Digital disinformation has been menacingly deployed to distort historical narratives about the Philippines’ Martial Law period in the 1970s and early 1980s. This tactic, bolstered by social media technologies, has masterfully resonated with the yearning for a “strong leader” who is independent of the country’s elites and able to discipline the nation’s masses.
The lead-up to the Philippines’ 2016 national elections saw digital disinformation campaigns ramp up distortions of the narrative surrounding the country’s Martial Law period of the 1970s and 1980s. The full impact of these campaigns — a revisionist sanitisation of a dark era – would become manifest in just six years. This is a cautionary tale for electoral democracies the world over.
In 2016, current Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., failed in his vice-presidential bid. He was beaten by eventual vice-president Leni Robredo, who narrowly defeated him by just under 300,000 votes. But in the recently concluded 2022 presidential elections, Marcos Jr. turned the tables on Robredo.
With former President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter as his running-mate, Marcos Jr. clinched the presidency with a landslide win of nearly 60 per cent of the votes while the then-vice president landed a distant second with just under 30 per cent of the votes.
Digital disinformation is widely believed to have played a key role in Marcos Jr.’s victory. Through a torrent of social media content — from Facebook memes to YouTube pseudo-documentaries to TikTok videos — these digital campaigns cast the Martial Law era as a “golden age” for the country and a testament to the Marcos brand of leadership. They portrayed Marcos Sr. as a visionary leader who wanted a “New Society” where hardworking and law-abiding “good citizens” could have dignified and fulfilling lives. The virality of these campaigns eventually helped transmit the dead father’s newly burnished aura to the living son seeking the presidency in 2022.
It is problematic, however, to attribute the results of the presidential elections only to the prowess of disinformation campaigns on social media. As we have previously written, one important factor that makes such campaigns powerful is how they deliberately connect with people’s shared imaginaries: their collectively held narratives and feelings about the political world they live in.
Counter-disinformation initiatives seeking to push back against the online historical distortion about the Martial Law era also need to connect with the shared narratives and feelings of today’s Filipinos.
The authors’ recent research explored the resonance of the shared stories and sentiments generated by online historical distortion about the Martial Law era. We conducted in-depth interviews with fifteen precarious middle-class individuals in Manila – individuals whose incomes gave them a taste of the middle-class lifestyle, but who did not live in gated communities. They were still exposed to the capital city’s many problems, from public infrastructure compromised by state corruption to criminality on the streets brought about by persistent poverty.
While our interviewees had different stances towards the Marcoses, many were disillusioned with Philippine democracy after the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution that ousted Marcos Sr. As the interviewees were either not born yet or were still children in 1986, they were part of the generation that witnessed hope for a new era where democracy would lead the nation towards economic and social progress. Instead, they felt dragged down by the “infighting elites” jostling for power and the “undisciplined masses” who did not know how to improve their lot on their own.
Interviewees supportive of the Marcoses, however, held out an exceptionally pronounced desire for a leader capable of disciplining the citizenry towards social progress. They saw themselves as good citizens and expressed a yearning for a “strong leader” who would take their side. This leader would do whatever it takes to clamp down on rulebreakers, so that hardworking and law-abiding individuals like them can be allowed to pull up their own bootstraps and work on making their lives better.
As the anthropologist Wataru Kusaka points out, the yearning for such a leader was fed by how the previous president Rodrigo Duterte cast himself as a “social bandit” who would do everything needed to “save” good citizens. He would, for instance, shut down the supposedly elite-allied media network ABS-CBN and wage a violent “War on Drugs” that left thousands of mostly urban poor individuals dead.
The shared stories and sentiments around Duterte’s actions were then bolstered by engineered content online that romanticised the kind of governance he purported to represent. One of our interviewees, a 22-year-old homemaker, expressed her respect for Duterte’s brand of good-citizens-first leadership, saying, “We should just follow where he goes … he’s already thought really hard about whether his plans are good for us.”
The yearning for a strong leader made our participants receptive to digital disinformation about Martial Law and Marcos Sr., and as such, to considering Marcos Jr. as a suitable president. This was even when they were aware of the many recorded atrocities during the Martial Law era, including abuse, torture, disappearances, and killings. For example, a 29-year-old administrative assistant said that alongside such information, she also heard many good things about the era.
In watching documentary-like YouTube videos, the interviewee learned about all the public infrastructure Marcos Sr had built. The interviewee gushed over “the San Juanico Bridge that we can all take pride in”. This sentiment was encouraged by the videos that unfortunately glossed over how the project was marked by gross overspending and corruption.
A crucial factor that made the interviewee vulnerable to believing such videos was her family elders, who tended to minimise the dark side of Martial Law. They recalled the good old days of discipline and progress when Marcos Sr made things better for good citizens. For example, they talked about how “every day, students would get Nutribun and milk at school.” This was actually a U.S. Agency for International Aid initiative, which supplied, among other things, the ready-to-eat bun for school children.
Counter-disinformation initiatives seeking to push back against the online historical distortion about the Martial Law era also need to connect with the shared narratives and feelings of today’s Filipinos. The challenge is to put forward a compelling alternative vision of democracy that goes beyond wanting a strong leader who wields unchecked executive powers.
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.