By Loreben Tuquero in Manila
On social media, Ferdinand Marcos Jr needed to have all pieces in place to stage a Malacañang comeback: he had a network of propagandist assets, popular myths that justified his family’s obscene wealth, and narratives that distorted the horrors of his father’s rule.
He had even asked Cambridge Analytica to rebrand his family’s image.
The living component among these pieces was Rodrigo Duterte — an ally who, when elected president, normalised Marcos’ machinery, painting over a picture of murders and plunder to show glory and heroism instead.
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“I think that really, if we are to make a metaphor [to] describe the role of Duterte to Marcos’ win, it’s really Duterte being the sponsor or a ninong to Marcos Jr…. I think Duterte ultimately is the godfather of this all,” said Fatima Gaw, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman.
Marcos’ disinformation machinery that was years in the making was complemented by his longtime ties to the Duterte family. Before “Uniteam,” there was “AlDub” or Alyansang Duterte-Bongbong.
Marcos courted Rodrigo Duterte in 2015, but Duterte chose Alan Peter Cayetano to be his running mate. Even then, calls for a Duterte-Marcos tandem persisted.
Gaw said Duterte played a part in driving interest for Marcos-related social media content and making it profitable. The first milestone for this interest, according to Gaw, was when Marcos filed his certificate of candidacy for vice-president in 2015.
They saw an influx of search demand for Marcos history on Google.
“There’s interest already back then but it was amplified and magnified by the alliance with Duterte. So every time there’s a pronouncement from Duterte about, for example, the burial of Marcos Sr. in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, that also spiked interest, and that interest is actually cumulative, it’s not like it’s a one-off thing,” Gaw said in a June interview with Rappler.
Using CrowdTangle, Rappler scanned posts in 2016 with the keyword “Marcos,” yielding over 62,000 results from pages with admins based in the Philippines. Spikes can be seen during key events like the EDSA anniversary, the Pilipinas 2016 debate, election day, and instances after Duterte’s moves to bury the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
On February 19, 2016, Duterte said that if elected president, he would allow the burial of the late dictator at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. On August 7, 2016, Duterte said that Marcos deserved to be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani for being a soldier and a former president.
The burial pushed through on November 18, 2016 and became a major event that allowed the massive whitewashing of the Martial Law period.
Made with flourish
Related content would then gain views, prompting platforms to recommend them and make them more visible, Gaw said. In a research she conducted in 2021 with De La Salle University (DLSU) communication professor Cheryll Soriano, they found that when searching “Marcos history” on YouTube, videos made by amateur content creators or people unaffiliated with professional groups were recommended more than news, institutional, and academic sources.
“A big part of Marcos’ success online and spreading his message and propaganda is because he leveraged both his political alliances with [the] Dutertes, as the front-facing tandem and political partnership. And on the backend, whatever ecosystem that the Duterte administration has established, is something that Marcos already can tap,” Gaw said.
In an upcoming study on social media and disinformation narratives authored by Aries Arugay and Justin Baquisal, they identified four thematic disinformation narratives in the last election campaign — authoritarian nostalgia/fantasy, conspiracy theories (Tallano gold, Yamashita treasure), “strongman”, and democratic disillusionment.
Arugay, a political science professor at UP Diliman, said these four narratives were the “raw materials” for further polarisation in the country.
“Para sa mga kabataan, ’yung mga 18-24, fantasy siya. Kasi naririnig natin ‘yun, ah kaya ko binoto si Bongbong Marcos kasi gusto kong maexperience ‘yung Martial Law,” Arugay said in an interview with Rappler in June.
(For the youth, those aged 18-24, it’s a fantasy. We hear that reasoning, that they voted for Bongbong Marcos because they want to experience Martial Law.)
Arugay described this as “unthinkable,” but pervasive false narratives that the Martial Law era was the golden age of Philippine economy, that no Filipino was poor during that time, that the Philippines was the richest country next to Japan, among many other claims, allowed for such a fantasy to thrive.
While traditional propaganda required money and machinery, usually from a top-down system, Gaw said Duterte co-opted and hijacked the existing systems to manipulate the news cycle and online discourse to make a name for himself.
“I think what Duterte has done…is to institutionalise disinformation at the state level,” she said.
This meant that the amplification of Duterte’s messaging became incorporated in activities of the government, perpetuated by the Presidential Communications Operations Office, the Philippine National Police, and the government’s anti-communist task force or the NTF-ELCAC, among others.
Early on, Duterte’s administration legitimized partisan vloggers by hiring some of them in government. Other vloggers served as crisis managers for the PCOO, monitoring social media, alerting the agency about sentiments that were critical of the administration, and spreading positive news about the government.
Bloggers were organized by Pebbles Duque, niece of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who himself was criticised over the government’s pandemic response.
Mocha Uson, one of the most infamous pro-Duterte disinformation peddlers, was appointed PCOO assistant secretary earlier in his term. (She ended up campaigning for Isko Moreno in the last election.)
Now, we’re seeing a similar turn of events — Marcos appointed pro-Duterte vlogger Trixie Cruz-Angeles as his press secretary. Under Duterte’s administration, Angeles had been a social media strategist of the PCOO.
Following the Duterte administration’s lead, they are again eyeing the accreditation of vloggers to let them cover Malacañang briefings or press conferences.
“So in the Duterte campaign, of course there were donors, supporters paying for the disinformation actors and workers. Now it’s actually us, the Filipino people, funding disinformation, because it’s now part of the state. So I think that’s the legacy of the Duterte administration and what Marcos has done, is actually to just leverage on that,” Gaw said.
What pieces of disinformation are Filipinos inadvertently funding? Gaw said that police pages are some of the most popular pages to spread disinformation on Facebook, and that they don’t necessarily talk about police work but instead the various agenda of the state, such as demonising communist groups, activist groups, and other progressive movements.
Emboldened by their chief Duterte, who would launch tirades against his critics during his speeches and insult, curse, and red-tag them, police pages and accounts spread false or misleading content that target activists and critics. They do this by posting them directly or by sharing them from dubious, anonymously-managed pages, a Rappler investigation found.
Facebook later took down a Philippine network that was linked to the military or police, for violating policies on coordinated inauthentic behavior.
The platform has also previously suspended Communications Undersecretary and NTF-ELCAC spokesperson Lorraine Badoy who has long been targeting and brazenly red-tagging individuals and organizations that are critical of the government. She faces several complaints before the Office of the Ombudsman accusing her of violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and the Code of Conduct for public officials.
“PCOO as an office before wasn’t really a big office, they’re not popular, but all of a sudden they become so salient and so visible in media because they’re able to understand that half of the battle of governance is not just doing the operations of it but also the PR side of it,” Gaw said.
Facebook users recirculated a post Badoy made in January 2016, wherein she talked about the murders of Boyet and Primitivo Mijares under Martial Law. In that post, just six years ago, Badoy called Bongbong an “idiot, talentless son of the dead dickhead dictator.”
Badoy has since disowned such views. In a post on May 2022, Badoy said she only “believed all those lies I was taught in UP” and quoted Joseph Meynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind.”
Angeles also said the same in June 2022 when netizens surfaced her old tweets criticising the Marcos family. She said, “I changed my mind about it, aren’t we entitled to change our minds?”
But the facts haven’t changed. A 2003 Supreme Court decision declared $658 million worth of Marcos Swiss deposits as ill-gotten. Imelda Marcos’ motion for reconsideration was “denied with finality”.
According to Amnesty International, 70,000 were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, and 3,240 were killed under Martial Law.
The rise of alternative news sources
Outside government channels, Badoy co-hosts an SMNI programme named “Laban Kasama ng Bayan” with Jeffrey “Ka Eric” Celiz — who is supposedly a former rebel — where they talk about the communist movement. SMNI is the broadcasting arm of embattled preacher Apollo Quiboloy’s Kingdom of Jesus Christ church.
SMNI has been found to be at the core of the network of online assets who red-tag government critics and attack the media. The content that vloggers and influencers produce to defend Duterte’s administration now bleeds into newscasts by organisations with franchises granted by the government.
The first report of the Digital Public Pulse, a project co-led by Gaw, found that on YouTube, leading politician and government channels, including that of Marcos, directly reach their audiences without the mediation of the media.
“This shift to subscribing to influencers and vloggers as sources of news and information, and now subscribing to nontraditional or non-mainstream sources of information that are [still considered institutional] because they have franchises and they have licences to operate, it’s part of the trend of the growing distrust in mainstream media,” Gaw said.
She said that given the patronage relationship that religious organisations have with politicians, alternative news sources like SMNI and NET25 don’t necessarily practice objective, accountable, or responsible journalism because their interest is different from the usual journalistic organisation.
“I think that in general these two are politically tied and economically incentivised to perform the role that the administration and the incoming presidency of Marcos want them to play, and exactly, serving as an alternative source of information,” she said.
A day after he was proclaimed, Marcos held a press conference with only three reporters, who belonged to SMNI, GMA News, and NET25.
Rappler reviewed NET25’s Facebook posts and found that it has a history of attacking the press, Vice-President Leni Robredo, and her supporters. The network had also released inaccurate reports that put Robredo in a bad light.
Gaw said because these alternative news channels owned by religious institutions have a mutually-benefiting relationship with the government, they are given access to government officials and to stories that other journalists might not have access to. There is thus no incentive for them to report critically and perform the role of providing checks and balances.
“They would essentially be an extension of state propaganda,” Gaw said.
For Arugay, the Marcos campaign was able to take advantage of how the state influenced the standards of journalism.
“Part [of their strategy] is least exposure to unfriendlies, particularly media that’s critical. I think at the end they saw the power of critical media. And once they were able to get an opportunity, they wanted to turn things around. And this is where democracy suffers,” Arugay said.
Under Duterte, journalists and news organisations faced a slew of attacks that threatened their livelihood and freedom. Rappler was banned from covering Malacañang, faced trumped-up charges, then witnessed its CEO Maria Ressa being convicted of cyber libel.
Broadcasting giant ABS-CBN was shut down. Journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio is in her second year in jail.
While the international community lauds the courageous and critical reporting of Philippine journalists, Filipinos are shutting them out.
All bases covered
While Duterte mostly used a Facebook strategy to win the election, Marcos went all out in 2022 — and it paid off.
“[The] strategy of the Marcos Jr. campaign became very complicated [compared with] the Duterte campaign because back then they were really, they just invested on Facebook. [That’s not the case here]…. No social media tech or platform was disregarded,” Arugay said.
At one point in 2021, YouTube became the most popular social media platform in the Philippines, beating Facebook. Whereas Facebook at least has a third-party fact-checking programme, YouTube barely has any strong policies against disinformation.
“I think with the Marcos campaign, they knew Facebook was a battleground, they deployed all their efforts there as well, but they knew they had to win YouTube. Because that’s where we can build more sophisticated lies and convoluted narratives than on Facebook,” Gaw said.
YouTube’s unclear policies allow lies to thrive
A study by FEU technical consultant Justin Muyot found that Marcos had the highest number of estimated “alternative videos” — those produced by content creators — on YouTube. These videos aimed to shame candidates critical of Marcos and his supporters, endear Marcos to the public, and sow discord between the other presidential candidates.
YouTube is also where hyperpartisan channels thrive by posing as news channels. These were found to be in one major community that includes SMNI and the People’s Television Network.
This legitimises them as a “surrogate to journalistic reporting”.
“That’s why you’re able to sell historical disinformation, you’re able to [have] false narratives about the achievements of the Marcoses, or Bongbong Marcos in particular. You’re able to launch counterattacks to criticisms of Marcos in a very coherent and coordinated way because you’re able to have that space, time, and the immersion required to buy into these narratives,” Gaw said.
Apart from YouTube, Gaw said that Marcos had a “more clear understanding of a cross-platform strategy” across social media.
On Twitter, freshly-made accounts were set up to trend pro-Marcos hashtags. The platform later suspended over 300 accounts from the Marcos supporter base for violating its platform manipulation and spam policy.
Ruining Robredo was a ‘coordinated effort’
Duterte and Marcos had a common target over the years: Robredo. She is another female who was constantly undermined by Duterte, along with Leila de Lima, a victim of character assassination who continues to suffer jail time because of it.
“It has been a coordinated effort of Duterte and Marcos to really undermine her, reap or cultivate hatred against her for whatever reason and to actually attach her to people and parties or groups who have political baggage, for example LP (Liberal Party) even if she’s not running for LP,” Gaw said.
The meta-partisan “news” ecosystem on YouTube, studied by researchers of the Philippine Media Monitoring Laboratory, was found to deliver propaganda using audio-visual and textual cues traditionally associated with broadcast news media.
They revealed patterns of “extreme bias and fabricated information,” repeating falsehoods that, among others, enforce negative views on Robredo’s ties with the Liberal Party and those that make her seem stupid.
Rappler found that the top misogynistic attack words used against Robredo on Facebook posts are “bobo,” “tanga,” “boba,” and “madumb,” all labeling her as stupid.
Fact-checking initiative Tsek.PH also found Robredo to be the top victim of disinformation based on their fact checks done in January 2022.
“By building years and years of lies and basically giving her, manufacturing her political baggage along the way, that made her campaign in  very hard to win, very hard to convert new people because there’s already ambivalence against her,” Gaw said.
Arugay and Gaw both said that the media, academe, and civil society failed to act until it was too late. “The election result and [and where the] political landscape is at now is a product of that neglect,” Gaw said.
There is still a lack of a systemic approach on how to engage with disinformation, said Gaw, since much of it is still untraceable and underground. To add, Arugay said tech companies are to blame for their nature of prioritising profit.
“Just like in 2016, the disinformation network and architecture responsible for the 2022 electoral victory of Marcos Jr. will not die down. They will not fade.
“They will not wither away. They will just transition because the point is no longer to get him elected, the point is for him to govern or make sure that he is protected while in power,” Arugay said.
When the new administration comes in, it will be the public’s responsibility to hold elected officials accountable. But if this strategy — instilled by Duterte’s administration and continued by Marcos — continues, crucifying critics on social media and in real life, blaming past administrations and the opposition for the poor state of the country, and concocting narratives to fool Filipinos, what will reality in the Philippines look like down the line?
Loreben Tuquero is a journalist for Rappler. Republished with permission.