The repeated removal of Jose Maria Sison’s social media accounts is another example of the tech industry’s complicit role in enabling censorship at the behest of authoritarian regimes.
Sison is now banned on Facebook. Keywords linked to his name and the groups he founded are flagged and arbitrarily used as a basis to suspend accounts. He is constantly targeted not because he violated platform standards, but because he is designated by the Philippine government as a terrorist and dangerous enemy of the state. Silicon Valley companies may think that they are merely enforcing legitimate takedown requests, but the case of Sison is a reminder of how broad social media regulations can be used to stifle dissent.
By banning his accounts, it is implied that Sison is notoriously and flagrantly undermining internet norms. This is accompanied by state-sponsored disinformation and demonization campaigns depicting him as a criminal and anti-Filipino agitator. The malicious intent is to obscure Sison’s identity as a revolutionary propagandist.
For those who know him and his enduring legacy in shaping the country’s modern political history, the coordinated campaign to restrict and erase his online presence is tantamount to suppressing his political beliefs.
Sison is a prolific writer who understands the power of media and the written word to arouse, organize, and mobilize the masses. He is among the ardent followers of the late great statesman Claro M. Recto who exhorted the people, especially the youth, to lead a “second propaganda movement” in order to fight injustice and inequality in society. As an activist and revolutionary for more than half a century, Sison embodied what it means to articulate the message of the revolution through his writings elucidating his sharp grasp of politics and the need to struggle for national democracy. Detention and exile did not stop him from publishing dozens of books and sharing his radical ideas with fellow Filipinos and those who wanted to learn more about revolutionary theory and practice.
His senior years coincided with the commercialization and popularization of internet technology. His online articles reached a larger audience, especially during crisis moments when readers wanted a better and more comprehensive understanding of monopoly capitalism, socialism, and geopolitical dynamics in the world. As social media usage became more widespread, the media-savvy Sison signed up and actively engaged with internet users.
However, his followers also included spies and rabid anti-communist agents of the security cluster. They represent the paranoid state which could not tolerate Sison’s virtual activities. They stalked Sison’s accounts, unleashed an army of trolls inciting violence, and exploited vague social media rules to force the systematic expulsion of the online profiles of revolutionaries and revolutionary groups, including the pages of Sison.
Even in the supposed free market of ideas, Sison’s right to express his views and analyze the state of affairs is nullified because of his radical political standpoint. His papers on the revolutionary movement are presented as evidence that he is directly in control of the New People’s Army despite his obvious distance from the Philippines. Either tech companies are gullible or they genuinely believe that the Europe-based, 83-year-old Sison is capable of supervising an army clandestinely operating in the remote corners of the Philippine archipelago.
Indeed, Sison has other options to monitor the news and he can devise other ingenious ways to communicate with friends, comrades, and supporters. He survived more brutal forms of censorship in the past and he can certainly overcome this latest attempt to gag him online. But it does not make the social media ban less insidious. He has every right to protest the removal of his accounts and expose the digital despots behind this repressive action.
It is alarming that a lifelong activist and prominent public figure can be instantly removed from social networks as tech companies blindly adhere to what authorities are ordering them to do. The cyberspace is disturbingly turning into a space where only the narratives approved by the state are allowed to proliferate.
One does not need to subscribe to Sison’s political doctrines to see the ban as an act of censorship. If not challenged, the ban can be expanded and used as a tactic to enforce digital crackdowns. It gives tyrants the license to dictate who or what can be accessed or streamed on our networks. It is therefore a threat to our civic space.
We need to recalibrate AI tools and prevent them from being weaponized against activists, dissenters, and human rights defenders. We can learn from the ‘AI’ (Anti-Imperialist) legacy of Sison by working with digital rights advocates in and out of the country to counter tech-enabled dictatorships.
Mong Palatino is the author of the book “IT is out there: Politics and Digital Resistance in the Philippines”. He is part of the BAYAN National Secretariat.