How the brutal history of the Philippines is being whitewashed for voters

A woman stands among images of human rights victims during martial law.  An experimental museum in Manila set up the exhibition just before the 30th anniversary of People Power, which overthrew Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
A woman stands among images of human rights victims during martial law. An experimental museum in Manila set up the exhibition just before the 30th anniversary of People Power, which overthrew Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. (TED ALJIBE / AFP via Getty Images)

MANILA – The months leading up to the start of the Philippine presidential campaign in February were marked by a barrage of activity on social media, including TikTok, where a challenge circulated with young people recording their seniors’ reaction while playing “March to a New Society “- a hymn associated with martial law under the ousted Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

It was a period that drove the country into debt, so thousands of political enemies were rounded up and tortured, causing a mass “People Power” uprising in 1986 against the excesses and corruption of the Marcos family.

But the older Filipinos did not shake or shoot back. Instead, they tilted their heads, sang and marched along, while those behind the camera giggled. Some even greeted.

“I tried this trend on my dad and it’s legal,” one girl wrote in a video of her father marching.

Over three decades since a popular revolution overthrew the eldest Marcos, his son, 64-year-old Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., is within reach of the presidency leading the polls to the May election. His popularity has benefited from a years-long, carefully crafted campaign to rewrite history and harness the power of social media to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction.

Why cunning internet trolls in the Philippines might come to a site near you

While social media giants like Facebook and Twitter play cat-and-mouse with coordinated keyboard warriors who spread disinformation, support political clients, or smear their opponents, historic money laundering finds new homes. Pro-Marcos propaganda is now spreading on platforms like TikTok and YouTube that appeal primarily to Gen Z, heralding a new era of fun, hip, glossy edited content that is harder to regulate online.

In the global war on truth, the Philippines is particularly vulnerable. About 99 percent of the population is online, and over half have a hard time spotting fake news. President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016 aided by a keyboard army and online hate campaigns that forever changed the online landscape.

Journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, who has called for accountability for technology platforms not only in the West but around the world, says the situation is more urgent than ever.

“If these social media platforms do not put [up] crash barriers, if they allow facts and lies to be treated alike … they will push us off the cliff and we will lose our democracy, “Ressa warned in an interview.

The old dictatorship is now being upgraded and modernized, spiced with songs and emoji. Through the power of social media, one of the Philippines’ most despised families is being rehabilitated into one of the most honored.

“Bongbong Marcos is as if Marcos Sr. rose from the dead,” said historian Alfred McCoy of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who documented the Marcos dictatorship. “He’s a surrogate for his father.”

A spokesman for Marcos Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.

After two decades of rampant corruption and human rights abuses, a popular uprising forced the first family to flee to Hawaii in 1986. (Video: Regine Cabato, Jason Aldag / The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

Marcoses’ online revisionism project dates back to the 2000s through the family’s presence on Friendster, Flickr and other now-defunct websites, researchers found. The key to the announcement is that the family has been unfairly denounced, that President Ferdinand Marcos was not a corrupt kleptocrat, but one who brought his country honor, wealth and infrastructure during his two decades of rule, and downplayed the human rights violations beneath it. period.

Efforts to rewrite history range from the serious to the absurd. On Wikipedia, members of the Wiki Society of the Philippines – a group of volunteer editors who monitor pages related to the country – find themselves at the forefront of the information struggle, routinely scrubbing efforts to change the content of Marcoses’ pages. A key focus throughout the year has been the words “dictator” and “kleptocrat,” which users have tried to delete dozens of times.

Wikipedia volunteers sometimes find themselves in “edit wars” going back and forth with Marcos defenders for hours hoping to recreate the truth.

“Wikipedia has rules, and because [it] has rules, it’s the last safe space on the internet, where you can not just push your story, ”said a volunteer editor, Remi De Leon.

Administrators have also flagged Marcos Sr. and Jr. pages as “semi-protected”, meaning anonymous and new users will not be able to edit them without permission.

Sweet, catchy and deceptive

“Bagong Lipunan” is the hymn from the New Society Movement founded by Ferdinand Marcos and played during the introduction of martial law in the Philippines. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

The disinformation has pushed in on other fronts where, unlike Wikipedia, citations and evidence are not required. YouTube and TikTok follow Facebook as the leading sources of online disinformation, according to the fact-checking collective Tsek.ph. Among the most widespread untruths are allegations that no arrests were made during Marcos’ court-martial and that no lawsuits were filed against the Marcos family in court.

YouTube is full of Filipino-affiliated conspiracies – from allegations that French astrologer Nostradamus predicted the presidency of Marcos Jr. to a now widespread story that the Marcos family has inherited tons of gold, which will be redistributed if they return to the power.

On TikTok, with its time constraints, the content is shorter and more powerful in how it glorifies and romanticizes the Marcos family. Archive photos and videos are framed with music and captions to evoke amusement and sympathy, like putting Ferdinand Sr.’s photos to Madonna’s “Material Girl” or pairing news photos of his wife, Imelda, crying with crying emoji.

Philippine campaign strategist Alan German, who runs Agents International Public Relations, says this platform has been particularly effective with Filipino voters choosing candidates who want to please and entertain – “the guys who make noise,” he said. “They are literally dancing and singing their way into our ballot.”

Troll farms and influencers

Several studies and reports have detailed how Duterte’s arming of social media has helped bring critics to silence amid a bloody drug war and a grim response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Marcos family can now benefit from that model, especially as Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio is running for vice president alongside Marcos Jr. – and consolidates their online network.

Since 2016, trolling operations have become more adept at avoiding takedowns for coordinated fake behavior. They no longer perform copy-paste jobs seen by Duterte supporters in the past, said German, the campaign strategist. Instead, they behave like real people, maintain personal accounts, share photos and videos, and participate in groups.

The modern troll network is run by a moderator and runs as a call center, he explained. A moderator warns their staff – typically composed of 10 people, each of whom can handle dozens of accounts – about the agenda of the day, such as news to respond to or criticism to be quenched.

Others rely on micro-influencers or “key opinion leaders” who have a few thousand followers. They are selected by candidates based on socio-economic class, age and location, depending on the demographic the political client is to reach. The market price is 4 to 6 cents per. like, follower or subscriber.

An influencer with 10,000 followers could earn between $ 5,800 to $ 6,800 on a monthly stipend during election season, German said – more than 10 times greater than an average teacher’s salary.

A digital creative shared a job offer sent by an agent for a “political candidate” with The Washington Post on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the case. It involved running a Facebook page and posting material every day, with messages “seeded” from the agency.

“You will coordinate with one of my colleagues to brainstorm plans, but the rest depends on your creativity to create content,” the announcement read. “There will be minimal interface with the client.”

Wins over the next generation

Researchers say the change in strategy – more authentic content, focused on Gen Z-friendly platforms – is not just about avoiding removals. It also speaks with intent to the next generation and strengthens the Marcos family in people’s hearts beyond just Bongbong as the next president. At the heart of the campaign is his eldest son, Ferdinand Alexander, who is running for Congress.

The 27-year-old, nicknamed Sandro, is a rising online star. Entire accounts are dedicated to fan-cams by him, with photo and video running through filters and love songs. Some posts tend to fanfiction, where a viewer may pretend they are in an arranged marriage with him or that they are being beaten up by Sandro and his brothers.

Experts say, however, that these posts are not just from ordinary fans, but rather “people” working for Sandro’s own family. Some clues to the content’s inaccuracies include the volume and tempo with which they are released, and access to raw material – which includes baby pictures and seemingly intimate video that Sandro dances with his mother.

TikTok users are often teenagers, well removed from the baggage of war law. The family’s strategists realized that its millennial heir had “great potential to be an influencer,” said John Nery, a columnist and co-founder of the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation.

The teenage heartbreaker fits into Marcoses’ goal of deepening their family’s celebrity status. Pro-Marcos TikToks shows that the family “enjoys themselves, plays up how close they are to each other,” he said, but also shows a gilded life that is completely striving for Filipinos.

That life, however, is exactly what Marcos Jr. did. promises for his supporters as he will “unite” the Philippines and make it “rise again” – in a deliberate echo of so many other authoritarian populists around the world.

The strongman model plays well in a country with rising socio-economic inequalities, claims McCoy, the historian. He and others expect a Marcos victory will be worse for the Philippine economy and further weaken institutions, including the press.

However, experts’ opinions can not match the 30-second TikTok, such as in a video seen more than 50,000 times in which a small child simply shouts “Bring Marcos back!”

It attracted over 800 commentators, most of whom responded with a similar sentiment: “We’ll bring him back, honey,” they said. “For your future.”

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