February 24, 2024

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Facebook posts with millions of views in Catholic-majority Philippines are targeting the faithful with deceptive offers of a “blessed necklace from the Vatican”. The posts share manipulated clips of well-known broadcasters in an apparent ploy to trick social media users into shelling out money in exchange for the purported necklace.

A video appearing to show veteran journalist Jessica Soho reporting about a “free Mama Mary necklace” — referring to Jesus Christ’s mother Mary who is widely revered in the Philippines — was posted on Facebook on December 7, 2023.

It has been viewed nearly three million times.

“Here at the church of Basilica de Santa Maria, they are giving out free Mama Mary necklaces,” Soho appears to say in Tagalog as the video flashes the image of a church.

The post’s caption says the necklace helps the wearer be “free of sickness”.

“Good news my child! Because we are giving away Free Mama Mary Necklace… You only need to pay for a shipping fee from here at the Vatican Church to your home,” it adds.

Overlaid text on the video says the necklaces “were blessed in Italy”. The Vatican state is an independent enclave in the heart of the Italian capital Rome.

Screenshot of the false post taken on January 8, 2024

Similar videos have separately racked up over four million views here and here — falsely claiming journalists Ivan Mayrina and Susan Enriquez also discussed the necklace in their respective programmes.

Under these posts, tens of thousands of comments could be seen from people who appear interested in getting hold of the purported blessed necklace from the Vatican.

“I am sick, I hope I can be chosen to receive one of these,” one commented.

“May I order this necklace,” wrote another who said they are a devotee of Mary.

A keyword search on Facebook’s ads library found more videos have been posted there:

Screenshot of Meta’s Ad Library taken on January 8, 2024

Signs of deception

However, multiple anomalies in the posts indicate they are a scam.

The image claimed to show the “Basilica de Santa Maria church” in the Vatican where the necklace is purportedly from actually shows the St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in the central Philippines (archived link).

Below is a screenshot comparison of the church in the false posts (left) and Google Maps imagery of the St. Vincent Parish church in Bohol island (right):

An AFP reporter sent an inquiry to one of the Facebook pages and received a response that a “shipping fee” of 349 Philippine pesos ($6) is needed for the necklace’s delivery.

A search for shipping fees on the website of an Italian courier shows it would cost at least 24 euros ($26) to send a parcel from the Vatican to destinations abroad — about four times more than what is being asked by the Facebook page (archived link).

“The necklace does not appear to be imported from Italy, if you look closely at how the supposed gems are lined up in the photo,” said a sales representative from the St Pauls chain of stores in the Philippines that sell Catholic merchandise (archived link).

Genuine religious jewellery from Italy “would cost thousands of pesos at the minimum”, he told AFP.

Altered videos

Moreover, the posts feature manipulated news reports.

The narration in the video clips mimic the voices of Soho, Mayrina and Enriquez but the movements of their mouths are out of sync.

All three work for broadcaster GMA News, who branded the video clips “fake” in a statement aired on January 4, 2024 on flagship evening news programme 24 Oras (archived link).

“The voices of GMA News anchors used in fake videos giving away necklaces from Italy were faked and possibly generated through artificial intelligence,” the report said.

The original video of Soho was taken from an episode of her weekly programme “Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho” that aired in April 2022 (archived link).

The episode was about religious sites to visit for the last week of Lent, commemorated by Catholics yearly.

Soho did not mention any free necklace anywhere else in the episode.

Below is a screenshot comparison of Soho in the manipulated video advert (left) and the original video (right):

Below is a screenshot comparison of the manipulated video advert (L) and the original video (R)

Mayrina separately refuted the claim in a Facebook post on January 4 (archived link).

“While this is an actual video of me, it was for a network plug inviting GMA News followers to stay informed of the latest news by subscribing to our official social media accounts… it is not an actual news item that aired in 24 Oras.”

Mayrina sent the original video to AFP on January 9 which shows him asking viewers in the Philippines and in other countries to subscribe to the network’s official YouTube channel and visit their website.

Below is a screenshot comparison of Mayrina in the manipulated video advert (left) and the original clip (right):

Below is a screenshot comparison of Mayrina in the manipulated video advert (L) and the original clip (R)

Enriquez told AFP on January 10 the manipulated video used footage from her show “Pera Paraan”, which features small businesses.

The episode aired in September 2023 and is about a young woman’s jewellery venture (archived link).

Below is a screenshot comparison of Enriquez in the manipulated video (left) and the original clip (right):

Blessed objects

The Catholic Church prohibits the selling and buying of objects that had been “blessed” by the clergy (archived link).

“People should be warned and discouraged from buying blessed objects, especially when they are being made to believe that these have special powers or effects,” said Leo-Martin Ocampo, a researcher at the Center for Theology, Religious Studies, and Ethics at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila (archived link).

“It is forbidden to sell and to buy blessed objects to avoid the potential marketing lie that God’s graces and blessings can be bought,” he explained.

Although the necklace is supposedly free except for the “shipping cost”, the use of deception is inconsistent with the teachings of the Church, Ocampo added.

“Because it involves sacred objects, it will also be a sin of sacrilege or disrespect for sacred persons and things,” he told AFP.

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