How a Little-Known Pro-Kremlin Analyst Became a Philippine Expert Overnight
Rappler.com Investigation Has Helped Dismantle a Moscow Disinformation Network in Philippines
Russian disinformation and network systems have penetrated social media in the Philippines, a creeping phenomenon that started after the Russian and Philippine leaders forged closer ties in 2017 on issues related to national security and information management, according to an investigation by Rappler.com in the Philippines and Coda Story in Moscow.
The links between the Kremlin’s disinformation ecosystem and the Philippines start at the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), a state-sponsored troll farm, and unwind through a group of social media and news outlets managed by supporters of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
One of the most vivid examples of the cross-pollination of disinformation was the sudden and increased appearance early last year of a little-known global affairs expert on Philippine news sites that Rappler.com has linked to supporters of the Philippine president. Up until that point, the expert, a man named Adam Garrie, had a niche following as a frequent commentator on RT, the Russian state-sponsored broadcaster and several other Kremlin-linked media sites, but he had no known background in Filipino or Asian affairs.
Garrie’s unusual footprint on the Philippine media scene offers a strange and cautionary tale on how swiftly and stealthily Russia’s state-backed disinformation tactics can expand to unlikely places.
Garrie’s relationship with Kremlin-backed media was revealed in a research paper published by New Knowledge, a data company that investigated the Russian IRA and what it called the Kremlin’s “broader propaganda ecosystem.” The report, submitted to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, combined data submitted by Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s parent company Alphabet that consisted of text, videos, images, and other content linked to the IRA.
The report links Garrie to a site called GI Analytics, which is among the Russian propaganda pages most promoted by IRA advertising accounts on Facebook. Garrie also contributes to several other sites that New Knowledge describes as part of the Russian web of disinformation, including Russia Insider, The Duran, Geopolitica.ru, Mint Press News, Oriental Review, and globalresearch.ca.
Rappler sought comment from Garrie before publishing its article in late January, but received no response. After the article was published, Garrie posted to his Facebook page that he had no connection to the Russian government and he reiterated his support for Duterte.
Garrie is also cited as an expert source on at least three Russian-language news sites connected to IRA, according to an investigation conducted by the Russian-language news site RBC.
Separately, Garrie has been interviewed by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB)-affiliated Press TV, and RT (formerly Russia Today). IRIB is independent of the Iranian government but its head is appointed directly by the supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
The US Department of the Treasury in 2013 identified IRIB as a network that broadcast false reports and forced confessions of political detainees. In August 2018, Google deleted 58 accounts on YouTube, Google+, and Blogger that were involved in “politically motivated phishing.” The accounts had ties to IRIB.
RT was identified by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence in January 2017 as the primary source of propaganda that the Russians used to further their interests in the 2016 US elections.
After Pres. Duterte visited Moscow, the Philippine and Russian presidential communication offices forged a partnership in information dissemination. Disinformation followed.
Garrie popped up in Philippine media several months after President Duterte, accompanied by an entourage of spin doctors, visited Russia in May 2017.
During his trip to Moscow, the Philippine leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a number of national security agreements, including a deal on intelligence sharing and the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. They also discussed information strategy and training.
The Philippine delegation to Moscow included Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin Andanar; a former singer-dancer turned PCOO assistant secretary Mocha Uson, and pro-Duterte bloggers Rey Joseph Nieto and Carlos Munda, according to Rappler. Uson and Nieto, who runs the Thinking Pinoy website, anchor the network that attacks perceived government critics.
On May 30, 2017, state-run Philippine News Agency reported that the Philippine and Russian presidential communication offices were set to forge a partnership in information dissemination.
The agreement was signed in November, when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev came to the Philippines for the ASEAN Summit. At that time, Russia and the Philippines also signed additional agreements, which included an “MOU on Cooperation in Mass Communications.”
Staff from the Philippine News Agency were also sent to Russia for training on information dissemination with news organization Sputnik.
The Daily Sentry, a Philippine news site, started citing Adam Garrie as a global expert after Philippine-Russian ties grew stronger. Until then, Garrie had been featured on RT and other pro-Moscow outlets, but few other sites.
At the start of 2018, a new Philippine news site emerged called The Daily Sentry. It’s ownership is unknown and not publicly disclosed, yet this obscure platform which says it publishes “news and current events” became the first Philippine outlet to publish Garrie’s views, according to Rappler.
Between February 2018 and January 2019, The Daily Sentry cited Garrie in 41% of posts on Facebook that mentioned experts, according to an analysis by Rappler.
Rappler requested comment from The Daily Sentry about its reasons for citing Garrie, but received no reply.
By March 2018, Garrie moved to mainstream Philippine outlets, including The Manila Times. The paper’s chairman emeritus, Dante Ang, is also President Duterte’s “special envoy for international public relations.”
In the same month, Sass Rogando Sassot, a top pro-Duterte social media personality, shared a link to a page from Eurasia Future, a think tank Garrie is affiliated with. The page featured an interview with Garrie by Rado Gatchalian, a Filipino living in Sydney who manages several pro-Duterte pages.
Meanwhile, outlets identified in the New Knowledge report as spreading Russian propaganda were increasingly being shared in 2018 by Philippine online groups and pages. Some sites linked to Duterte officials and supporters were part of this disinformation drive, exposing such views to millions of new people, according to Rappler.
One such example involved Duterte’s former assistant secretary in his presidential communications office who participated in the Moscow presidential visit. According to data compiled by Rappler, the former official shared content more than 500 times from a site called Trending News Portal, which described itself as a digital news outfit specializing in viral stories.
On January 11, 2019, Facebook took action against 220 Philippine Facebook pages and 29 Instagram accounts, including The Daily Sentry. Facebook said that the sites had violated its misrepresentation and spam policies.
Last month, the spread of Kremlin-linked disinformation in the Philippines also came to the attention of Facebook.
In January, the social media company took down 220 pages and 73 other Philippine accounts, saying they violated the company’s policies on misrepresentation and spam.
Included in the crackdown was The Daily Sentry’s Facebook page and pages of its affiliates, as well as the TNP page, which had more than 4.3 million followers, and accounts related to TNP’s parent company called TwinMark Media Enterprises.
Facebook’s actions may only be a drop in the ocean of the tide of Kremlin disinformation flooding the Philippines. As of early February, The Daily Sentry’s website was still active.
This article was originally published by Rappler and adapted by Coda Story for publication.