Less than a mere two generations after Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship, populist myopia has upended the Philippines election cycle—a stark warning to the rest of the world of the dangers of digital disinformation campaigns.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., will take office in June after winning the office of President-elect of the Philippines last month, embodying a cautionary tale regarding the perils of revisionist history in the digital era.
As of May 9, Marcos Jr. prevailed with nearly 30 million votes, a decisive margin over his main opponent, Vice President Leni Robredo, a former human rights lawyer and reformist candidate who ran an anti-corruption campaign. Experts have cited decades of little progress toward democratic reforms as a potential cause for citizens’ disillusionment with reformist administrations, particularly amongst younger voters who were not alive during Marcos Sr.’s tenure. Yet despite frustration toward slow institutionary progress, in the aftermath of this election cycle, the people have stumbled into a far more distressing predicament: complete democratic erosion at the hands of the Philippine’s second autocratic regime in less than a half-century.
While it may appear on the surface that, since Marcos Jr. was elected as the popular candidate through democratic means, electoral democracy is at least minimally present within the Philippines, the reality is that backsliding is imminent since democracy is being undermined institutionally. This phenomenon, which scholar Ozan Varol explores extensively in “Stealth Authoritarianism,” has become increasingly prevalent among recent authoritarian figures in the post-Cold War generation, and Marcos Jr. is no exception. Rather than staging a coup from the outside, Marcos Jr. has chosen to utilize the electoral system to rise to power at the will of the people, many of whom have been the instigators and targets of digital disinformation campaigns framing his father’s regime as one of prosperity rather than brutality. Marcos Jr.’s success in this feat speaks to the efficacy of not only the weaponization of social media, but also revisionist history and collective myopia, in fostering democratic instability—a cautionary tale that citizens across the globe must take seriously.
A viral TikTok trend that gained traction in late 2021 illustrates the cross-generational extent of the revisionist history campaign, with young users filming their older relatives’ strikingly positive reactions to audio reminiscent of some of the darkest days of Marcos Sr.’s regime under martial law. The anthem in question, “March to a New Society,” is only one of countless digital propaganda pieces that have circulated within youth-populated platforms throughout Marcos Jr.’s campaign and even years prior, as hired “troll farms,” influencers, and misinformed citizens alike have engaged in romanticizing his father’s regime. And with nearly 99% of the country’s population connected to the internet, preventing the spread of propaganda from entering the mainstream remains exceptionally challenging.
“The disinformation infrastructure has been there for a long time. It’s not as if it just sprouted during this campaign. The Marcoses’ plan to reach the presidency has been in action for decades.”Aries Arugay of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, to the Guardian
Marcos Sr.’s regime of corruption and persecution ended with his willful departure following the sustained People Power revolution of 1986, yet the digital campaigns of late have sought to push conspiracies portraying the facts of the past and promises of the future in a vastly different light. For example, one of them holds that the Marcos family plans on redistributing their inheritance of gold among the people. Additionally, revisionist history has manifested within the Philippines’ public education system, as students typically do not learn about the Marcos regime’s most brutal components, but are taught a more rose-colored narrative instead. Lastly, this sentiment is exhibited within Marcos Jr.’s campaign slogan, “Together we shall rise again.” The slogan takes on a tone of populist nostalgia. It also becomes more chilling when compared to the slogans of other demagogue-like figures, such as Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”
It is too early to foretell just how Marcos Jr. will carry out his upcoming six-year term, yet the impacts of his revisionist history-fueled electoral campaign must not be taken lightly. It is crucial to study history that is unfiltered, to counter digital misinformation at the source, and to critically examine the ways in which democracy can be undermined through its own institutional mechanisms. With democratic backsliding and erosion on the rise globally, the consequences of allowing the autocrats like Marcos to take power are perilous at best.
- Varol, Ozan. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4), pp. 1673-1718.