwan, then I would say that you are a s***. A s*** is a s***. Magtrabaho ka, hiningi mo ‘yan, nandiyan ‘yong mga papel.

(When you report [to work] twice in a month, then I would say you are a s***. A s*** is a s***. You work. You asked for it. The papers are there.)

“Start investigating. Do not go elsewhere. Comply first with your duty as a senator. Tapusin mo ‘yan, nandiyan ‘yong mga papeles. Huwag kang pa-absent-absent. (Finish that first, the papers are there. Don’t be absent.)

The change of tune, no doubt, is related to the 2022 elections.

Duterte’s term ends on June 30, 2022. But it’s obvious he wants to stay in power beyond the constitutional limit to protect himself and other officials who have helped him execute his controversial policies and programs like bloody war on drugs.

The Constitution does not allow a re-election for the president. His allies’ attempts to change the Constitution miserably failed.

He floated the utterly ridiculous idea of him running for vice president to his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, or his aide-turned-senator, Christopher “Bong” Go, which he later admitted to be just an anti-lame duck scheme.

The promotion of the 43-year-old Duterte-Carpio to succeed the 76-year-old Duterte seems to be working because she is leading the surveys on possible presidential candidates for 2022.

Of the names in the top five of the February 2021 Pulse Asia survey (Duterte-Carpio, Bongbong Marcos, Grace Poe, Ishko Moreno, Manny Pacquiao), it’s Pacquiao who is expected to compete with Duterte-Carpio for the Mindanao votes and more importantly of the vote-rich masa.

Thus, he has to be eliminated from the competition. It started with attempts to oust him as acting president of the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban).

Last Thursday, Duterte erroneously announced that the 42-year-old Pacquiao backed out of his fight with 31-year-old Errol Spence Jr. in Las Vegas scheduled on August 21. There is no official announcement of Pacquaio withdrawing from the fight although he is facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from Paradigm Sports Management which sought injunction against the Pacquiao -Spence bout.

The boxer-senator needs to win this fight, not only for the money but also to boost his presidential ambition. Duterte is just one of those who want to see him fail.

This column also appeared in VERA Files.