Here’s a witty online quip: “How do you say Internet troll without saying Internet troll?” Social media specialist. ”Said provocatively and reflecting current trends judging by the disgusted statements from insiders such as the former staff of the Presidential Office of Communications Operations (PCOO) who, in their time, did not had never had the opportunity or the need to hire 375 contractors in one year.
But this is the beef of the Commission on Audit (COA) with the PCOO: The “unrestricted” hiring of 375 “service contracts” in 2020 for 70.6 million pesos, “resulting in the exhaustion of public funds that could have been used for other programs and projects… ”
The PCOO, with a budget of 1.69 billion pesos in 2020, saw fit to hire as many contractors who included, according to the COA’s annual audit report, a screenwriter, executive assistant, chief screenwriter, production specialist, videographer, social media specialist, driver, photographer, writer and media relations manager. A lawyer was also hired for the period October-December despite the existence of an in-house law firm. Etc.
The contract workers were more than double the regular staff of 144 employees, representing 71.7% of the PCOO workforce and 70 of them reporting directly to the office of Communications Secretary Martin Andanar. But, according to the COA, there was neither sufficient justification for their hiring nor a statement of their duties. In fact, according to the COA, there are no policy guidelines on hiring PCOO employees, especially contract workers.
It is a curious configuration. And as national elections approach, it encourages suspicion of trolling activity at the very heart of Malacañang’s media branch, also paid for by taxpayer dollars.
This is not the case, the PCOO said, curiously presenting someone other than its enthusiastic talking heads (for example, Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, who might not be above the listeners of the state as it once did for employees of the Senate and even the judiciary). The previously unknown Undersecretary, Kris Ablan, cited the “need to hire additional staff to increase manpower shortage” and identified the pandemic as having made hiring contract workers “essential, so as not to hamper the provision of basic services ”.
Ablan described the PCOO contractors as endowed with “highly technical skills”. He said they were social media specialists – graphic designers who designed and uploaded infographics to help explain to Filipinos the mechanisms of the National Identification Program, COVID-19 vaccines and the government’s response to the pandemic .
But the creatives were skeptical. One, who heads a creative communications department, said he produced video spots and art cards on social media without the help of 375 people, let alone 70 million pesos. In the House of Representatives, Bayan Muna representative Ferdinand Gaite called Ablan’s explanation “just unbelievable” and said a Facebook check would show “a few infographics” that wouldn’t require “dozens. of specialists to accomplish “.
The COA pointed out that the contractor’s performance reports did not reflect the actual tasks or tasks performed during a period and that they performed functions that were part of the regular’s tasks. Which leads the weary observer to wonder exactly what the hundreds of contract workers were and are doing at the PCOO office, now out of the palace as the entire kit and caboodle have started renting space on the eighth floor of the Times Plaza building on UN Avenue in Manila.
In June, Senator Panfilo Lacson told reporters that an undersecretary had started organizing troll farms in an attempt to discredit critics of the government and possible opponents of the administration’s elections in 2022. He has said two troll farms were planned in each province nationwide and named after his source is a former employee in his office who was offered, but turned down, a job on the farms.
“You can imagine if [the plan] materializes and uses government resources whether or not sanctioned by Malacañang, ”Lacson said. We certainly could. Or, he said, perhaps the official concerned was simply “too impatient” and eager to show off his skills – “pakitang gilas sa kanyang ginagawa”.
Ablan said that PCOO’s social media specialists “don’t equate to trolls” and “don’t do what we normally understand a troll does.” Yet here’s the problem: 12 senators signed Senate Resolution 768 to examine the reported use of government funds for “troll farms that spread disinformation and fake news on social media sites.” The non-signatories, surely no strangers to this burning issue, are proclaiming their position.
How big is the squandering of taxpayer dollars on “lagging farm operators in disguise?” [PR] social media practitioners and consultants who sow fake news…? Ask the senators. Hopefully we will find out soon enough.
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