Filipinos are avid users of social media, and these platforms hold the potential to help build an informed electorate, or to sow divisiveness in service of political interests. Social media influencers have capitalized on opportunities to burnish the Marcos brand, but post-election conflicts within their networks run contrary to the President’s main campaign message: his call for “unity”.
The Philippines has been dubbed the social media capital of the world. Year after year, the Philippines registers the most Internet and social media users per capita — despite the country’s lagging Internet speeds and poor digital infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, social media has come to influence politics.
Analyses of the May 2022 Philippine presidential elections are consistently pointing out the heightened role of social media platforms in political affairs, especially in the presidential campaigns of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and former Vice President Leni Robredo. Mobility restrictions and limitations on physical campaigning due to the Covid-19 pandemic led to the increase in Filipinos’ time spent on social media, and pushed candidates and their campaign teams to lean heavily on social media marketing. However, political campaigning in the Philippines has not only migrated to digital domains, it has also diversified from mere fake news dissemination to brand creation by Marcos and grassroots mobilization by Robredo.
Filipino politicians began using the Internet for their political campaigns as early as 1998, mostly for the creation of websites for individual candidates. Much has developed since then, with Internet use becoming more sophisticated with each successive election. The 2016 presidential election that the populist Rodrigo Duterte won is considered the country’s “first social media election”. Duterte was supported by unpaid and ordinary vloggers (video bloggers), in contrast to his predecessor Benigno Aquino III’s celebrity-studded, TV commercial-based campaign of 2010. However, since 2016 the Philippines has been tagged as “patient zero” for online disinformation, given the proliferation of political “content-creators” and paid “trolls” who rallied to amplify online support for Duterte.
The Marcos dynasty has also thrived in this environment and left its own imprints. After his narrow loss to Leni Robredo in the 2016 vice-presidential elections, Marcos Jr. invested heavily in increasing his social media presence, especially on Facebook and YouTube which are two of the most used social media platforms among Filipinos. Building this base of social media supporters — his Facebook page and YouTube channel have millions of followers — proved to be particularly useful for his 2022 presidential bid. Marcos Jr.’s YouTube channel has become a mainstay for what appears to be perpetual campaigning, churning out at least one video a week even after he assumed the presidency.
The traction gained from likes, shares, and comments of the contents posted in Marcos Jr.’s Facebook page and YouTube channel were crucial to his presidential campaign. Since taking office, the media-averse Marcos — who has labeled traditional media outfits as being biased against his family — has developed a symbiotic relationship with amateur social media vloggers, and some professionals in the trade who are capitalizing on the lucrative returns of pro-Marcos contents. Vloggers followed the campaign trail, and their access to the palace media corps became a thorny issue early on in the Marcos presidency.
The run-up to the presidential election saw a significant increase in the number of pro-Marcos pages, content creators, and posts in various social media platforms — indicating the financial gains to be had in a plainly self-sustaining business model: Marcos partisans consume pro-Marcos content, which financially rewards social media vloggers covering those topics, which pushes such influencers to try to expand their social media reach. Their posts are a combination of historical distortion, the spread of disinformation narratives, and whitewashing of the dictatorship from 1972 to 1986. These posts targeted people’s emotions and were designed to solicit strong reactions that would further drive engagements.
More novel, however, is the “celebrification” of the Marcoses on social media. Vlogs continuously feed to the public the family’s personal stories, daily lives, and “unfiltered” personalities – an approach that is not disinformation per se, and therefore evades fact-checking initiatives. The Marcoses’ venture into “lifestyle” vlogging is aided by their now unmitigated access to high profile politicians, foreign heads of state, and international events which undoubtedly make for fascinating “original content” as claimed by influencers.
The Marcos family’s social media strategy has gone beyond disinformation and ventured into influence operations. Efforts to counter these posts have had little effect, which suggests that the social media landscape itself has changed and that the emphasis of the opposition on “fake news” is becoming akin to fighting yesterday’s war.
Social media use among Filipinos is expected to continuously rise in the coming years. Apart from the anticipated increase in the use of online tools in electoral campaigns, online influencers will also most likely play a greater role in future campaigns since Filipinos already view them as major sources of information.
Marcos Jr. won the election with over 31 million votes. Months after the most divisive elections to date, trending initiatives on social media continued to reflect the polarization that was present during the campaign, as seen in the calls to boycott brands and personalities associated with the Marcoses. However, a different kind of divisiveness also emerged in the aftermath of the elections: the falling-out of Marcos vloggers who once tried to acquire formal accreditation to gain official media access to Malacañang, the presidential office.
This disbanding was a result of internal disagreements that were eventually publicized on social media. Some vloggers pursued pro-Marcos contents in their respective individual pages, while some became critical of the new administration. Observers were quick to note that these conflicts among supporters run contrary to the “unity” narrative that was Marcos Jr.’s primary campaign message. In a way, the social media pandora’s box unleashed in 2016 is turning out to be more than what politicians bargained for.
Social media use among Filipinos is expected to continuously rise in the coming years. Apart from the anticipated increase in the use of online tools in electoral campaigns, online influencers will also most likely play a greater role in future campaigns since Filipinos already view them as major sources of information. However, leaving these influencers and their platforms unchecked will pose challenges to the task of building a more informed electorate, especially since posting for profit and sowing divisiveness in digital spaces are becoming fixtures in Philippine politics.
Maria Elize H. Mendoza is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.