Philippines election: Bongbong set to become president as Marcos history is rewritten | Philippines

FErdinand Marcos, the dictator who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, was the most decorated hero of World War II. Under his rule, the armed forces were the most advanced in Asia. Even more impressive: his family has huge amounts 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 he regains power.

The claims are all false. But that hasn’t stopped them echoing on 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 to the streets and forced the family to flee the presidential palace by helicopter.

But tomorrow, the Marcos family is about to make a comeback. Some 67.5 million Filipinos will go to the polls to decide who should replace 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 the favorite to be elected – opinion polls put him far ahead of Leni Robredo, a former human rights lawyer and current vice president. A recent poll by Pulse Asia suggests he is the preferred candidate of 56% of voters; Robredo is only favored by 23%.

Analysts described the race as a struggle for truth and the culmination of a decades-long campaign to rewrite history and rehabilitate Marcos’ name. The election is not being fought with data and evidence alone, said Ronald Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo School of Government in Manila: “It’s a battle of misinformation.”

The Marcos and their followers sought to revise the history of their time and the martial law imposed in 1972, often described as one of the most painful episodes in the country’s history. They deny or reject the widespread torture documented by rights groups, extrajudicial executions and the looting of billions of dollars. Instead, the period is described as a golden age of peace and prosperity.

For survivors of the Marcos regime, the acceptance of such narratives by significant sections of the public is incomprehensible. “If he ever wins, he will win based on false accounts and historical distortions,” said Bonifacio Ilagan, head of the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcos and Martial Law. “I lived through the military dictatorship. I have been imprisoned twice. I was tortured. My sister is missing and most likely killed, friends suffering in the same way. And now Marcos Jr is making a comeback. It’s horrible. It’s like a nightmare,” he said.

Partnerships have formed to fight false claims online, including #FactsFirstPH, formed by outlets such as Rappler, which was co-founded by Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, which has partnered with religious groups, researchers and others. Tsek.Ph, a coalition of universities, journalists and civil society groups, also corrects misrepresentations on online social media.

“Every day we sift through this tsunami of misinformation and decide which ones to check. There is just too much,” says Maria Diosa Labist, associate professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of the Philippines and coordinator of Tsek.Ph.

Ferdinand Marcos with his wife and daughter on November 11, 1969, on the eve of his second presidential victory. Photography: Bettmann Archives/Bettmann

Tsek.Ph runs a reporting line where the public can report questionable posts, while researchers also scour social media for viral misinformation. His analysis shows that Robredo and Marcos were the subject of false statements. But the misinformation about Robredo has been overwhelmingly negative, calling into question his competence and character. Of the false allegations about Marcos, almost all sought to improve his or his family’s image. Many relate to his father’s time: for example, falsely claiming that no critics of Marcos were arrested during martial law, or that all ill-gotten wealth cases against the family were thrown out.

On TikTok and YouTube, Marcos-aligned accounts seek to glorify the dynasty, with montages of archival footage and clips of his sons being adored by a younger fan base.

“Marcos Jr himself, his political career and his accomplishments are not really impressive,” said Fatima Gaw, assistant professor of communication research at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication. His appeal rests on his promise to restore his father’s legacy, which is at the center of online campaigns.

At a recent Marcos concert in Bulacan, the mood was nostalgic. The crowd, dressed in Marcos red, sang rock songs from the 70s and 80s. Attendees spoke fondly of the past. “His father did a lot of things [for the Philippines]. He built highways, bridges, hospitals,” said 59-year-old Zenaida Catindig.

Catindig does not believe the Marcos family stole money from the Philippines. “If there is a case, they should be in jail right now. They are not in jail. Why are they free, if they are corrupt? she says.

The family faced a series of cases, and it was judged nationally 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 bribery charges.

John Agbayani, chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, which was set up to investigate and recover funds from the Marcos family, told Reuters last week that it had recovered around $5 billion and that 2.4 billions more were mired in litigation. More remains missing.

Despite this evidence, proponents remain unconvinced. “The Marcos family was wealthy even before entering politics,” said Catherine Dayao, a 22-year-old student attending the Bulacan concert. Marcos was a lawyer for a royal family, she said. His brother, a history teacher, told him.

“I can see in him the qualities of his father,” Dayao said, explaining his appeal. “Bongbong will bring discipline back to the Filipinos.”

Polls suggest that Marcos is the preferred candidate among all age groups. However, analysts point to the large number of young voters in the Philippines who have no memory of martial law.

“There is exposure to misinformation even at a very young age,” Mendoza said. “They seem to have sown the seeds for future success.” Ensuring there is accurate factual information about the Marcos era should become increasingly crucial, even for future elections, he said.

Filipinos have topped global surveys for time spent on social media, increasing the country’s vulnerability to misinformation. Social media platforms were manipulated by President Duterte during his election campaign in 2016 and were weaponized to silence criticism of his administration. A Facebook official has described the country as “patient zero” in a fake news crisis that has grown to threaten democracies around the world.

Yet researchers say what’s happening now is far more organized and insidious than Duterte’s troll farms. In 2016, the Philippines was only experiencing the infancy of disinformation campaigns, Gaw said. “Fast forward six years from there and we see there’s actually a whole supply chain doing this information work for the Marcoses,” she said.

If a criticism of Marcos Jr is reported in the mainstream media, a counter-narrative is quickly provided by a network of online influencers, Gaw said, describing the system as much more industrialized.

Sign carried by a protester reads 'Never again to martial law!'
A woman carries a sign during an event marking the 36th anniversary of the people power revolution that toppled Marcos, in Quezon City on February 25. Photography: Basilio Sepe/Zuma Press Wire/Rex

Proving that these accounts are funded by the Marcos family or determining the size of the disinformation business is difficult. But it’s clear that spreading fake news is easy work and pays off, adds Gaw. “It’s so profitable that even if you don’t believe in Marcos Jr, you would promote him.”

Marcos Jr denied the existence of any organized disinformation campaign. However, in January Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts that promoted its campaign for violating its rules on spam and manipulation.

Researchers in the Philippines have long accused social media companies of not taking online misinformation seriously and allowing their platforms to be exploited. While Filipinos are among the most enthusiastic social media users in the world, these platforms have moderation policies designed with a Western perspective, prioritizing areas such as alt-right content, Gaw said. “In the Philippines, there really isn’t an alt-right version of things. It’s just different political families fighting for power.

Tsek.ph does not have special arrangements with platforms to remove fake content, although some members are accredited as third-party fact checkers with Facebook. Of the posts reported by the Tsek.ph coalition, it has no idea how many posts have been deleted. Stories often reappear and move between different social media sites.

Often the claims have been circulating for years and have taken root in certain online communities. Trying to counter such beliefs, in a country where the media has been slandered, threatened and harassed, is an uphill battle.

Ilagan worries that the election of Marcos Jr will curtail freedoms and frustrate efforts to win back the family’s ill-gotten wealth. It would also further distort democracy, he said.

“I think the Marcos have planned everything since they were ousted from the presidential palace. They had all the time and all the money to engineer a comeback.

“How can democracy be real when a handful decides the fate of the greatest majority?”

Additional reports by Lorna Bayani

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