"He has the mandate! And that really hurts us fact-checkers. I find it humbling, that the people listen to the lies of Marcos than to us," investigative journalist Ellen Tordesillas said with a sad smile while explaining to The Quint the epidemic of disinformation in the Philippines and how it influenced the 2022 presidential election.
Tordesillas co-founded and is now presiding over a nonprofit organisation called Vera Files in 2008, with the primary purpose of fact-checking and analysing political issues in The Philippines under former President Rodrigo Duterte.
On an average, a Filipino internet user spends almost four hours on social media per day, mostly on Facebook and YouTube. Social media, therefore, is a key battle arena for politicians in the country.
Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, the son of late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos (senior), won a landslide presidential election victory on 10 May, bringing back the once-exiled family back to power. His campaign, however, has been plagued by disinformation that project's his father's tenure as a "golden age" for the country.
Additionally, a key target of fake news was his opponent Leni Robredo (then the vice-president) who was branded as a communist and a poor administrator.
To understand it all in detail, The Quint spoke to Tordesillas about the phenomenon of disinformation politics in The Philippines, in the context of the latest elections.
Bongbong's 'Historical Negationism'
"Bongbong had a piece of awesome machinery during this election. We have to give him credit for that, for really building a propaganda machine that relied heavily on social media. They focused on all platforms, and were very active on Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok."
"They really studied the importance of social media and used it to their benefit with respect to historical revisionism or historical negationism, glorifying the achievements of Bongbong's father Ferdinand Marcos Sr. They had an army of trolls, who handle 10-20 accounts every day."
Fake News: Beneficiaries & Victims
"The number one beneficiary of disinformation is Bongbong. We at Vera Files did a study that concluded that in 2020, the dominant disinformation topic was COVID-19. From 2021 onwards, however, political issues began to be the main targets of fake news."
"The number one target was then vice-president Leni Robredo."
A report by Vera Files on the same reads, "with 28 flagged disinformation posts targeted against her, Robredo was the main prey of election-related false claims among local public figures." You can read the full report here.
Leni Robredo: A 'Reluctant Politician'
"Robredo was the vice-president under President Duterte but they were not from the same party. She mostly had ceremonial duties and Duterte did not trust her at all. She was an outsider in the Duterte government, and her office had a very small budget as well. So, Robredo did not really have that much power."
"Additionally, Robredo is kind of a reluctant politician. Her career started quite recently whereas Bongbong has been around for a very long time. In the early 1990s, the anti-Marcos sentiment was very high, but he persevered. He was very patient and he has now gotten his reward."
'Lie After Lie After Lie'
"The narrative that Bongbong's team used during the election that during the regime of his father, the people of The Philippines live their golden years. His father was the president from 1965 to 1986, when he was overthrown by the people in what we call the People Power Revolution. But what Bongbong propagated during the election campaign is that if the people vote him into power, he will take them back to his father's 'golden years'."
"Of course he won't talk about the corruption, all the human rights violations, the killings, the kidnappings, and the intimidation of journalists. He won't talk about the martial law that was declared by his father in September 1972."
"Look, Bongbong's father killed journalists and jailed people critical of him to maintain his grip on the country. Marcos Sr really censored the media. Bonbong did not have to do that. All he did was inform people with lie after lie after lie."
'I Find it Humbling'
"More than 50 percent of voters voted for Bongbong. That may be one of the largest wins in the history of elections in The Philippines. He has the mandate! And that really hurts us fact-checkers. I find it humbling, that the people listen to the lies of Marcos than to us."
"You know there is a tax evasion case against him from 1995? What kind of a president does not pay tax? He even lied about graduating from college, from Oxford. But people say, 'so what if he didn't graduate, you don't have to graduate to become a good president'. But that is not the point! The point is that you are lying."
'We Can't Give Up'
"These are challenging times, yes. But remember, we endured Duterte. Fact-checking under Duterte was not easy. I have been a journalist since the Marcos Sr days. So none of this is very new to me. Of course it is harder because of social media, and the speed at which disinformation flows because of it."
"Bongbong's victory is based on lies. So we expect him to lie during his presidency as well. And that is our job, the job of the media. We have to hold them accountable for what they say. The people have a right to be informed. It's going to be very difficult, but we can't give up."
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