Days of trolls and hackers are numbered

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

In a recent meeting I had with Facebook executives, they said they are continually developing new tools and technologies to increase account security as well as identify and shut down fake Facebook accounts that scam people and, more critically, those that are used for misinformation/disinformation and covert influence operations. 

In November last year, Meta – the parent company of Facebook – announced that it has shut down over 4,800 fake social media accounts that originated from China but whose profiles appear to be Americans (complete with fake photos) creating and sharing political content aimed at sowing political discord and furthering ideological divide. 

While misinformation/disinformation activities are geared at spreading fake news or misleading information, influence operations (IO) take things a step further because they are aimed at manipulating public opinion/perception and ultimately, influencing political outcomes. IO may also use trolls, hackers and cyberthugs to attack personalities through black propaganda by spreading lies and engaging in smear campaigns. 

In the Philippines, “cyberthugs” are increasingly becoming rampant, with black propaganda and demolition jobs now considered to be big business, making it relatively easy to hire IO and social media rent-a-groups. Oftentimes, the source of the black propaganda/smear campaign is a newly created Facebook account (likely to be dubious or fake) making a malicious post or content that assails the integrity and credibility of public figures or institutions.  

Aside from the use of fake social media accounts (with ridiculous sounding names and locked or blank profiles) another way to spot a demolition job is when there is a “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB) from Facebook and other social media platforms like X that post the same content with copy pasted, repetitive, scripted and verbatim comments attacking the target at specific time intervals, in contrast with real social media accounts whose users show diverse opinions and a variety of comments. 

Obviously, technological advancements have also greatly enabled the capability of cybercriminals to perpetuate scams, steal data, hack company and government websites and other nefarious activities with relative anonymity. Artificial intelligence (AI) in particular is becoming a weapon of choice for cybercriminals because of its great capacity to increase the speed, efficiency and sophistication of attacks, and could even tailor fit the kind of assault for a specific target. 

Just last month, scammers impersonated a mayor in Queensland, Australia and made it look like she was making a live call through the use of generative AI that allows scammers to impersonate a face and clone voices to create deepfake audios and videos. 

The good news is – a number of US high-tech companies with strong financial backing from major investors are now rapidly developing AI technology to identify security threats and vulnerabilities, investigate malicious software, go after scammers, hackers, trolls and all kinds of cyberthugs. These emerging technologies are intended not only to spot fakes but to also locate the base of operations of hackers and cybercriminals.  

Last May, OpenAI – an artificial intelligence research company based in San Francisco – announced that it identified and removed five influence operations that were using the company’s AI technology to create deceptive content shared across a variety of platforms to influence public opinion and political discourse. 

Developments such as this are significant because cybercrime has become so rampant all over the world, but most especially in the Philippines where cyberattacks doubled in 2023. Considering the highly politicized atmosphere in the country today with the 2025 elections drawing nearer, the proliferation of POGOs (Philippine offshore gaming operators) suspected of being hubs for spying and hacking operations against government agencies, plus the fact that we are facing external security threats, the Philippines could be highly vulnerable to cyberattacks. 

Certainly, the government is aware of these cybersecurity threats and our national security officials have already identified some of these cybercriminals and mercenaries, some of whom are Western nationals – among them an American pretending to be a US intelligence officer or at least pretending to be a spy operating in the Philippines and allegedly involved in local politics. Our national security people are slowly but surely closing in on them.

During the first-ever Philippines-US-Japan trilateral summit in Washington, among the topics discussed was the need to strengthen cybersecurity cooperation, with plans to hold a cyber dialogue sometime in July to help the Philippines become more resilient in combatting cyberattacks from state-backed and criminal organizations. 

A technology and digital summit among heads of state is also being contemplated to discuss how emerging technology can be leveraged to enhance cybersecurity, considering that the new battlefront is in cyberspace where threats and risks have become a global concern because of their impact on the global economy. 

I’m very pleased to see that the United States is very much at the forefront of AI technology and research, as seen in the launch of “Task Force Lima” by the US Department of Defense to develop and use artificial intelligence in a trustworthy and responsible manner for many sectors that include business, health care, policy making and naturally, military defense and readiness.  

According to Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks, who directed the organization of “Task Force Lima,” the Pentagon has been investing in AI-enabled systems for many years.

I am one of many government officials being targeted by black ops, but we all know that as public figures, this is par for the course. Nevertheless, these cyberthugs will not deter us from doing our job in deepening the relations between the Philippines and the United States, especially in the wake of continued maritime harassment and cyberattacks from a big bully nation.  

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Email: [email protected]

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