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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Trolling on taxpayer money?

Philippine Daily Inquirer / July 14, 2021

Here’s a witty online quip: “How to say internet troll without saying internet troll? Social media specialist.” Provocatively said and reflecting present trends judging by declarations of disgust from such insiders as former personnel of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) that, in their time, never had there been an occasion or a need to hire 375 contractuals in a year.

But that’s the beef of the Commission on Audit (COA) with the PCOO: The “unrestricted” hiring of 375 “contract of service” personnel in 2020 for P70.6 million, “resulting in the depletion of government funds which could have been used for other programs and projects…”

The PCOO, operating on a budget of P1.69 billion in 2020, saw fit to hire that many contractuals who included, according to the COA’s annual audit report, a scriptwriter, executive assistant, head writer, production specialist, videographer, social media specialist, driver, photographer, writer and media relations officer. A lawyer was also hired for the period October-December despite the existence of an in-house legal office. Etc.

The contractuals numbered more than twice the regular staff of 144 employees, making up 71.7 percent of the PCOO workforce and with 70 of them reporting directly to the office of Communications Secretary Martin Andanar. But, per the COA, there was neither sufficient justification for their hiring nor a statement of their functions. In fact, per the COA, there are no policy guidelines on the hiring of PCOO employees, particularly contractuals.

It’s a curious setup. And with national elections nigh, it abets suspicion of trolling activities in the very heart of Malacañang’s media arm—paid for by taxpayer money, too.

Not so, said the PCOO, oddly presenting someone other than its enthusiastic talking heads (for example, Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, who would conceivably not be above Red-tagging state auditors the way she once did employees of the Senate and even of the judiciary). The heretofore unheard Undersecretary Kris Ablan cited the “need to hire additional personnel to augment the lack of manpower,” and identified the pandemic as having made the hiring of contractuals “essential, in order not to hamper delivery of basic services.”

Ablan described the PCOO contractuals as equipped with “highly technical skills.” He said they were social media specialists—graphic artists who designed and uploaded infographics to help explain to Filipinos the mechanics of the national ID program, the COVID-19 vaccines and the government’s response to the pandemic.

But creatives were skeptical. One, who runs a creative communication department, said they produced video spots and social media artcards without the benefit of 375 people, let alone P70 million. In the House of Representatives, Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite pronounced Ablan’s explanation “just unbelievable” and said a check of Facebook would show “a few infographics” that did not require “dozens of specialists to accomplish.”

The COA pointed out that the contractuals’ accomplishment reports did not reflect actual duties or tasks done for a period, and that they performed functions that were part of the regulars’ duties. Which leads the weary observer to wonder exactly what the hundreds of contractual personnel were and are doing at the PCOO office, now out of the Palace, the whole kit and caboodle having started renting space on the eighth floor of the Times Plaza building on UN Avenue in Manila.

In June, Sen. Panfilo Lacson told reporters that an undersecretary had begun organizing troll farms for the purpose of discrediting critics of the government and possible election opponents of the administration in 2022. He said two troll farms were planned in each province nationwide and named as his source an ex-staffer of his office who had been offered, but declined, a job in the farms.

“You can just imagine if [the plan] materializes and using the resources of the government, whether or not it is sanctioned by Malacañang,” Lacson said. We certainly could. Or, he said, the official concerned was maybe merely “overeager” and hot to trot out his/her skills— “pakitang gilas sa kanyang ginagawa.”

Ablan said PCOO’s social media specialists “do not equate to trolls” and “do not do what we normally understand a troll does.” Yet here’s the thing: 12 senators have signed Senate Resolution No. 768 seeking to look into the reported use of government funds for “troll farms that spread misinformation and fake news in social media sites.” The nonsignatories, surely not unfamiliar with this burning issue, proclaim how they stand.

How widespread is the squandering of taxpayer money on “troll farm operators disguised as [PR] practitioners and social media consultants who sow fake news…?” the senators ask. Hopefully, we will know soon enough.

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