The victory of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in this month’s Philippines’ presidential election wasn’t only a victory for the son of the former dictator, it was also a victory for a massive mis- and disinformation campaign that has rehabilitated the family name in the eyes of millions.
Marcos Sr. was ousted in 1986 after ruling the country for 21 years, during which time he oversaw the jailing, torturing and killing of thousands of opponents, as well as amassing an illegal fortune of up to $10 billion. Yet this dark family history was rewritten by Bongbong supporters on social media who have led the country into a world where the future is being built on a past that didn’t exist.
In the run up to the 9 May election, independent news site Rappler exposed a vast social media campaign of false news in support of Marcos, uncovering a strategy designed to rehabilitate the Marcos family name by revising history. As Rappler reported: “The rehabilitation of the Marcos name has come about through networked propaganda, attacks against the media and the opposition, and platform manipulation.”
Rappler uncovered a vast web of digital propaganda and misinformation using platforms and networks to manipulate the political landscape. Not only did the flood of falsehoods decisively impact the election, it also highlighted the inability of the Big Tech companies to effectively monitor content on their platforms. Below are some of the findings of Rappler’s investigations.
Propaganda and misinformation online have been used to undermine the political process in the Philippines for almost a decade, with their use becoming increasingly systematic.
Social media platforms have been at the heart of the campaign, with Facebook the biggest enabler, followed by YouTube and TikTok. Social media influencers also played a part. This networked propaganda, often using claims that had already been disproven, paved the way for the rehabilitation of the Marcos family name and helped create the conditions necessary for Bongbong to win the election.
Using Sharktank, Rappler’s tool for monitoring publicly available content on Facebook, and other technologies, Rappler identified hundreds of dubious claims relating to the Marcos family’s wealth and the imposition of martial law by Marcos Sr.. Among the most common themes were the denial of the dictator’s kleptocracy, glorification of life under his authoritarian rule and the vilification of the family of the late Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., whose assassination triggered Marcos Sr.’s downfall.
The Marcos propaganda network exaggerated or manufactured the “achievements” of the martial law period, with Rappler finding that much of the content describing the distorted accomplishments were repeatedly copied and reposted like chainmail.
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Attacking and undermining good journalism
Attacks targeting journalists began to ramp up in 2021 as the media started reporting on the forthcoming presidential election. Rappler’s analysis showed that social media posts abusing journalists increased in the second half of 2021, exposing a narrative that independent media are biased, particularly against the Marcos family and the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte (President Duterte’s daughter, Sara, was Marcos Jr.’s running mate in the recent election and is now the Vice President-elect). The propagandists used lies to undermine the media’s credibility, with many posts originating from pro- Marcos and pro-Duterte social media sites. Cyberattacks were also used to undermine critical media; in just one week in late 2021, three news outlets, including Rappler, were temporarily forced offline by DDoS attacks.
A key finding of the third report by the Digital Public Pulse (DPP) project, a national social media study, found that a network of Marcos- and Duterte-aligned Facebook accounts, pages and groups systematically posted “inflammatory campaigns and speech” against rivals and the media ahead of the elections. It also found that the government and local media formed a “supercluster” of disinformation, an indication of their overlapping behaviours, for example using exactly the same words to disparage rivals. The superclusters often pushed content that implied bias in election coverage and amplified content from state and local media outlets rather than more reliable sources.
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Propaganda networks on Facebook are well established, with some accounts removed for spreading disinformation as far back as 2019 when Facebook took down 200 pages and accounts that were organised by the social media manager for President Duterte’s 2016 campaign. In 2020, Facebook also took down a pro-China fake account network praising President Duterte and his family allies, including his daughter and Marcos family members.
An example of the insidious tactics used by these networks includes the transformation of a popular benign Facebook group, “Philippine History”, into a conduit for falsehoods. What was once an online community discussing memories of old Manila and Philippine antiques was subverted and rebranded as a space for pro-Marcos propaganda and misinformation.
Another report from US-based Graphika uncovered a fake pro-Duterte account network on Facebook founded in 2017 that also provided disinformation about the Marcos family, with pages spreading pro-government content, harassing opponents and fostering conspiracies about Duterte’s opponents.
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When researchers searched for “Marcos history” on YouTube, it brought up 600 mainly amateur videos by pro-Marcos creators and very few by reliable news, academic or other institutional sources. Most of the videos combined to create a common narrative, mutually reinforcing their credibility and the fanciful idea that Marcos Sr. was a benevolent leader of an economic superpower respected by the international community, and suggesting that this could again be achieved by another Marcos coming to power.
Rappler’s investigations showed that the pro-Marcos content creators used various tactics to take advantage of the YouTube algorithm, for example using keywords and categories that positioned their videos as news and education when they weren’t. They also exploited conspiracies in their tags and linked their videos to popular YouTubers to gain traction.
Many of the videos promote a Marcos cult, perpetuating myths about the family’s wealth and the benevolence of the Marcos family, for which YouTube has been criticised. They also have an “attack” component, for example smearing a well-known anti-Marcos YouTuber as fake news after she detailed her personal experiences of martial law, even though her claims were backed up by reputable sources.
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Rappler discovered that numerous new accounts were created on Twitter to promote Bongbong and attack his critics in the lead-up to the elections. An analysis of tweets using popular Marcos hashtags showed that most supporters were made up of accounts created in October 2021. Many of the older accounts in the network had lain dormant until Bongbong announced his election bid and only then came to life again, often boasting of their longevity to support their credibility. A Digital Public Pulse study found that pro-Marcos accounts often held ‘Twitter parties’ to make hashtags supportive of Marcos Jr. trend.
According to SparkToro research, Marcos Jr. had a higher percentage of fake account followers on Twitter than any other candidate, with 47.4% out of 917,467 considered fake. However, he was not alone in using fake social media accounts to support his campaign, with most other candidates having more than 30% of their followers classified as bogus.
Twitter suspended more than 300 accounts supporting Marcos Jr. for violating the platform’s manipulation and spam policy after analysing hashtags and accounts mentioned in a Rappler investigation.
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Dark times ahead?
Rappler investigations and other social media studies found that social media were used by Bongbong supporters to systematically spread mis- and disinformation, flooding the Philippines with falsehoods about the Marcos family name.
At the same time as it was exposing these abuses of information – or perhaps because of it – Rappler and its founder/editor Nobel Peace Prize-winner Maria Ressa faced a barrage of legal complaints. In the run-up to the election, they faced 16 new cyber-libel complaints, as well as a torrent of online threats and abuse. Rappler correspondents were also barred from covering some of the presidential rallies and there was an increase in cyberattacks on the outlet.
As a new presidency dawns, recent history suggests that there may be dark times ahead for truth, honesty and independent media in the Philippines.