Digital Disinformation and Anti-Chinese Resentment in the Philippines
In the Philippines, digital disinformation campaigns have become central to electoral politics. Unfortunately, their use of vitriolic and socially divisive techniques has become increasingly normalised in the country’s politics, as these techniques are put into play even between national voting seasons.
In the Philippines, one pernicious technique that digital disinformation campaigns use is to fan the flames of toxicity on social media. By instigating the loudest and most polarised online supporters to express support for a particular political camp, disinformation producers ignite social media engagement from the broader public. These producers target the most socially divisive of people’s ‘imaginaries’ about politics. As the authors wrote in a previous piece, these imaginaries refer to people’s shared narratives and collective emotions about the political world in which they live.
The year preceding the Philippines 2022 national elections saw disinformation stoking Filipinos’ nationalist and racist sentiments. This was done by hyping up the Chinese military’s supposedly impending occupation of the Philippines and by blaming the pandemic situation on Manila’s rapprochement with China. Such campaigns targeted deep-seated Filipino narratives and emotions of resentment towards the Chinese, which problematically lump together the Chinese state, Chinese nationals, and even Filipinos of Chinese descent.
Some anti-Chinese sentiments are historically rooted. However, more recent resentment has arisen in reaction to China’s increasingly assertive claims in what the Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea (that is, the Philippine-claimed portion of the South China Sea), the feeling of a subtle invasion due to the almost 300 per cent increase of overseas Chinese in-migration to the Philippines between 2016 to 2019, and even the fear of China annexing the Philippines as a province.
Despite former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called pivot to China, Filipinos generally disliked China’s disregard for the 2016 United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision favouring the Philippines on the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea. The presence of Chinese Philippine offshore gaming operators (or POGO) workers, Chinese-only restaurants, Chinese-subtitled movies in cinemas, and reports of Chinese tourists being rude to Filipinos also heightened the sense that the country was being gradually ‘colonised’.
In the lead-up to the 2022 Philippines elections, disinformation drawing from such shared narratives and collective emotions regarding anti-Chinese resentment featured in campaigns across political camps. Supporters of Duterte disseminated content like misleading videos to bolster his image as a strong leader and master tactician. This played into the crafted narrative of him pursuing the Philippines’ best interests by hedging between China and the U.S. Meanwhile, supporters of anti-government factions targeted Duterte’s perceived closeness to Beijing, thinking that this was one of the few weaknesses in his campaign. These anti-Duterte elements put out content falsely attributing quotes to Duterte and his allies that were aimed at amplifying the image of his government as China’s lapdog.
To explore the impact of such disinformation on Filipinos, the authors conducted qualitative interviews from June to December 2021 with 15 of Manila’s precarious middle-class citizens. Although these individuals had incomes that technically allowed them a taste of the middle-class lifestyle, they did not live in gated communities and were still exposed to the difficult grind of life in Manila. The interviewees answered questions on disinformation about the Philippines-China territorial disputes and the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, these disinformation campaigns can reinforce toxic nationalism and racism in people’s shared narratives and collective emotions.
When interviewees who supported Duterte were confronted with disinformation meant to positively portray his government’s approach to Beijing (that included friendlier ties with China), that they would engage in mental acrobatics to reconcile this content with their narratives and emotions of resentment against the Chinese.
One of the clearest articulations of this came from a 29-year-old administrative assistant, who disliked feeling that the Philippines was becoming a “province of China”. Without differentiating between Chinese nationals and Chinese Filipinos, she said that Manila’s Chinatown was teeming with Chinese people. She added, however, that even if she were uncomfortable with the Chinese influx into Manila, there was nothing “majorly wrong” with Duterte wanting to be close to China. She could forgive the president for this one thing.
Meanwhile, the interviewees who leaned towards opposing Duterte were adamant that despite their opposition to his stance towards China, they were “not racist”. However, their exasperation that no difficult issue could strike a mortal blow to Duterte’s popularity led to remarks that validated, even if only subtly, their internalised narratives and emotions of anti-Chinese resentment.
For instance, a 45-year-old store supervisor who claimed to have a nuanced view of China-Philippines relations expressed his unfounded belief that 90 per cent of the Chinese migrants presently in the Philippines were “illegal” and had “no papers”. He thought that the government’s laxity with these migrants was probably why Covid-19 spread in the Philippines. This reflects the problematically racist assumption that links the Covid-19 pandemic to the recent increase in the migration of Chinese into the country.
These interviews indicate that anti-Chinese digital disinformation from across political camps does not shift individual Filipinos’ political positions. However, these disinformation campaigns can reinforce toxic nationalism and racism in people’s shared narratives and collective emotions. This kind of impact is an urgent reminder that those engaged in counter-disinformation need to pursue a cross-sectoral code of conduct in election campaigns that explicitly shuns socially vitriolic and marginalising stances, which should include, amongst other factors, racism.
Jason Vincent A. Cabañes is Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Fernando A. Santiago, Jr. is Associate Professor in History and Director of the Southeast Asia Research Center and Hub at De La Salle University in the Philippines.