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The 2022 Philippine President Elections are Over: When Will the Fake News Stop?

In PerspectiveStraight from the tyrants’ playbook, the Marcos family destroyed the fragile information ecosystem and democracy in the Philippines by presenting alternative truths. Their family legitimized the distortion of facts for self-serving purposes

Another Marcos is ruling over the Philippines. Despite the country’s grim history under the martial rule and conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand Sr. and Imelda Marcos 50 years ago, more than 31 million Filipinos elected Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., for president in the recent May 2022 elections. Meanwhile, the new vice president is Sara Duterte, former mayor of Davao City and one of the daughters of former president Rodrigo Duterte who was in power from 2016–2022.

The May 2022 elections were marred with irregularities. The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) said, “It was a classic ‘guns, goons, and gold’ contest”. It was also pointed out that there was a “higher level of failure of the electronic voting system than ever before, along with a higher level of blatant vote-buying, a disturbing level of red-tagging of candidates and parties, as well as a number of incidents of deadly violence”. Despite citizen reports and videos being posted online to prove these happened, justice is yet to be served.

Social media was pivotal in Marcos Jr.’s win. The consistent barrage of misinformation/disinformation on different platforms is why the Philippines is as polarized as it is now. Claims that the Martial Law period was the golden years of the country, that the cache of gold that the Marcos family would allegedly use to pay the nation’s debt, and that their family is the rightful ‘owner’ of the Philippines are just some of the narratives circulating on social media. Although these could have been easily debunked by academics, especially historians, years and years of mind-conditioning aimed at promoting the idea that what content creators and vloggers post online contains ‘hidden truth’ about Philippine history has muddled both the facts and the nation’s collective memory.

The spread of misinformation/disinformation campaigns on social media has increased over the past few years. This is attributed to the Marcos family’s goal of rebranding their family name, so it is no longer associated with the horrors of Martial Law, human rights violations, and ill-gotten wealth. In an interview with the online news website Rappler, former Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistleblower Brittany Kaiser exposed that Bongbong Marcos approached the company and requested a family rebranding before the 2016 national elections where he ran for the vice presidency. Rappler’s investigation showed that the rebranding was done by either downplaying or denying kleptocracy and human rights violations during the Martial Law years, exaggerating Marcos Sr.’s achievements, and discrediting critics, rivals, and mainstream media. Interestingly, Rappler also found that the creation of new pro-Marcos Facebook pages per month increased in 2014, when Imelda Marcos mentioned she wanted her son to run for president. In the same report, Kaiser explained that Cambridge Analytica partnered with marketing companies in the Philippines to aid politicians in their election bids. With this, Cambridge Analytica had a hand in historical revisionism, harvesting the abundant data that was haphazardly shared by Filipino social media users. As expected, the Marcos camp dismissed the claim as fake and misleading, and even considered filing a libel case against Rappler. This resulted in diminished public trust in journalists and news sites.

Finally, Bongbong Marcos lost the 2016 elections. However, instead of accepting his failure, he disputed the election results and argued that he was cheated by the former Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, who is a social liberalist politician. Bongbong Marcos lodged multiple electoral protests and demanded a vote recount in provinces of his choosing. In the end, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled that Marcos was not cheated and the recount showed that some votes were for Robredo had gone uncounted. Because of these allegations, insults, and negative fake news stories about the former vice president were amplified by both the Marcos and Duterte supporters. Over the years, Robredo was labeled as the “fake VP” and “Leni lugaw (rice porridge)” to portray that she is incapable of holding the second highest position in the land. Fabricated claims that link her to the communists, drug lords and gambling syndicates, and that she has a clandestine lover—she had been a widow since the death of her husband Jesse Robredo in 2012—were peddled online. Given that the Philippines is a patriarchal country and Rodrigo Duterte‘s normalization of sexism and misogyny against perceived enemies—such as Robredo—during his presidency, it is unsurprising that many Filipinos believed and shared these rumors. A few months before the filing of his candidacy for the 2022 elections, Duterte said that the Philippine presidency is not a job for a woman despite having two female presidents in the past—Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo. The attacks worsened when Robredo declared her intention to run for the presidency in October 2021. This time, online trolls and disinformation farms also targeted those closest to her and anyone who believed in her cause.

A few weeks before election day, pro-Marcos social media accounts were abuzz with rumors of an alleged sex scandal of one of Robredo’s daughters, Aika. Those who tried to access the link to the alleged video were directed to a random webpage. The Robredos remained unfazed. Less than two weeks after the uproar, trolls claimed that another daughter of Robredo, Tricia, was involved in a scandal. People deduced that Marcos was behind these low blows, although he consistently refused to answer questions regarding the issue or his troll armies. In fact, during the campaign period, he rejected interviews and debates unless questions were approved by his camp beforehand. For Marcos Jr., debates are equivalent to fights. He said, “The people are tired of fighting. If we are going to a forum to enjoy seeing candidates fight, we will not take part in that. What the nation wants to hear are solutions”. When asked about his plans for the country, his only answer was “unity”, as he believed that it is the first step to recovering from the current crisis. Marcos Jr. also claimed to be a unifying leader despite refusing to apologize for the atrocities committed by his father during the Martial Law years or to return their ill-gotten wealth. Yet, numbers do not lie. According to Tsek.ph, a fact-checking initiative group, “as of April 30 [2022], 92% of fact checks about Marcos were false or misleading information in his favor. The proportion of debunked false claims praising Duterte was even higher at 95%. On the other hand, 96% of disinformation targeting Robredo was negative”.

“Perception is Real; Truth is Not”

This line came from the Marcos family matriarch Imelda in Lauren Greenfield’s 2019 documentary The Kingmaker. It perfectly encapsulates how the Marcos family disregards the truth in order to preserve their well-curated image, which is based on lies. Gopal Krishna, a researcher on informational capitalism from IRGAC, suggested in our conversation that:

Perception is epistemological, truth is metaphysical. What is perceived can be “real” but only in the sense of perceiving a degree of reality. Total reality cannot be perceived by human beings. Truth is an aspect of Reality. Truth is about “what truly is”. The cause of justice is structurally linked to truth and reality.

Following this point, we can say that the Marcos family is committing injustices as they bend the truth to reshape history and alter how Filipinos perceive truth and reality.

In today’s context, whoever controls information, especially online, possesses immense power in almost every aspect of our lives. A heightened dependence on social media has made humans more susceptible to consuming misinformation and disinformation, as credible news sites no longer appear trustworthy to the public. The more people believed in fake news, the more distorted truth and reality became. Fact-checking is regarded as sinful. We are now in a post-truth age where despite being presented with evidence, people will choose to believe alternative truths which they feel closely align with their cognitive biases. For the philosopher Lee McIntyre, “it is a tactic that is used by authoritarians and wannabe authoritarians and is about dominance and power. It means that I can tell you what’s true and it becomes your reality”. This is what the Marcos family are doing when they say that the Martial Law period was the golden age of the Philippines or when they claim that the crowds at Marcos Jr.’s campaign rallies were larger than Robredo’s, despite photographic and video evidence indicated otherwise.

When Will the Fake News Stop?

Often attributed to Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, “repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” is an adage that many are familiar with. Almost 80 years ago, George Orwell warned the world about the disappearance of objective truth and the passing of lies into history in his essay Looking Back on the Spanish War. Straight from the tyrants’ playbook, the Marcos family destroyed the fragile information ecosystem and democracy in the Philippines by presenting alternative truths. Their family legitimized the distortion of facts for self-serving purposes.

Now that another Marcos is in power, one might have expected the trolling and fake news to stop, finally. On the contrary, it persists, and its desired conclusion is conformity disguised as unity. Trolls continue attacking Robredo and her supporters. Criticizing the current administration is considered detestable and a sign of rebellion. To those loyal to the Marcos family, unity means following them blindly, even if it compels them to hurl rape and death threats at anyone who dares challenge their idol.

When he ran for president, Marcos Jr. never fully outlined concrete plans, if he had any, for the Philippines. His only promise was unity, and while pleading that he should not be judged by his father’s sins, he continuously ascribed his father’s ‘achievements’ to himself. Unity is enticing for ordinary people who have been inundated with lies that present the Marcos family as victims of historical injustice. Imee Marcos, a senator and Marcos Jr.’s older sister, is grateful for their return to power and considers it as a second chance to recover from being “mocked” and “oppressed” since the 1986 People Power Revolution that deposed their father. In his inaugural speech, Marcos Jr. bragged about having “the biggest electoral mandate in the history of Philippine democracy” thanks to 31 million votes made possible by his election campaign that “rejected the politics of division”. More important matters, such as democracy, injustice, human rights, and corruption were not mentioned in his 25-minute speech.

The country has experienced natural calamities and another health crisis is beginning, more than a hundred days after Marcos Jr. was sworn in. We are in the middle of a pandemic, yet Filipinos are still waiting for him to appoint a health secretary. Despite all of these, their family retains a perfect image by creating new diversions and blaming all those who oppose them, accusing them of being belligerent.

In a recent post on Twitter by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, he said that “misinformation and disinformation are increasingly used as weapons of war. Access to information is a human right. Credible, accurate, and human-centered communication is one of our best instruments to counter these threats”. Our human rights are being trampled. If we do nothing, we can expect the violence on social media to translate into violence in offline environments. We have a long and arduous battle to fight, especially since the opponent has both a covert army and well-oiled machinery.

Marcos will never admit to having troll armies and disinformation farms. The very reason he has them is so that he can play dirty while hiding and keeping his hands clean. Authentic unity, which fosters diversity and equality, will never be achieved through lies and violence. Reparations cannot be achieved from those who deny they are at fault and instead, play the victim. In the words of the first Filipino Nobel laureate Maria Ressa: “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world’s existential problems: climate, coronavirus, the battle for truth”.

*This text is part of the Dossier IRGAC LECTURE SERIES – New Faces of Authoritarianism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Global South

**All footnotes and references can be found in the PDF version

Download the PDF here

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