Less than 40 years after a mass popular uprising toppled a brutal dictatorship in the Philippines, voters on Monday elected that dictator’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., to the presidency.
Marcos Sr.’s reign saw the suspension of basic rights, and the torture and murder of tens of thousands of Filipinos. The Marcos name was once a global synonym for oppressive autocracy. But Marcos Jr. benefited from a slow-burning disinformation campaign to launder that history and rehabilitate the family name — one that may provide a model for how other would-be autocrats can manage their image in the digital age.
The strategy blended the fabulous — stories of hidden treasure and a chance encounter with a young Michael Jordan — with recognizably nationalist callbacks to an imagined greater past. It also depended on the creativity and participation of an online, and young, populace — and it worked.
On Monday, Marcos won the presidential election with about 31 million votes, more than double the number received by his nearest rival, Vice President Leni Robredo. Nearly 60 percent of registered voters are under the age of 41, according to the country’s election commission.
The pro-Marcos disinformation campaigns manipulating domestic public opinion using social media platforms “are emblematic of what every democracy around the world is facing — the global, existential problem of whether democracy can survive the assault of tech,” Maria Ressa, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning editor-in-chief of the investigative news service Rappler, said in an online event on Saturday.
For years leading up to this election, the Marcos family had worked to establish a new narrative. They conjured a halcyon age of growth and prosperity, one that they claimed the Philippines could return to if they were returned to power.
During the campaign, armies of influencers took up this narrative, creating clever visual content that drew upon historical imagery of the country under martial rule.
“For this election cycle, what we’re really seeing is the long-term project of the Marcos’, in terms of rehabilitating their brand,” said Jonathan Ong, a professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who researches disinformation as an industry.
“This brand rehab could not have happened were it not for social media — not because social media brainwashed voters, but because social media became like an archive of Marcos myth and folklore … turbocharged by social media fan cultures and influencer cultures,” he said.
Moderating global election disinformation
It’s not the first time such online disinformation tactics have been used to champion an autocratic leader in the Philippines. Indeed, Ressa drew a straight line from the earliest days of Marcos’ family’s rehabilitation in 2014 to the global escalation of informational warfare in the Crimean conflict of that year.
“And then we began to see the political impact in 2016. In 2016, the first domino that began to fall was the Philippines, the election of Rodrigo Duterte,” she said. “Then more than a month later, you had Brexit. And then you had Trump, then Catalonia, then Jair Bolsonaro” in Brazil.
She’s not the only person connecting disinformation in the Philippines to global election concerns. A Facebook executive once called the Philippines “patient zero” for disinformation. A Cambridge Analytica whistleblower said that company — known for its harvesting of Facebook data for political ad targeting — understood the country to be its “petri dish” to try out tactics before moving westward.
And tech platforms aren’t keeping up with disinformation that spreads outside of an English-speaking context, said Nora Benavidez, senior counsel at Free Press who focuses on digital threats to democracy.
“In 2022, we’re seeing over three dozen determinative national elections around the world and gross asymmetry when it comes to non-English or non-U.S. moderation of the worst stuff,” she said. “This is a global threat.”
In the months leading up to the Philippines election, platforms attempted to crack down on disinformation. Meta, for example, removed 400 “accounts, Pages, and Groups in the Philippines that worked together to systematically violate our Community Standards and evade enforcement,” the company said in April.
That should have started sooner, said Benavidez, pointing to a figure from the leaked Facebook papers showing that 87 percent of content moderation resources went to U.S.-based content — which comprises just 10 percent of all content on the platform. This can allow disinformation and hate speech around elections to proliferate and remain long after voters have cast their ballots.
“Whether that is hate and calls for violence, disinformation and misleading narratives, whether they’re also about the election or otherwise, other propaganda, conspiracy theories — that all ramps up during election seasons, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum only in election season,” she said.
Officials from Meta pushed back on those figures and the broader characterization.
“This number is out of context. The majority of the resources we have in place to prevent misinformation on our platform focus on content originating outside the United States,” a Meta spokesperson told Grid in an email, pointing to resources not mentioned in the leak, including its third-party fact-checking program — which partners with Rappler and two other news organizations in the Philippines.
The company also said it has put hundreds of employees toward elections work and routinely blocks inauthentic users and removes pages, groups and accounts that violate its standards.
Officials from YouTube and TikTok did not respond to Grid’s request for comment.
The rebranding of Bongbong Marcos
Ferdinand Marcos Sr. ruled over the Philippines beginning in 1965 until the People Power Revolution in 1986 forced him and his wife to flee the country. Under his imposed martial law, an estimated 70,000 people were jailed, 34,000 people were tortured and more than 3,000 people were killed.
By the time the family fled the Philippines, they had siphoned a reported $10 billion of public funds. In the years since, U.S. courts have ordered the family to pay victims of its atrocities millions in damages, while the Filipino government seeks to recoup billions in unpaid taxes and fines. In 2018, Marcos Sr.’s wife, Imelda, was convicted of corruption. (At 92, she is appealing that case — and cast her vote alongside family members on Monday.)
Since 2014, the family members have attempted to reframe their image, casting themselves as a good-looking, aspirational national family.
“This is not a campaign strategy, but really an accumulation of years of investing in creating alternative narratives,” said Ong, the UMass expert.
Recently, under the campaign slogan “Rise again,” the younger Marcos has framed the period of his father’s rule as a time of prosperity, one to which he can return the country.
“I’m the son of the longest-lasting president who brought the Philippines into the modern world,” Marcos said in September.
Supporters spread other claims, too: exaggerating the Marcos family wealth and Marcos Jr.’s academic credentials, sharing a conspiracy theory that the family has access to a large stash of gold that it will share with the public and — as the comedian John Oliver recently skewered — crediting the elder Marcos for nourishing a young Michael Jordan.
Social media platforms, particularly Facebook, YouTube and TikTok, were vital in helping these narratives spread in the nation that logs the most social media hours per day. Nearly the entire nation uses Facebook, according to a report by the data firm Kepios, and, as of January, there are nearly 36 million TikTok users.
“Social media provided people this living archive that people could riff off from, could create YouTube channels out from, and then TikTok spin offs and amateur videos from,” said Ong. “It made for a playful environment for people to be exchanging Marcos myths and folklore, rejecting how the liberal elite politicians have excluded many people in their project of democratic reform.”
Filipino news outlets have attempted to monitor this web of disinformation. The fact-checking group Tsek.ph reported in February that Marcos benefited from positive false information, while Robredo, his closest opponent, was the prime target for negative election-related disinformation.
Some common themes of populist authoritarianism were present, too, like appeals to an imaginary better time and discrediting elites — despite Marcos being from a political dynasty himself.
“The Marcos mythmaking operates [using] a positive expression and a negative expression,” said Ong. “The positive expression is more about a nostalgia for a [supposed] golden age under martial law. … And the negative dimension is about tarnishing the legacy of the revolution that overthrew a dictatorship and Marcos Sr. in 1986.”
“That one is about attacking the political leaders that led that revolution and smearing them as elite politicians who are detached and disconnected from the plight of ordinary people,” he added.
A global playbook for election disinformation
Some of the campaign disinformation rings especially familiar to U.S. observers. The broader call for a return to an imagined harmonious past of industry and growth — while ignoring violence and poverty — recalls the logic behind the “Make America Great Again” slogan.
And as Rappler journalist Gaby Baizas has reported, Marcos supporters have spread lies about improprieties in the 2016 election ever since he lost the vice presidency in that race. Marcos supporters have also repeatedly claimed that vote-counting machines were used to cheat in that election.
In a Facebook video posted May 3, Marcos told his supporters: “This May 9, we need to be vigilant of our votes. Let’s protect our personal decisions, and let’s not allow this election to be stolen from us again.”
In a report, Rappler found that Marcos supporters had effectively built an informational bubble around that family, particularly on Facebook and TikTok.
“This massive echo chamber, built as early as 2014, makes it harder for fact checks and other content not favorable to the Marcoses to penetrate. The network provides all the content a Marcos supporter would want to see: they have alternative news sites for ‘news,’ opinion and thought leadership from pro-Marcos bloggers, and even memes and entertainment,” the organization wrote.
TikTok helped Marcos supporters reach young people born after the revolution, said Ong.
The election is regionally consequential, not least because of the disputed territories in the South China Sea. But the tactics of this election speak to a broader challenge: the use of global social media platforms to spread highly localized disinformation.
On May 7, Ressa was interviewed for the Real Facebook Oversight Board, an activist group that advocates for tighter regulation of social platforms. She warned of the risk to democracy that an unchecked social media ecosystem poses — and warned that the Philippines’ information problems are “emblematic” for the rest of the world.
“If you don’t have integrity of facts, how can you have integrity of elections?” she said.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.