Senators seek records of 1,479 PCOO workers suspected to be trolls

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 16) — Senators on Thursday asked the Presidential Communications Operations Office to provide the records of its 1,479 contract of service employees on the suspicion that they are working as internet trolls.

PCOO officials have repeatedly denied hiring trolls or running "troll farms," but lawmakers want proof.

Syempre, hindi mo aaminin, Usec. [Kris] Ablan na may troll kayo (Of course, you won’t admit to having trolls, Usec. Ablan),” Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said in jest during a subcommittee’s briefing on the proposed PCOO budget for 2022. Numerous times during the hearing, Drilon lightly referred to PCOO's contractual employees as trolls, prompting Undersecretary Kris Ablan to deny it.

Drilon then asked the PCOO to submit the workers' names, addresses, educational attainments, and job descriptions. Senator Nancy Binay also requested their daily time records.

Ablan initially hesitated to disclose the addresses, citing possible legal implications. He eventually committed to do so as Drilon stressed these are public records.

“You are asking for appropriation of public funds. We have the right to know how you use these public funds and as part of our right to know is to make sure that these are not fictitious names, that the names are performing their jobs, even if they are trolls, we will accept that as long as they are legitimate and existing,” Drilon said.

The veteran lawmaker also quizzed the PCOO on why it opted to hire contractual employees when it has 1,776 vacant plantilla positions. Ablan said they are working towards hiring more regular employees, but added that contract of service employees are necessary for highly technical jobs. Senator Imee Marcos also demanded more information about this.

“What are the projects and job descriptions of these employees that are so technical and so specialized that no permanent government employee can possibly perform them?” Marcos asked.

Senator Richard Gordon, who presided over the budget briefing, asked the PCOO to formally submit their responses ahead of the next deliberation.

In July, 12 senators or half of the Senate filed a resolution seeking a legislative probe into reports that public funds are being used to operate "troll farms" that spread misinformation and "fake news" on social media, but this has not been tackled.

During Thursday's hearing, Drilon asked PCOO if it would support a bill banning troll farms, being an agency accused of employing trolls. PCOO Secretary Martin Andanar said “it’s a good idea” and they will work on a draft bill.

The PCOO is proposing a ₱2.09 billion budget for next year, including funds needed for its attached government-owned and controlled corporations – People's Television Network, Incorporated and Intercontinental Broadcasting Corporation.

Drilon and Binay, however, said the agency should defer the planned construction and operation of big-ticket projects, including the Visayas Media Hub and the Government Communications Academy, so millions of pesos could go to pandemic response instead.

Andanar said these projects were already deferred in 2020, but they can consider another delay.