Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr is the president-elect of the Philippines by an historic landslide.
Only 36 years after the fall of his father’s dictatorial rule, he restores his family’s political power in spite of his own tax evasion conviction, fake college degrees, and less-than-stellar political career. This is on top of the family’s infamous ill-gotten wealth and assets, piles of graft and corruption cases, and countless human rights violations.
Reductive international reporting puts the blame on poorly educated Filipinos. Many middle-class Filipinos fault the social media platforms for allowing Marcos’s propaganda to spread. Some political pundits criticise opposition parties for their sluggish political maneuvers.
These allegations are not incorrect and to certain extents contributed to the outcomes of the elections. But they fail to capture decisive forces in all of this: decades-long political manipulation machinery funded with billions of pesos, legitimised by political alliances and operationalised by a disinformation industrial complex.
No matter how how well literacy campaigns were conducted, no matter how many content is taken down by the platforms (which, in the most optimistic scenario, is still marginal) and no matter how successful his opponent, Vice President Leni Robredo in mobilising a grassroots political movement, I argue that this election was already manufactured, packaged and sealed for Marcos Jr.
The long game
Even with his political bulwalks in the North of the Philippines and his return to national politics with a Senate seat in 2010, Marcos Jr lost his bid for the vice presidency in 2016 to Robredo. His deflection, dismissal, and general lack of remorse for the crimes of his father were a heavy baggage that denied him the win.
With a tainted name and without his own credentials to show off, but with a boatload of resources and connections, Marcos Jr. knew he and his family needed a rebrand.
In 2020, my research with Cheryll Ruth Soriano documented the extensive and visible network of YouTube channels that deny and distort the corrupt and brutal history of the Marcos regime. These videos are as far back as 2011 but multiplied in number in 2017 and they concoct the convoluted lie that the Marcoses were the victim of a cover-up by historians, media and even the international community.
Reporting from Rappler discovered similar networks of anonymously-managed pages and groups on Facebook that both promote historical disinformation and launch attacks against the media and critics of the Marcoses. More recently, Washington Post reports of Marcos’ propaganda on Tiktok that amplifies the same lies to younger audiences and uses the platform to make celebrities out of the Marcos family members.
Disinformation, coordinated amplification, use of an extensive network of anonymously-managed pages and groups are part of the Marcos comeback playbook, glorifying the virtues of authoritarian rule and denying history.— Rappler (@rapplerdotcom) April 12, 2022
Check this thread to read our Networked Propaganda series. pic.twitter.com/U4wPBsFnuL
Most of these false and perverted narratives are now part of the public discourse, including but not limited to the Marcos Sr era supposedly being the ‘golden age of the Philippines’, the family’s purported stockpile of gold bars to justify their immense wealth, and proclamation of Martial Law as an alleged anti-communist operation to keep peace and order, and thus punishment were ‘rightfully’ inflicted on dissidents.
Election disinformation monitoring by Jonathan Ong, Ross Tapsell and Nicole Curato identified the pervasiveness of the same narratives as early as the 2019 midterm elections when Marcos Jr’s sister, Imee Marcos ran and won as senator.
This historical disinformation was legitimised by the sitting President Rodrigo Duterte, a long-time ally of the Marcoses by enacting what Cleve Arguelles calls as ‘public amnesia’ on the legacy of the People Power revolution that toppled the dictatorship.
State apparatuses were used to institutionalise the comeback of the Marcoses, from the burial of Marcos Sr in the Heroes Cemetery, to diminishing the commemorative practices of the revolution, and to Duterte's overt political endorsement of the Marcoses in the past six years.
Robredo was the antithesis of Duterte and Marcos’ politics. She was consistently and viciously bombarded with disinformation, malicious attacks and incendiary speech during her early years as Vice President according to the media organization VERA Files and that was ramped up during the election year according to fact-checking group Tsek.ph.
By her own admission, Robredo regrets not addressing these false claims and made-up controversies from the get go. I would argue though that even if Robredo did respond to this barrage of fake news and attacks, the well-oiled disinformation machinery of both Duterte and Marcos would just double down on their efforts to undermine her and discredit her achievements.
From this perspective, Marcos Jr’s 2022 campaign can be seen not as an inception but the culmination of years of political scheming, massive economic investment (which remains unaccounted for) and the creation of a hyper-partisan digital superstructure.
How could Robredo’s people’s campaign, journalists’ fact-checks and activists’ mobilizations in the past couple of months beat Marcos’ machinery that is six years in the making?
Palace of lies
Marcos Jr was absent in most of the presidential debates and turned down interviews with the most respected journalists in the country. Foreign media was snubbed, campaign trail reporters were shoved and access to his sorties by the press was stymied. Recently, a reporter was deliberately ignored by Marcos Jr’s spokesperson twice and did not flinch when he said ‘next question’.
One of Marcos Jr's first orders of business is to give the Education Department seat to his running mate and presumptive Vice President Sara Duterte. Official government records about the Martial law era were reported to be inaccessible and were said to be ‘suspended’ for technical reasons.
This is arguably the beginning of his administration’s revision of the history books and erasure of documentary evidence to officially put into print the lies about his father’s regime. This is Marcos Jr playbook that won him the presidency and would probably maintain his overwhelming political popularity in the next years to come.
The past days have been grim for Filipinos who feel defeated for losing both their history and their future. But we know the playbook now. We learn something about the underlying machinery everyday.
We acknowledge that his supporters aspire for a political renewal, something Marcos Jr promised albeit hollow and ambiguous. More importantly, there is another election in three years. Time to start working.
Banner image: Bongbong Marcos appears at a campaign rally in March 2022. Source: Patrick Roque/Wiki Commons