As President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term comes to an end, this could mean positive change for democracy in the Philippines. Duterte’s autocratic regime and his war on drugs have threatened Filipino democracy and rendered the country vulnerable to abuses of power. In 2016, Duterte’s rise to power seemed the most logical to citizens of the Philippines, as Duterte had exemplified political prowess as mayor of Davao; a city located on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. During his time in office, Duterte worked to fight against crime and corruption in the city. Davao saw a decrease in both under the leadership of Duterte and this garnered political support that led to Duterte’s win during the presidential election. Duterte wasted no time launching his war on drugs, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of alleged drug dealers and users all over the country. The President described drug dealing and addiction as “major obstacles to the Philippines’ economic and social progress” (Xu, 2016), and decided to remedy this with extrajudicial deaths of Filipino citizens. This evident human rights violation and other actions taken by the Duterte administration, including the weaponization of social media, and the censorship of the media are clear indicators of democratic backsliding in the Philippines.
Social media was a big part of Duterte’s regime, and played an integral role in his rise to power. During the 2016 Philippine presidential election, Dutere was invited to a forum called #TheLeaderIWant. The forum was facilitated by Maria Ressa, CEO of the Rappler, a popular online news website. Ressa posed questions to Duterte that had been crowdsourced on Facebook; as the company was co-sponsor on the forum. The forum allowed for Duterte’s introduction to Filipino millennials, and his views were showcased on a large scale; with the broadcast showing on 200 television and radio stations and being live-streamed on over 40 college campuses. Duterte capitalized on the exposure and employed the use of internet trolls under the guise of “social media strategists”, that bolstered his online presence and generated a large audience of die-hard Duterte supporters who were sometimes referred to as DDS, the same acronym assigned to the Davao Death Squad; a vigilante group responsible for numerous extrajudicial killings during Duterte’s war on drugs. These internet trolls were responsible for the spread of fake news via the creation of numerous fake accounts. These fake accounts coupled with anonymous pages work together to expand the reach of pro-Duterte propaganda; working within Facebook’s algorithm to take over a user’s news feed. When Maria Ressa tried to bring attention to this issue, the force of social media was turned against her. Ressa became victim to conviction on a fraudulent criminal “cyberlibel’ charge. She was accused of spreading fake news via the Rappler and also became victim of death and rape threats at the hands of vicious Duterte supporters. The spread of misinformation and attacks against those wishing to spread the truth create a slippery slope for democracy. In a chapter titled “Democratization and Public Opposition” from his book Polyarchy, Robert Dahl explains that integral parts of democracy rely on the capacity of the government to respond to the desires of its citizens. To be able to voice their desires, citizens must have “unimpaired opportunities” to be able to formulate their preferences. Misinformation hinders this, as it doesn’t allow for citizens to develop opinions based on truth and fact. Constant floods of misinformation can lessen one’s ability to digest information and make rational decisions.
Duterte made his stance regarding drug use clear on his second day in office, warning citizens of the Philippines that “If you destroy my country, I will kill you. If you destroy the youth of the land, I will kill you” (Calayag 2021). By early December 2016, just a few months into Duterte’s presidency; nearly 6,000 people were killed in the drug war. These extrajudicial executions were done by hitmen that were hired by Duterte himself or other members of the Philippine government. These killings are a serious human right violation and contribute greatly to democratic erosion in the Philippines. These acts put Duterte in an opposing position against institutions such as the United Nations, that value democracy. Opposition against the UN heightened under Duterte’s regime when the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in regards to the unlawful killings in Duterte’s war on drugs. In response to the decision of the ICC to investigate the drug war, Duterte withdrew the Philippines’s membership from the court. This decision by Duterte is telling of the Philippines’ departure from democracy, as Duterte decides to remove himself from an international institution that may pressure him to employ more democratic practices.
Duterte attempts to dismantle institutions that challenge his power through censorship of the media. ABS-CBN, a major news broadcaster, was shut down after a committee closely allied with Duterte rejected the company’s application for the renewal of their broadcast license. This sparked controversy as Duterte had accused the broadcasting company of bias during the 2016 Presidential Election, by favoring his political opponent. The broadcasting company had also been at the forefront of covering Duterte’s violent drug war. This censorship of media speaks to a larger threat to democracy, as the media is unable to serve as a medium of information for the people of the Philippines. The media loses the power to check the executive, and the public loses large amounts of information. Without accurate information being divulged to the public, people are left with little to no information about their leader, increasing their difficulty in making voting decisions.
Duterte’s weaponization of social media allowed for the gross circulation of misinformation; threatening the ability of citizens to receive accurate information, and develop un-biased opinions in regards to their political leaders. By devaluing the press and taking action against the ICC, Duterte makes himself the sole source of authority in the Philippines. His war on drugs continues to perpetuate human rights violations and the distancing of himself from international intervention that promotes democracy is evident of how Duterte’s presidency has facilitated the democratic erosion of the Philippines.
Calayag, Keith. 2021. “Duterte Defends ‘I Will Kill You’ Line against Human Rights Critics.” The Manila Times. https://www.manilatimes.net/2021/06/26/latest-stories/duterte-defends-i-will-kill-you-line-against-human-rights-critics/1804708 (April 23, 2022).
“Human Rights and Duterte’s War on Drugs.” Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/interview/human-rights-and-dutertes-war-drugs (April 23, 2022).