The 2022 Philippine presidential race is getting crowded. Of the dozens of candidates who have filed their paperwork, there are five front-runners: Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domgaoso, Christopher “Bong” Go, and Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo. Meanwhile, the Philippines is struggling to emerge from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With only about one third of the population fully vaccinated, a presidential campaign’s ability to effectively utilize social media and dominate digital spaces will be instrumental in shaping national opinion. Government lockdowns also make it difficult to hold traditional, in-person campaign events. Candidates, therefore, will rely even more on social media to reach out to voters than in previous elections.
Social media is a fundamental force in Philippine society. It is a convenient and accessible means of consuming content, especially since internet connectivity is often slow and unreliable. The accessibility of social media makes it a prime platform for swaying public opinion. Consequently, political actors are willing to do anything to capture the public’s attention.
Over 90 percent of Filipinos with access to the internet are on social media. Facebook and YouTube dominate the country. As of 2021, about 81 percent of the Philippine population is on Facebook. Meanwhile, 85 percent of Filipinos with access to the internet watch YouTube. The average Filipino internet user spent nearly four hours on social media every day.
Facebook has been deeply entrenched in Philippine society largely thanks to its initiatives to expand into developing countries. Facebook Basics, introduced in 2013, partnered with local carriers to offer Facebook with zero data charges. Consequently, Facebook became the de facto internet for many Filipinos.
A 2017 survey found that Filipinos with internet access trust social media more than mainstream media: 87 percent of these respondents claimed to trust information found on social media. But with unreliable internet coverage and the rest of the web effectively paywalled, it is very difficult for Filipinos to fact-check what they see on their Facebook feed or in Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber chats, even if they want to.
Facebook is under increasing scrutiny for being perceived as a threat to democracy. Due to the Philippines’ strong connection to Facebook, the social media company opened an office in Manila in 2016. Throughout the internet and especially in the Philippines, “trolls” who post inflammatory content online for attention, are ubiquitous. They gather on online spaces like Facebook to spread misinformation, occasionally working in concert as a “misinformation army” or “troll army.” Often, these trolls are not even real people.
Initially, Facebook did nothing about them. In response to criticism of its laissez-faire approach to misinformation, the company has since taken down hundreds of offending pages. However, it is unclear if these actions will do anything to hamper trolls and their misinformation armies. The disinformation spread by trolls is not limited to news feeds. Instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook Messenger are prime platforms for fake news and misinformation. As they are private interactions, they are even more difficult to regulate than the main Facebook platform.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign was the first to tap into social media virality in the Philippines. Under the instruction of his social media manager, Nic Gabunada, Duterte’s campaign employed an army of internet trolls tasked to “amplify” his message throughout Philippine cyberspace. These trolls spread propaganda for Duterte, and continue to spread messages supporting his policies.
With 2016 being the Philippines’ first “social media election,” the hotly contested 2022 elections may prove to be a more dramatic second act. After the shocking success of Duterte’s social media campaign, misinformation is embedded even deeper in Philippine society. This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, during which misinformation posed a threat to government public health initiatives. Trolls are now endemic to Philippine cyberspace: companies, celebrities, and politicians alike employ trolls to smear opponents or create the appearance of a fervent fanbase. They are frequently hired by politicians to fight on their behalf. Often, they create a veneer of support through seemingly organic tweets by “real” people. Teams of hired trolls impersonate real people over multiple SIM cards and social media accounts to amplify and spread misinformation while drowning out opposition.
The candidates in next year’s elections inherit the after-effects of Duterte’s chaotic social media campaigns. Candidates and their supporters have either leaned into these tactics or repudiated them. Manila mayor Isko Moreno has put his own spin on Duterte-style demagoguery, decrying “decent” and “moralistic” establishment Liberal Party politicians. He reacted aggressively to the #WithdrawIsko hashtag circulated by supporters of Leni Robredo, using a press conference to smear the vice president and her backers. Naturally, Robredo supporters returned fire on Twitter, perpetuating the cycle of social media toxicity.
Meanwhile, Bongbong Marcos and his family continue to work behind the scenes to modernize the misinformation campaigns they have been spreading for decades. Facebook pages, YouTube channels, and influencers amplify claims that alter public perception of the Marcos family, often downplaying or denying the kleptocracy and human rights violations of the Martial Law era. Marcos’s campaign has come under fire for “whitewashing” his father’s brutal regime as a “golden age” for the Philippines, all the while perpetuating myths and exaggerations about the Marcos family that go back to the 1960s when the elder Marcos was president.
Social media-borne misinformation threatens to sow further division in Philippine society and politics. As such, the 2022 elections will be a tough fight for each candidate. The right balance of outrage, virality, misinformation, and trolling might be enough to tip the scales in any candidate’s favor as only a bare plurality is required to win the presidency. The stakes for this election are high: Philippine voters will decide if the country weakens or strengthens its democratic institutions.
This article was originally published on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission.