HomeNewsPhilippines election: Bongbong poised to become president as Marcos history is rewritten
Philippines election: Bongbong poised to become president as Marcos history is rewritten
May 7, 2022
Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, was the nation’s most decorated hero of the second world war. Under his rule, the armed forces were the most advanced in Asia. Even more impressive: his family owns enormous quantities of gold, enough to save the world (it was given to Marcos by a royal family as payment for acting as their lawyer). It will be shared with the people if they regain power.
The claims are all false. But that hasn’t stop them from echoing across social media, saturating news feeds across the Philippines.
Ferdinand Marcos left office in disgrace 36 years ago, ousted by the People Power Revolution, which drew millions on to the streets and forced the family to flee the presidential palace by helicopter.
But tomorrow, the Marcos family is poised to make its comeback. Some 67.5 million Filipinos will go to the polls to decide who should replace the populist president Rodrigo Duterte who has reached the end of his six-year term and is barred from running again. Marcos’ only son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, known as Bongbong, is favourite to be elected – opinion polls put him far ahead of Leni Robredo, a former human rights lawyer and the current vice-president. A recent survey by Pulse Asia suggests he is the preferred candidate of 56% of voters; Robredo is favoured by just 23%.
Analysts have decribed the race as a struggle over the truth, and the culmination of a decades-long campaign to rewrite history and rehabilitate the Marcos name. The election is not being fought just with data and evidence, said Ronald Mendoza, dean of Manila’s Ateneo School of Government: “It’s a battle of disinformation.”
The Marcoses and their supporters have sought to revise the story of their era and of martial law imposed in 1972, often described as one of the most painful episodes in the country’s history. They deny or dismiss the widespread torture documented by rights groups, the extrajudicial killings and the plundering of billions of dollars. Instead, the period is portrayed as a golden age of peace and prosperity.
For survivors of the Marcos regime, the acceptance of such accounts by significant sections of the public is incomprehensible. “If ever he wins, he will be winning on the basis of false narratives and historical distortion,” said Bonifacio Ilagan, convenor of Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law. “I lived through the military dictatorship. I have been imprisoned twice. I have been tortured. I had my sister disappeared and most probably killed, friends suffering the same. And now Marcos Jr is making a comeback. It is horrible. It is like a nightmare,” he said.
Partnerships have formed to tackle false online claims, including #FactsFirstPH, formed by media outlets such as Rappler, which was cofounded by Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, which has joined with church groups, researchers and others. Tsek.Ph, a coalition of universities, journalists and civil society groups, also corrects false claims on soical media online.
“Every day we sift through this tsunami of disinformation, and decide which ones to fact check. There are just too many,” says Maria Diosa Labist, associate professor at the University of the Philippines’ Department of Journalism, and a coordinator of Tsek.Ph.
Tsek.Ph runs a tipline where the public can report questionable posts, while researchers also sift through social media for viral disinformation. Its analysis shows that both Robredo and Marcos have been the subject of false claims. But disinformation about Robredo has been overwhelmingly negative, questioning her competence and character. Of the false claims about Marcos, almost all sought to enhance his image, or that of his family. Many relate to his father’s era: for example, wrongly claiming that no Marcos critics were arrested during martial law, or that all ill-gotten wealth cases against the family have been dismissed.
On TikTok and YouTube, accounts aligned to Marcos seek to glamorise the dynasty, with montages of archive footage, and clips of his sons who are adored by a younger supporter base.
“Marcos Jr himself, his political career and accomplishment aren’t really impressive,” said Fatima Gaw, assistant professor of communication research at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication. His appeal hinges on his promise to restore his father’s legacy, which is the centre of online campaigns.
At a recent Marcos concert in Bulacan, the mood was nostalgic. The crowd, dressed in Marcos red, sang along to 70s and 80s rock songs. Attendees spoke fondly of the past. “His father did a lot of things [for the Philippines]. He built highways, bridges, hospitals,” said Zenaida Catindig, 59.
Catindig does not believe the Marcos family stole money from the Philippines. “If there’s a case, they should be in jail right now. They’re not in prison. Why are they free, if they are corrupt?” she said.
The family has faced a raft of cases, and it has been ruled at home and internationally that the Marcoses possessed ill-gotten wealth. Marcos Jr’s mother, Imelda, infamous for her collection of 3,000 pairs of shoes, is appealing a 2018 criminal conviction on seven graft charges.
John Agbayani, chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, which was set up to investigate and recover the Marcos family’s funds, told Reuters last week that it had retrieved about $5bn, and that a further $2.4bn was bogged down in litigation. More remains missing.
Despite such evidence, supporters are unconvinced. “The Marcos family was wealthy even before they entered politics,” said Catherine Dayao, a 22-year-old student attending the Bulacan concert. Marcos was a lawyer for a royal family, she said. Her brother, a history teacher, told her.
“I can see in him the qualities of his father,” Dayao said, explaining his appeal. “Bongbong will bring back discipline to Filipinos.”
Surveys suggest Marcos is the preferred candidate among all age groups. However, analysts point to the large number of younger voters in the Philippines, who have no memory of martial law.
“There is exposure to disinformation even at very young ages,” said Mendoza. “They appear to have planted the seeds for future success.” Ensuring there is factually accurate information about the Marcos era should become increasingly crucial even for future elections, he said.
Filipinos have ranked at the top of global surveys for time spent on social media, increasing the country’s vulnerability to disinformation. Social media platforms were manipulated by president Duterte as he campaigned for election in 2016, and have been weaponised to silence criticism of his administration. One Facebook official described the country as “patient zero” in a fake news crisis that has grown to threaten democracies around the world.
Yet researchers say that what is happening now is far more organised and insidious than Duterte’s troll farms. In 2016, the Philippines was experiencing the mere infancy of disinformation campaigns, said Gaw. “Fast forward six years from then and we see there’s actually a whole supply chain that performs this information work for the Marcoses,” she said.
If a criticism of Marcos Jr is reported in mainstream media, a counter narrative is quickly provided by a network of online influencers, Gaw said, describing the system as far more industrialised.
Proving that such accounts are funded by the Marcos family, or determining the size of the misinformation business is challenging. But it is clear that spreading misinformation is easy work, and it pays, adds Gaw. “It’s so profitable that even if you don’t believe in Marcos Jr you would promote him.”
Marcos Jr has denied the existence of any organised disinformation campaign. However, in January, Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts that were promoting his campaign for violating its rules on spam and manipulation.
Researchers in the Philippines have long accused social media companies of failing to take online misinformation seriously, and of allowing their platforms to be exploited. While Filipinos are among the most keen users of social media globally, these platforms have moderation policies designed with a western perspective, prioritising areas such as alt-right content, said Gaw. “In the Philippines there’s really no alt-right version of things. It’s just different political families battling for power.”
Tsek.ph does not have a special arrangement with platforms to remove false content, though some members are accredited as third-party fact checkers with Facebook. Of the posts the Tsek.ph coalition reports, it has no idea how many are removed. Stories often reappear and move between different social media sites.
Often, claims have been circulating for years and become entrenched within some online communities. Trying to counter such beliefs, in a country where the media has been maligned, threatened and harassed, is an uphill battle.
Ilagan fears the election of Marcos Jr would curtail freedoms, and scupper efforts to regain the family’s ill-gotten wealth. It would also further distort democracy, he said.
“I think the Marcoses planned the whole thing since they were ousted from the presidential palace. They had all the time, and all the money to design a comeback.”
“How can democracy be true when a handful decides the fate of the greater majority?”