On the Frontlines: how social media decided a Philippine election

by Alexander Chang (’23) | November 21, 2022

Art by Matthew Tran (’23)

On May 9th, 2022, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (PBBM) won a landslide victory in the 2022 Philippine presidential election, securing roughly fifty-nine percent of the votes. However, the success of his candidacy only speaks to the ever-increasing illiberalism of the political leadership in the Philippines. 

The Marcos family has had a long history in the political establishment of the Philippine government, with PBBM’s father Marcos Sr. serving as the president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Marcos Sr. was effectively a dictator, ruling under martial law for nine consecutive years of his presidency during which he imprisoned, tortured, and executed thousands of Filipinos before being deposed in 1986. This brutal authoritarian rule occurred in tandem with the graft of the Marcos family, through which they siphoned off nearly ten billion USD from government coffers. 

Despite the dark reality of PBBM’s background, which one would assume would eliminate any aspirations for public office indefinitely, the candidate built and maintained his popularity to create a path to office. He overshadowed any other presidential hopefuls, but his bid for the presidency was not won on the stages and streets—it was won through the media. 

In the months leading up to the election, Facebook groups in support of PBBM mysteriously saw massive growth in membership and presence. Posts supporting his candidacy seemed to exponentially increase in popularity, and #LabanMarcos quickly rose to the top of the Philippines’ twitter algorithm. The “convenient” timing of these social media surges is assuredly unnatural, most definitely inflated by “troll farms” and PR firms aimed at spreading disinformation and steering the direction of the conversation away from PBBM’s past—an especially effective tactic for a nation with the highest recorded social media use in the world. 

Absurd stories regarding the source of PBBM’s illicit wealth soon began dominating the social media feeds of millions of Filipinos, touting that it was his success as a lawyer or even his finding of a Japanese WWII general’s fortune that brought forth his financial success, among other false rumors. Other posts even suggested that PBBM saved the life of Michael Jordan by feeding the supposedly starving player some bread during his youth. 

The strategies used by these mills are unethical and illegal, from spreading blatantly false and provocative information to invite backlash and increase publicity to secretly recruiting to create networks of “trolls” to accelerate social upheaval. Still, these disinformation mills are not going away anytime soon. Indeed, the appeal of joining these tirades of misinformation is large for many Filipinos, as monthly stipends from mills can be close to six times higher than the national average wage for the same duration of work. In addition, opting out of the services of disinformation mills could spell political suicide for any aspiring candidates, as exemplified by presidential hopeful Leni Robredo’s loss in 2022. 

Unfortunately, fact-checkers, academics, and large video sharing platforms such as YouTube have been unable to keep up with the flood. Despite YouTube moderators working to shut down nearly four hundred thousand videos pushing false information in favor of PBBM and Twitter officials closing hundreds of spam accounts, a wave of support emerged for his candidacy, erasing the decades of corruption, graft, and human rights violations that were attached to his name in the eyes of the voters. 

Nevertheless, PBBM secured the election, and we will have to wait to see what the President will do in his next few years at the helm of the second-largest nation in Southeast Asia. But his office will likely not serve the best interests of the Filipino people. As President, PBBM would control the nation’s tax bureau as well as the commission tasked with investigating the Marcos family’s wealth, possibly rebranding his name permanently for decades to come. 

This trend in the media is dangerous, and the outcome of this election is one of many examples of the effective strategies authoritarian populists are using in the digital age to secure powerful government positions in governments across the world. It rests on the shoulders of those in control of private media firms to seize the reins again.

Categories: Column, Opinions, Uncategorized

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