[Philippines] Disinformation Gone Macho

MANILA – The screenshot is hazy but in a sea of comments it stands out. In it is a woman wearing nothing but glasses and straddling a naked man. It is as crude as it gets, but it is just one of the weapons used against Philippine Senator Leila de Lima, who is among President Rodrigo Duterte’s harshest critics.

It has never been properly established that it is de Lima in the screenshot or the video from which it was supposedly taken. But this has not mattered in the court of public opinion. As far as Facebook comments are concerned after the image went viral, de Lima is an immoral woman, and therefore has no credibility. So she has been detained; she deserves to be behind bars, and that’s that.

The Philippines placed 10th in the Global Gender Gap report in 2017, making it the most gender- equal country in Asia. It is far ahead from its neighbours, with the closest being Lao PDR and Singapore at 64th and 65th place respectively. But the indices, which measure gaps in educational attainment, political empowerment, and educational attainment, merely look at quantifiable data such as seats in parliament, literacy rates, and participation in the labour force. Here in the Philippines, they have failed to capture the country’s long history of misogyny, which has now found a new breeding ground: online.

“In the past few years, we’ve found that it’s even more difficult to be a woman — and a woman in power,” says Vice President Leonor ‘Leni’ Robredo. “Women leaders have always had to prove themselves more than their male counterparts. These days, however, we are more vulnerable to personal attacks on a public sphere, because we have officials who openly, and casually, drop these rumours and allegations against us. These attacks spread like wildfire, given the rise of social media and an organized disinformation drive.”

Like de Lima, Robredo has been the target of such attacks. The widow of the late Secretary of Interior and Local Government Jesse Robredo, she has been subjected to speculations about her private life, including rumours of an affair and, at one point, even pregnancy. In a country where 64 percent out of a population of 105 million are active on social media, these speculations have spread fast and wide — and continue to linger even without any apparent basis.

Genderized disinformation

Disinformation is one of many in the arsenal of weapons used by trolls and propaganda networks to attack and discredit opponents.  It can take several forms, such as fabricated headlines, misleading captions, or falsified information. Female targets of disinformation, however, often face direct attacks on their identity as women. 

In the Philippines, observers say that these kinds of attacks against women became more noticeable after the election of President Duterte in 2016. The nongovernment organization Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), for one, says that after the presidential polls two years ago, harassment, especially of women journalists and politicians, became commonplace.

“Male journalists are also harassed online, they also get cussed out,” says FMA executive director Liza Garcia. “They also get that, they also get death threats. But when it’s a female journalist, it centres on their being a woman, on their bodies, like, ‘you’re so ugly, but I still hope you get raped’. So what that does that have to do with your being a journalist? It has something to do already with your being a woman. They would say, ‘you’re a whore’, things like that.”

It’s an unpleasant experience that Al-Jazeera correspondent Jamela Alindogan has gotten used to after years of being a journalist based in Manila. She has ignored a bulk of the harassment, but in late 2016, she felt the need to draw the line.

In August that year, Alindogan had shared on Facebook another network’s report on the deaths of soldiers while fighting the armed group Abu Sayyaf.  But her comment that accompanied the video somehow earned the ire of several Duterte supporters. They would become even more upset two months later, when Alindogan interviewed the President on camera and asked him questions regarding his stance on democratic processes and the atrocities of the Marcos regime.

Soon after, Alindogan noticed a strange kind of disinformation campaign aimed at her. This time around, she did not let it pass.

“It was one of the rare times that I spoke out publicly,” recalls Alindogan. “I called it out online both Facebook and Twitter. Not just because of me but the other woman accused of being me, pre-surgery. She did not deserve that. It was ridiculous and infuriating.”

‘It’ happened to be comments and stories posted online of Alindogan supposedly having undergone plastic surgery. A meme, which circulated on Facebook, had her photo and that of another journalist posted side by side with the caption, “When the looks God gave you simply isn’t (sic) enough. It pays to be Jamela from Al Jazeera”, implying that Alindogan had work done on her face.

Low blows and questionable assumptions

“If they can’t attack you for the work that you do, they attack how you look because they expect that our looks make up who we are as women.”

Alindogan believes that blows to a woman’s personal life and appearance are cheap shots aimed at destroying that woman’s credibility.  At the same time, they carry questionable premises, such as what matters to women and how they should behave. Points out Alindogan: “If they can’t attack you for the work that you do, they attack how you look because they expect that our looks make up who we are as women.”

She says that these attacks place an unfair burden on women that aren’t placed on men.

“I think women are vulnerable to all sorts of rumours but often they are vilified for their physical appearances and their personal lives,” Alindogan says. “Men often always get a free pass for being separated or divorced or womanising. Not women — those who do not live up to society’s unreasonable demands of social norms are vilified as witches. It’s as if not being able to fit the mood makes you ill-equipped to do the work at hand.”

Robredo has observed the same pattern, saying, “The goal in these smear campaigns is to discredit, but often we find that male politicians are attacked less personally than their female colleagues. Women in politics are constant targets of sexual harassment, moral attacks, and criticisms against their families. Their track records, no matter how stellar, are more easily overshadowed by allegations of such kind. If a male official is accused of an affair, would it have as much effect as when the same allegations are made against a female official? We have seen that it does not, and men are even free to flaunt about such.”

“Most of the things that have been said about me are attacks against me as a woman,” says Robredo, who tends to speak in a calm, even tone. “From how my knees look, to being called someone’s mistress, to what I wear. They work on cultivating a perception that I am a ‘weaker’ leader simply because I am not a man — more so a tough-talking one.”

Women-unfriendly social media

For all the advances women have made in the Philippines, it remains a patriarchal society where a macho culture persists. But while Filipino women usually do not take insults to their person sitting down, attacks done online are harder to fight, partly because of the anonymity of most posts and largely because accusations, unfounded or not, become viral all too quickly.

University of the Philippines sociologist John Andrew Evangelista notes that the Duterte era isn’t the first time that women, especially those in power, have faced disinformation that their male counterparts wouldn’t typically have to tackle. He recalls that when the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago first ran for President in 1992 , there were rumours of her mental instability that earned her the nickname ‘Brenda’ — short for “brain-damaged”.

Evangelista says that men with ambition wouldn’t be tagged as such, and there are plenty of ambitious men who seek power. What is unique to the Duterte era, however, is how quickly these rumours and monickers spread because of social-media platforms.

The social-media penetration rate in the Philippines is at 63 percent, which makes it only the fifth highest in Southeast Asia. But the global media company We Are Social says that worldwide, it is Filipinos who spend the most time on social media, a distinction they have held in the last three years.

Incidentally, in Southeast Asia, it is only in the Philippines that Facebook users declaring themselves as female (52 percent) outnumber those who say they are male. Yet that slightly more predominant female presence has apparently failed to make cyberspace safer for Filipino women. According to the Women and Children Protection Centre of the Philippine National Police’s Anti-Cybercrime Group, cybercrimes against women is among the top three of the complaints received by the cybercrime group. And women’s-rights advocates insist that the situation can only get worse with someone like Duterte as the country’s chief executive.

Misogyny from the top?

“In the past few years, we’ve found that it’s even more difficult to be a woman – and a woman in power. Women leaders have always had to prove themselves more than their male counterparts.”

The President has been known to crack sexist jokes and has made light of matters such as rape. He has even made lewd comments about Vice President Robredo, who belongs to the opposition party and who he kicked out of the Cabinet sometime ago. While on an official visit to South Korea, he solicited a kiss on the lips from a Filipino female fan.

The President and his supporters say that all these have been all in good fun, but many Filipino women aren’t laughing. Garcia is among those who say that the President’s careless behaviour and use of language may be sending the wrong message to men and even boys. She argues, “Because you have a president who is a sexist, misogynist, and if you have a president who says rape jokes, who can say those things, when he’s supposed to be a leader, a role model for everyone, especially for boys, young men, and if he says that’s okay to shoot women combatants in the vagina or it’s okay to rape women — perhaps that is also the attitude that other young men might start emulating.”

To sociologist Evangelista, it is only right that Duterte be held accountable for his rhetoric against women. But he says that the President is just a symptom of an even bigger problem.

“I wouldn’t say that he’s the cause of it, but he revealed an already brewing misogyny underneath our culture,” says Evangelista.  “He just put it out there. And because he revealed it and that’s how he talks on his platform, the platform of the presidency, I’m not surprised that there are people willing to also take that same language.”

“We can always argue that Duterte is shaped by the misogynist culture,”  he continues. “Let’s hold him accountable but let’s also keep in mind that there’s a culture that allowed for a Duterte to happen. And that’s the bigger struggle: how do we dismantle that culture?”

‘Locker-room’ talk

Stan (not his real name), for instance, says that raunchy comments about women are nothing new to him and his friends, especially in the online groups that he is part of. He also says that they previously had a more open group that included female members, but that some of the women complained about the kind of jokes the men made.

“Some…green jokes were still being posted and they took offence to that,” says Stan, a 28-year-old brand manager. “So the guys just made a separate group for all the locker-room talk and coincidentally, the group’s name has ‘locker room’ in it.”

A law student also says that comments become more salacious once the conversations are moved into all-male private chat rooms. Take, he says, the time they were all looking at photographs of women. Says the student: “The comments went from ‘yeah, she’s chicks (pretty)’ to ‘son of a bitch, she looks like she’s good in bed’.”

“I think there’s pressure, especially in that kind of private online setting, to be just as crude as everyone else,” he adds. “And those guys don’t stop being themselves. It’s just an addition to their character. It’s like a secret society that’s not so secret.”

According to Evangelista, the fact that the men consciously move the conversations to more private groups mean they are aware of the impact of what they are saying.

The fact that they used to call it locker-room talk and they talk amongst themselves as boys, I think they know that there’s a certain level of disrespect with how they talk about women so they keep it to themselves,” Evangelists says. “ I don’t think they don’t know… they know to some extent (that) it’s disrespectful, the way they talk about women if it’s just them. I witness this with my guy friends. When we’re drinking without women, it’s appalling how they talk about women. The metaphors are violent, like ‘I de-virginized her’.

He says that it can be hard to speak up against such language, especially when it is the dominant one. Stan agrees, saying, “It’s hard when all of them are catcallers and are making sexual comments. It’s anything goes in situations like that. And anything you say can be used against you, like you’re a killjoy or you’re a super serious social justice warrior.”

The main excuse for the men in these groups is that this is just harmless “boys will be boys” fun, but Evangelista says that language isn’t benign.

Language is political,” he says. “If you use language in a violent way it perpetuates a certain mode of thought, a kind of discourse that justifies violence against women, misogyny, men’s conquest of women’s bodies. And that’s dangerous about language, because there’s the excuse that it’s just for fun. We don’t notice that it shapes how we think as a society. This is the danger of jokes, discourse that it’s just having fun.”

Disinformation most damning

There is no doubt, however, that the kind of disinformation aimed at the likes of Robredo, Alindogan, and de Lima had a far more serious purpose. It can even be argued that in the case of de Lima, the disinformation campaign against her helped put her in detention.

Senator de Lima is currently being held at the police Custodial Centre in Quezon City after the Duterte administration filed a case of drug-trafficking — a non-bailable offence — against her. But long before she was arrested, she had already been forced to endure a lynching online. The now-infamous video and its screenshots, supposedly showing the senator and her then driver-lover, were everywhere on Facebook, from the comments to posts on several pages and groups.

In 2014, during de Lima’s congressional confirmation hearing as justice secretary, rumours about such a video were already floating around. But a different president was at Malacanang Palace at the time, and the lawmakers on the Commission on Appointments apparently saw no point in considering it during her hearing, saying it was all still hearsay.

It two more years and another president before the video and the screenshots became viral online. But it wasn’t just the online comments section that proved vicious. At the House of Representatives, an official probe supposedly on the drug-trafficking charges against de Lima dragged out even the most private details about the senator’s relationship with her driver. Then Speaker of the House Pantaleon Alvarez, who has admitted to having a mistress, even said that there was no problem with showing the video during the hearing, while President Duterte himself joked about showing the scandalous video to the Pope.

As de Lima sees it, the accusations made against her, especially those speculating about her personal life, were fuel to the fire. She says, “There were accusations against me that were deemed shameful and politically ruinous because I am a woman, but, at the same time, are the very same things that are seen as acceptable — and even impressive — when attributed to a man.” 

“My track record as a straight-shooting, action-oriented public servant, who fears and favours no one, speaks for itself,” says de Lima, who has long been separated from her husband. “For that reason, I believe that outrightly accusing me of corruption or involvement in illegal-drug trading would not have gained any traction were it not for the tactic of first conditioning the public to condemn me for circumstances that are deemed unacceptable for a woman.  Hence, the slut-shaming paved the way for the other false accusations.”

Female foes for the President

“There were accusations against me that were deemed shameful and politically ruinous because I am a woman, but, at the same time, are the very same things that are seen as acceptable – and even impressive – when attributed to a man.”

De Lima had first encountered Duterte when he was still mayor of Davao City in the country’s south and she was chief of the Commission on Human Rights. She had gone to Davao to investigate allegations that a death squad, at the behest of the mayor, was responsible for a rash of extrajudicial killings there.  Seven years later, as head of the Senate justice and human rights committee, de Lima would open public hearings on the extrajudicial killings being committed supposedly as part of Duterte’s drug war.

She now believes that a woman speaking up against the President was a blow to his ego, hence the vicious nature of the attacks against her.

“If I were male, Duterte’s ego would not have been so offended by being called out by me,” de Lima says. “He really does not like to be criticized by women. So I think, if I were male, the reaction to my criticism would not have been so violent, malicious, and scandalous.”

She says that feminism in the country has a long way to go, especially in the current political climate.

Feminism in the Philippines still has a lot of battles to fight,” says de Lima. “And with a President who is anti-women’s and anti-human rights, this is the greatest challenge now facing the Philippine women’s movement. As I have said before, the fight against Duterte’s authoritarian rule will be a battle that will be primarily fought by women, because they are his foremost victims.”

Some women are already fighting back. Zena Bernardo, a development worker and member of #BabaeAko (I Am Woman) movement, says of President Duterte: “He keeps picking on women so we just said, ‘I am a woman, what’s your problem?”

The movement, in fact, was born in May 2018, after the President said that the next Ombusdman should not be a woman. It launched a social-media campaign series of videos of women vowing, “Lalaban ako (I will fight)”, which helped it earn a spot on Time magazine’s ’25 Most Influential People on the Internet’ for 2018.

Women speak up

Bernardo says that social media proved instrumental in the movement gaining traction. She admits that has also made #BabaeAko an easy target for trolls, but she echoes others in saying that the problem is rooted in something deeper than the medium.

“The culture, the kind of values, the system that we have, the patriarchal system — the double standard has always been there,” she says. “So yes, it has been magnified because of the tool, but nothing has changed. There should have been, we already have the Magna Carta of Women. We have done a lot, but suddenly we woke up one day and we’re sliding back.”

She says that the members of #BabaeAko are speaking up after realizing that far too many women withdraw out of fear in social media.

“You need to push back because you cannot have them monopolize this platform,” Bernardo says, referring to the misogynists online. “You have to think of ways to counter it with the proper guide and principles.”

Alindogan says the same thing. She confesses, “I realized now that you need to speak out strongly against this. You need to fight this head on. I used to just ignore online trolling and hate speech. I still mostly do that now, too, because I do not allow that to distract me from the work that I do. But when the situation calls for it, and when it affects others who do not deserve it and cannot defend themselves, I speak up.”

“Speaking for others is critical,” she says. “Being there and defending not just yourself, but showing solidarity with others is important. You can’t allow them to control that narrative. As women we need to set examples to the younger generations that we should not take these sitting down and that this culture should never be normalized.”


Paige Occeñola is the digital communications head of the Manila-based Rappler; she also produces stories on disinformation and democracy. This story has been produced within the context of a Grant received for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) Fellowship programme for 2018-2019 from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of OHCHR.

Graphics by Alyssa Arizabal

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