On Friday, the social media company network Twitter announced that it had suspended hundreds of accounts that were promoting the Philippines presidential election candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
A Twitter spokesperson told the news site Rappler that the company had decided to suspend more than 300 accounts and hashtags promoting Marcos’ campaign, which it said had violated rules on spam and manipulation. “We remain vigilant about identifying and eliminating suspected information campaigns targeting election conversations,” the spokesperson said, according to Rappler, adding that investigations were ongoing.
The removal followed an investigation by Rappler that showed a swarm of recently created and revived Twitter accounts had been used to promote Marcos’ campaign and assail his many critics, ahead of the opening of the official campaign period on February 8.
Twitter’s platform manipulation and spam policy bans any use of the network that is “intended to artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts people’s experience on Twitter.” This includes “inauthentic engagements, that attempt to make accounts or content appear more popular or active than they are.”
The 64-year-old Marcos is currently leading a crowded field of contenders to succeed President Rodrigo Duterte at May’s election. To do so, however, Marcos has needed to overcome the legacy of father Ferdinand E. Marcos, who ruled the Philippines for 31 years, including nine under Martial Law. During that time, Marcos Sr. extracted an estimated $10 billion from the national accounts, and ordered the murder, imprisonment, and torture of thousands of Filipinos, before he was overthrown in a campaign of mass protests in 1986.
Since running unsuccessfully in 2016 for the vice presidency as Duterte’s running mate, Marcos’ camp has engaged in an intricately managed public relations campaign designed to expunge his family’s controversial legacy, and to leverage the country’s saturation levels of social media use to political ends.
In late 2019, Rappler published a three-part investigation into the Marcos’ campaign’s manipulation of social media networks. It concluded that “disinformation, coordinated amplification, use of an extensive network of anonymously-managed pages and groups are part of the Marcos comeback playbook.” Many of the posts were aimed at “denying kleptocracy and human rights violations during the Martial Law years, exaggerating Marcos achievements, and vilifying critics, rivals, and mainstream media.”
These efforts appear to have paid off. Just before Christmas, a Pulse Asia survey ranked him as a clear favorite, and his running mate Sara Duterte-Carpio, the current president’s daughter, as the favorite to win election to the vice presidency.
In October, political analyst Roland Simbulan told CNN Philippines that Marcos’ high popularity was the result of “the painstaking work that they have done to utilize social media including professionals in the new media, especially PR firms, both local and foreign.”
The combination of its polarized politics with one social media user bases in the world, including the sixth-largest pool of Facebook users, has clearly made the Philippines susceptible to the dangers of disinformation and manipulation. During his barnstorming run to the presidency in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was accused of operating an online “troll army” designed to cheerlead his candidacy and drown opposing viewpoints in a storm of vitriol.
It is likely that Twitter’s purge of pro-Marcos pseudo-accounts has barely scratched the surface of the campaign’s efforts.
However, one should be cautious about ascribing Marcos’ popularity to social media manipulation alone. As I argued earlier this month, one can’t fully come to grips with the authoritarian turn in many parts of the world without accounting for the structural factors that have leached existing democratic systems of legitimacy. Put another way, it is unlikely that close to half of the population of the Philippines is being manipulated into supporting Marcos fils. Why would so many Filipinos be receptive to a roseate revision of the Marcos dictatorship?
In truth, the rehabilitation of the Marcos clan has taken place gradually since the 1990s, when the family was able to return from its Hawaiian exile and restore itself to political prominence, especially in its home province of Ilocos Norte. This took place without any meaningful accountability for the large-scale human rights violations of the Martial Law era, nor a full accounting of the billions looted from the state coffers by the Marcos family.
This speaks to deeper failures: the continuing dominance of oligarchic political dynasties, worsening wealth inequalities, and the failure of the country’s political elites, despite repeated promises of change, to bring inclusive development. All of these failures helped propel Duterte to the presidency in 2016 and are generating powerful tailwinds for the Marcos Reconquista.