According to a story widely circulated on Philippine social media, Ferdinand Marcos Sr, the late dictator who imposed a brutal regime of martial law on the country between 1972 and 1986, owed his immense fortune to the payment of 192,000 tons of gold by the Tallano royal family of the Maharlika Kingdom for his legal services.
There is a problem with this account; there is not a shred of truth in it. The Maharlika Kingdom and the Tallano family never existed. Marcos’ fortune is better explained by rampant corruption and the plundering of the state coffers during his years in power, as several court cases in the country and abroad have demonstrated.
This is one of the stories that makes a huge campaign of disinformation aimed at whitewashing the Marcos regime, ahead of the Philippines’ upcoming general elections on May 9, in which Marcos Sr.’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, is running for the presidency. The campaign portrays the Marcos dictatorship as a “golden age” for the Philippines and makes other fantastical claims, such as that the country was then the third richest economy in the world.
The strategy seems to be working. Bongbong Marcos heads all the opinion polls in the run-up to the elections, and the Marcos Dynasty seems to be poised to return to Malacañang, the Presidential Palace in Manila.
As elsewhere, social media is a powerful political tool in the Philippines. Sixty-eight percent of the country’s population have regular access to the Internet, and there are over 92 million recorded social media users, albeit this number does not necessarily represent individual ones. Filipinos are more active on social media than their counterparts in any other Southeast Asian country, averaging 255 minutes per day. All of this makes the country fertile ground for online campaigns of disinformation.
One month before the polls, Facebook’s parent company Meta announced that it had taken down up to 400 accounts from the Philippines that were engaging in “malicious activities” ahead of the May election. This is not new. Three years ago, Facebook announced the removal of at least 200 pages of coordinated “inauthentic behavior” linked to a network organized by the social media manager of President Rodrigo Duterte’s electoral campaign. His daughter, Sara Duterte, is now the running mate of Marcos, and commands a similarly large lead in the race for the vice presidency.
There are indications that these disinformation campaigns are part of a long-term plan to bring the Marcoses back to power. The creation of new pro-Marcos pages, many coming from troll farms and fake accounts, began to increase in 2014. Around the same time, the flamboyant Imelda Marcos, widow of the late dictator and mother of Bongbong Marcos, announced at her 85th birthday dinner party that she wanted her son to run for president.
More recently, authentic and fake accounts have been used on a massive scale to spread misleading or fake information regarding the presidential candidates, the issues at stake in the elections, or the electoral process itself. An instance of the latter is the false claim that it is necessary to pass a negative RT-PCR test to be able to vote, something that it clearly aimed at discouraging people from casting their ballots. This is creating an environment in which it is increasingly difficult for many voters to know what is true and what is not, making it all the more difficult to make an informed decision at the polling station.
And not all disinformation campaigns are as relatively innocuous as the story of the mythical “Maharlika Kingdom.” Disinformation campaigns in which the victims are accused of having links with the communist insurgency of the New People’s Army, a tactic known as “red-tagging” in the Philippines, have risen alarmingly, as the regional organization ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) has documented.
The consequences of these kinds of campaigns are often dire. Not only are they bound to have a significant impact on the elections, but they have resulted in harassment, attacks, disappearances, and even murders, according to a 2020 United Nations report on the Philippines.
The spread of disinformation online for political purposes is not a phenomenon exclusive to the Philippines, of course. Conspiracy theories like QAnon have helped poison the public debate in the United States; in Myanmar, Facebook was turned into a propaganda tool by ultra-nationalists to voice anti-Muslim rhetoric, contributing to extreme violence against the Rohingya minority; it has helped the far-right to make inroads in several European countries; and, more recently, it has been used by the Russian government to justify its brutal invasion of Ukraine in the eyes of its population.
At the core of this problem is the social media giants’ business model, whose content curation algorithms are designed for clicks and attention, so that users’ data can be sold to advertisers for enormous profits. Yet, too often what grabs our attention is sensationalism and outrage rather than fact-based information, thus allowing disinformation, extremism, and division to be massively amplified.
In order to face the challenge that these campaigns pose to democracy, it is necessary that social media giants like Facebook, TikTok, Twitter are made bound to a new set of rules and standards that prevent them from profiting off public harm and instead protect the public interest. Policymakers and lawmakers must start with establishing new data rights protections, requiring transparency in political advertising on these platforms, and adopting measures to combat hate speech.
This should be done in parallel with education programs to empower internet users to verify facts, identify false information and stop it from spreading, and support public service journalism so we can all operate and debate on the same set of accurate facts.
As challenging as it may seem, the phenomenon of disinformation campaigns should be addressed thoroughly in order for democracy to survive, in the Philippines as elsewhere. In the words of the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, co-founder and CEO of Rappler and recipient of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, “you cannot have integrity of elections if you don’t have integrity of facts. If they make the facts debatable they are essentially dooming our nation.”