Since taking office in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte and his powerful allies in the Philippine government have been in the middle of countless controversies. This includes what the United Nations deems as “widespread human rights violations” against drug suspects, activists, journalists and Indigenous peoples.
Apart from threats and violence, Duterte’s camp has also consistently weaponized social media through the years seemingly to gain — and keep — control, and to silence detractors.
In 2020, Facebook removed over a hundred “fake accounts” and pages linked to the Philippine police and military. These pages were not only said to be spreading false information about controversial issues in the country, but several accounts from police were also reportedly investigated for “red-tagging” political opposition and activists in the country.
In 2019, Facebook also took down 200 pages linked to the person behind Duterte’s social media campaign. In 2018, another huge network of pages and accounts pushing Duterte agenda and violating Facebook policies were also banned.
Facebook and social media have also been heavily used in efforts to whitewash the administration’s heinous record and revamp Duterte’s image.
Among those banned by Facebook in 2019 due to “illegal” and “coordinated inauthentic behavior” are pages linked to a Filipino digital marketing group called Twinmark Media Enterprises.
Journalists from Rappler have uncovered their business model, revealing a lucrative network with a massive reach spanning millions of followers, designed to spread misinformation and pro-Duterte propaganda.
According to the reputed Filipino news outlet, Twinmark Media Enterprises had “several local and national politicians as clients,” and they reportedly paid numerous popular celebrities and influencers generous amounts of money to boost their reach and spread fake news and propaganda.
Rappler obtained internal documents, reportedly showing a list of celebrities being paid “advertising fees” in 2017 and 2018, ranging from PHP10,000 ($205) to over PHP250,000 ($5145) monthly. Several Filipino stars received money to post Twinmark articles, which many believe contain false information and propaganda, with the highest paid said to have earned “at least P3.9 million” ($80,220) in that short period.
Among the several celebrities reported to have received money from Twinmark Media Enterprises is Filipino UFC Octagon Girl, Red Dela Cruz.
Dela Cruz, a Filipina model, surged in popularity after joining the UFC as an Octagon Girl in 2015.
She typically handles the UFC’s Asia Pacific events, but has been recently assigned to their string of “Fight Island” shows in Abu Dhabi, including the massive McGregor vs Poirier 2 pay-per-view last January.
Her verified Facebook page currently has 2.7 million followers.
Rovilyn “Red” Dela Cruz was only mentioned briefly on the original report, as the piece focused on the largest Filipino celebrities and influencers on the take. Rappler journalist Camille Elemia has since provided Bloody Elbow with more details on the UFC Octagon Girl’s involvement for this story.
Dela Cruz has been sharing Twinmark content since 2016, but documents from 2017 and 2018 that Rappler obtained and independently verified give an idea on how much influencers like her were being paid.
According to the information Rappler provided to Bloody Elbow, De La Cruz took home at least PHP518,000 — or around $10,700 — in 16 months between 2017 and 2018. Her payouts ranged from PHP12,000 up to PHP75,000 monthly, simply for sharing content on her Facebook page.
February 2017 - 45,000
March 2017 - 50,000
April 2017 - 75,000
May 2017 - 28,000
June 2017 - 28,000
July 2017 - 28,000
August 2017 - 28,000
September 2017 - 28,000
October 2017 - 28,000
November 2017 - 28,000
December 2017 - 28,000
January 2018 - 28,000
February 2018 - 28,000
March 2018 - 28,000
April 2018 - 28,000
September 2018 - 12,000
Total for 2017-2018: PHP518,000
According to Elemia, like many of the other celebrities, these payments were directly deposited to Dela Cruz’s bank accounts.
Dela Cruz has linked to several outlets from Twinmark Media Enterprises, including websites known for political misinformation like Trending News Portal and Socialpees. The content that was shared varied from Duterte propaganda made to rehabilitate his image, to clickbait articles designed to increase traffic to their network and widen their reach further.
Her account pushed common Duterte propaganda that implies “proof” of how the President isn’t corrupt, because he’s “humble” and doesn’t have extravagant meals or celebrations.
With a caption in Filipino, one post read, “So this is how Pres. Duterte celebrated the new year! He’s happy with just a simple gathering!”
Various posts also tried to justify Duterte’s devastating war on drugs, and alter the public’s perception during a time it was being heavily criticized.
“This is the reason why the war on drugs needs to continue,” De La Cruz’s post said in Filipino. “Look at all the negative effects it has caused from these photos of drug users.”
“She was killed and raped by his own father because he was high on drugs?? This is too much!! What should happen to this father?”
The other links she shared were either clickbait or tabloid entertainment type of posts. These quick clicks try to expand the reach of these sites and make the network even more effective in spreading misinformation and propaganda for their clients.
These subset of posts vary from very random topics you’d find in random clickbait ads, to articles tangentially related to politics — like jabs at actresses related to political opposition, and inappropriate posts about Duterte’s daughter.
Countless posts of similar nature populated Facebook pages of various stars and influencers in the Philippines, including those with far bigger reach and influence than the UFC Octagon Girl. According to Rappler, some of the more popular figures had deals paying out millions of pesos, and requirements to share at least four posts per day.
Bloody Elbow has reached out to both Red Dela Cruz and UFC Asia for comment, but have yet to receive a response as of this writing.
Twinmark Media Enterprises and the sites under their network were eventually banned by Facebook, but they’re far from the only company with that business model. With public figures being more than willing to sell their platform to the highest bidder, this strategy isn’t likely to end, especially with politics always needing something to whitewash.
Duterte’s “war on drugs” alone reportedly saw tens of thousands killed, mostly involving urban poor, supposed drug users and drug dealers in the country. In June 2020, a UN investigation uncovered that the Philippine police seemed to have repeatedly falsified evidence to claim self-defense and justify unlawful killings during these operations.
Hundreds of “human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists have been killed in relation to their work” during Duterte’s term, according to the UN Human Rights Office. And it hasn’t stopped.
A 2021 report from the Human Rights Watch also state that “drug war” killings, unnecessary arrests, and attacks on activists, Indigenous peoples and human rights advocates only “intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020” as the “The Duterte administration appeared to take advantage of COVID-19 curfews.”
The Duterte administration has also been heavily criticized for their slow and ineffective pandemic response, especially relating to testing and vaccines.