Marcos Jr. may appear less threatening than Rodrigo Duterte to Philippine democracy but that is because the threat is shifting online.
The presidential victory of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in June 2022 reveals how hypermasculinity – defined as the exaggerated embodiment of traits or qualities symbolising aggression, control, and dominance – is increasingly virtual and digitally mediated. The political context cultivated during former president Rodrigo Duterte’s term has made possible the unchecked growth of an online ecosystem ripe for hypermasculinity. The Philippines is a clear case in which digital technologies such as social media and online forums enable hypermasculine state-building projects.
Unlike Duterte, Marcos Jr. did not need to physically embody and visually perform “strongman” leadership to win the presidency in the same way as Duterte. Instead, he simulates his strongman rule through disinformation pertaining to political legacies of the Marcos family, distorting or augmenting the reality of Martial Law, and benefitting from the ongoing online targeting of opposition forces.
When Duterte became president in 2016, he was riding on a wave of “performative populism” which made clear the relationship between hypermasculine speech acts and populist leadership. He thrived on pronouncements that shocked and awed his audience domestically and internationally. These included promising to end crime and corruption within six months and launching a new period of prosperity through infrastructure programmes. He was relentless in dispensing sexism and misogyny, from making rape jokes at the start of his term to claiming that the presidency was “not a job for a woman”. For all of Duterte’s hypermasculine theatricality, however, he admitted that his campaign promises amounted to hubris.
During Duterte’s presidency, among the hardest tasks faced by human rights groups was to convey how his speech acts had material effects and therefore needed to be taken seriously in relation to democratic institution-building and promoting governance that was fit for purpose at a time of profound global insecurity. Indeed, Duterte’s approach to the “War on Drugs” was an early warning sign for how he would eventually handle the COVID-19 pandemic and his style of crisis management more broadly.
But opposition forces were distracted, and rightly so, by Duterte’s outlandish projections of “strongman” rule such that wider structural shifts went under the radar. Efforts, especially by human rights activists and opposition political leaders, to hold Duterte accountable were dispersed. They have had to address multiple threats to their physical security, from extrajudicial killings in the drug war, to intimidation and repression of political opponents. Hence there was a lack of attention to insecurities arising from virtual fantasies of order and stability. Online platforms like Facebook have become primary sites for ‘authoritarian nostalgia’ through the rapid spread of ‘fake news’.
Hypermasculinity is not simply about leadership styles or attributes but also about structural and symbolic functions of the state. It is an organising logic for the various narratives and assumptions that underpin power relations. For example, with Duterte, what made his machismo exceptionally lethal were all the “normalised” repertoires of state violence and repression at his disposal.
The political context cultivated during former president Rodrigo Duterte’s term has made possible the unchecked growth of an online ecosystem ripe for hypermasculinity.
The terrain is shifting in the case of Marcos Jr., whose projections of hypermasculinity are not necessarily in real time. Rather, his version relies on augmenting reality and cultivating a virtual presence on online platforms. His reliance on this virtual hypermasculinity is evident in that the 2022 election-related false information predominantly favoured him and negatively targeted his opponent, former vice president Leni Robredo.
Now that Marcos Jr. is president, there is an emerging disconnect between his flesh-and-bones presidency and his online avatar, seen in virtual myth-making projects which span across online platforms including film productions. For example, this is seen in the online circulation of myths pertaining to a golden age of the Philippines under the Marcoses. Online activity claiming Marcos Jr.’s effectiveness as a leader is already greater than his actual efforts at governing. There are reports that he is slow to lead, opting instead to prioritise parties and jet-setting.
Nevertheless, these virtual projects arguably reproduce the same structural effects as Duterte’s hypermasculine aggression, control, and dominance. Marcos Jr. continues to benefit from the absence of legal and policy responses to the spread of online hate and trolling of opposition in the country. It remains to be seen whether the police and military emboldened by Duterte will surrender the impunity they have enjoyed in the context of the drug war.
Marcos Jr. is not the only politician to harness fake news and disinformation, as shown by the growing phenomenon of digital authoritarianism. What is happening in the Philippines is not an anomaly but rather consistent with global processes. The political use of digital technologies by hypermasculine leaders is a feature of contemporary power structures which are gendered. For example, there is robust evidence of how online spaces have been used to target female political leaders, particularly those in the opposition.
This disinformation is often specifically sexualised to “shame” women out of politics. Everyday online sexual violence and misogyny mutually thrive with violent extremism. Men are radicalised via so-called “manospheres” with real-world consequences of physical violence against women. We are starting to see how gendered disinformation constitutes a threat to national and global security.
It is important to fully understand and counteract Marcos Jr.’s virtual hypermasculinity. First, this involves constantly bringing to light the deepening contradictions between online representations of his leadership and the material and lived realities for most Filipinos. Second, legal institutions matter and they are even more indispensable in contesting the rapid spread and purchase of his virtual political projects. Despite efforts by the Marcos family to promote their version of history, these inevitably collide with a range of institutions, from existing court rulings on their ill-gotten wealth and a national law for reparations and recognition of human rights violations during Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship, to the 1987 Constitution.
The Marcoses are structurally prevented by these hard truths (read: facts) ossified in Philippine legal frameworks. It is unsurprising that there is now renewed effort to change the 1987 Constitution, specifically created to contain the abuse of executive power. It is also unsurprising that Marcos Jr. is resisting the International Criminal Court’s decision to continue its investigations into the drug war. What makes strongman leaders tremble is the prospect of them being held to account, offline.
Maria Tanyag is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.