The election of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, son of the previously ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. on May 9th poses a great threat to democracy and illustrates the effects and loss of a long-standing information battle in the Philippines.
After the coup that brought down the autocratic rule of Marcos Sr. there was an attempt to install democracy and hope for a future; however, the election of Marcos Jr. has effectively reinstated the dictator’s family to power after 3 decades. Marcos Jr. won the elections with a remarkable 98% majority in a seemingly credible election; he will be accompanied by Vice President, Sara Duterte (daughter of previous president Rodrigo Duterte). Despite hopes that the election was fraudulent, investigations found no credible fraud. But how did the son of a dictator assume power through purely democratic methods?
Marcos Jr.’s success can be attributed to the revolutionary nature of his social media campaign. With 99% of the population having internet access, online sources are the main source of information for Filipinos; however, despite widespread access to the internet, people in the Philippines are not media literate and are at higher risk for exposure to disinformation. This was not the first time the media has been utilized in the election history of the Philippines; the method was introduced in the political campaign efforts of Rodrigo Duterte during the 2016 elections. By being the only candidate with an online platform, Duterte was able to reach audiences at a greater rate than other candidates and win the election. Duterte was also infamous for weaponizing the media to spread favorable narratives such as being relatable or Duterte passionately fighting the war on drugs to distract away from the mass casualties and deter oppositional critiques. “Troll” groups aided in the spread of this perspective by copy and pasting online sentiments from Duterte supporters clouding media feeds from the truth.
What made Marcos Jr.’s campaign special was the utilization of TikTok and YouTube – social media platforms popular especially amongst younger generations. Imperative to understanding the success of these methods is the generation gap between those who witnessed the previous Marcos regime and the current voters. In terms of opinion formation, without much knowledge or experience about Marcos Sr.’s reign, current voters were essentially a blank canvas and because social media platforms have limited restrictions and protections for information fact checking, they provided the perfect space for the Marcos family to reach and manipulate the newer generations. This TikTok trend from 2021 as well as paid promotions by social media influencers were paramount in reaching the younger generation and presenting Marcos Jr. as trendy and relatable.
Being a ‘TikTok politician’ is but one of the efforts made by the Marcos family to spread information. After the fall of the previous Marcos regime, the family has consistently made efforts to rewrite their history claiming that written history was biased against them. Dating back to the 2000s, the Marcos have been whitewashing history – trying to erase their history of torture, execution, debt, and financial crisis. Accessories to the whitewashing campaign are the online “troll” groups that were paramount to Duterte’s support platform. That being said, these “Troll” groups unlike the typical online troll – a singular individual or bot copy and pasting their agendas- these groups have learned to avoid “troll flagging”, acting as real people that spread propaganda in an organized fashion. Despite attempts to block the spread of disinformation such as Wikipedia now requiring approval for edits made to the pages on Marcos Sr. and Jr pages, the battle against fake news was unable to prevent the spread of misinformation and continues to be an issue.
Whitewashing in combination with targeted trendy campaigning successfully rebranded the family history in the eyes of the new generation and set the foundation for Marcos Jr. ‘s victory. But what does this mean for democracy in the Philippines? While the election was free and fair, voters were misinformed and unable to make truthfully informed decisions. Based on the family’s effort to spread false information and manipulate public perception, it is more than fair to be wary of the future as continued threats to freedom of information and speech would only further undermine an already unstable democracy during the presidency. The Secretary General of a human rights group in the Philippines released the following statement after the elections:
“With the proclamation of Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte as president and vice president respectively, we can only expect the worst of times for the state of human rights, justice and accountability in the Philippines, as well as the best of times for the struggle and resistance against tyranny, oppression and genuine democracy.”(Cristina Palabay, Karapatan Secretary General)
With Marcos Jr. having yet to detail his agenda, it is assumed that he will take up many of the same positions as the previous president, Duterte. Upon victory, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. released the following statement through his spokesperson:
“Judge me not by my ancestors, but by my actions”.(Ferdinand Maros Jr.)
Only time will be able to tell whether Marcos Jr.’s actions will follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and reestablish an autocracy or listen to the public’s cry for democracy, but moving forward, the international community must be vigilant in sorting through disinformation and keep a close eye on Marcos Jr.’s presidency in order to protect the rights and liberties of Filipinos.