Running on a platform of good governance and corruption-busting, Benigno Aquino III won the Philippine presidency by popular vote in May, 2010. Having heavily utilized social media in his campaign, Aquino's administration is now actively using social networks as feedback mechanism. Official Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as a blog, have been created to help share messages and encourage comments among the constituency. Recent events, however, suggest that Aquino's government may have pressured Facebook into removing a third-party "Benigno Aquino III" Page and moving its fans into the administration's official Page for better information control.

Facebook Page Started by Fan

Prior to Aquino announcing his bid for the presidency, a group of US-based Filipinos set up a Facebook Page for the then-Senator. The Page was deputized during the election period as an official campaign medium, which the creators consented to. Now offline, the Page had amassed about 1.5 million followers by the time Aquino was sworn in this June, and reached 2.2 million in November prior to its closure.

When Aquino assumed office, one of the first executive orders was to create a New Media Bureau to oversee the government’s social media efforts, which includes remodeling the existing government portal, www.gov.ph into a blog, among others. The government also hired high-profile media personnel and bloggers to run the Bureau.

Officials originally planned to use the Page as an official portal for the president. Negotiations went awry, however. The original owners wanted to make sure that comments on the Page were left unfiltered, but this apparently did not sit well with the administration officials.

Hijacking of a Facebook Page?

The New Media Bureau set up an official Page for Aquino, which grew to 100,000 fans from August to November, 2010.The accusations of a “hijacking” stemmed from the fact that in the second week of November, the official Page jumped from 100,000 to about 1.6 million in a span of a few days, with accounts liking the original Page now liking the official one.

p-noy page statistics-w480.jpg
Chart shows an increase in Page "likes" from 100,000 to 1.6 million. Statistics page is from Allfacebook.com.

By that time, the original third-party Page was also brought down by Facebook, citing violations against the policy on creating Pages. "A Facebook Page is a distinct presence used solely for business or promotional purposes ... We also take down Pages that attack an individual or group, or that are set up by an unauthorized individual," according to an email from the Facebook Team.

Is Facebook Just Enforcing Its Policy?

While the creators of the original Page are not contesting this policy, they have qualms with the way the account removal had been done. According to Page creator Ben Totanes' sources in the New Media Bureau, officials requested Facebook to transfer the old Page’s fans to the new official Page without his consent. Moreover, his friends and colleagues who have not “liked” the new official Page have found their Facebook accounts suddenly liking said Page without their respective consent.

Meanwhile, Sonny Coloma, Secretary of the Communication Operations Office, issued a statement implicitly denying responsibility, and points to Facebook simply enforcing its own policy on Page ownership. “It is clear from the foregoing policies that Facebook Management seeks to minimize confusion that may arise from the existence of more than one Official Facebook Fan Page for a public official -- in this case, for President Aquino,” Coloma says. He further added a second statement recognizing the efforts of the original Page creators Ben Totanes and Betty Abrantes for their help in the campaign.

Administration officials are mixed in their opinion on the matter. In an email to CMSWire, Manuel Quezon III, Undersecretary for Aquino's Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office, says the issue is about "asserting eminent domain over a valuable property," akin to very precious online real estate. Though he personally believes that the volunteers who created the Aquino fan Page have reason to feel angry, hurt and betrayed.

In a more official stance, he said his office " pledge[s] to try to help find a way to resolve this in a way that can reaffirm the common values we share: of public service, mutual respect, people empowerment and moving towards reforms. To that extent, we will express our deep concern to PCOO about the implications of this issue. We will ask them to be transparent and to inform you of what they have been undertaking, and why."

This incident highlights the issue of social media’s role in governance, and how it can be used in a responsible manner. President Aquino ran on the platform of good governance and transparency, and heavily utilized social media during the campaign. Now that he is in office, his administration has every right to claim -- and control -- its own identity in social mediums and networks like Facebook. However, establishing control over your online identity is one thing, but what can appear like a “hijacking” of friends and fans is another. Social mediums are supposed to open lines of communication -- how you do things is just as important as whether or not you do them.

As of publication time, we had asked for, but not received any comments from Facebook. We are still awaiting a response and will update this article accordingly when or if we receive one.