(First of three parts)
Inside a small theater tucked in a quiet alley in Quezon City, an audience composed mostly of millennials meets Hector, a man who makes a living spreading memes and other online clickbaits in a bid to twist or sugarcoat the martial law narrative of the Marcos regime, whose “survivors” ironically included his own mother, a victim of human rights abuses.
“Heck” is the main character in “A Game of Trolls,” a musical staged by the Philippine Educational Theater Association. But while he may be a mere creation of playwright Liza Magtoto, his persona was inspired by an ongoing battle in cyberspace for the nation’s memory—waged between the “trolls” who mainly target the younger generation and those who witnessed the atrocities committed by the dictatorship.
Such “history wars” are nothing new in Southeast Asia, according to Francis Gealogo, a history professor at Ateneo de Manila University, who cited examples of how the state uses its machinery to propagate disinformation and ultimately advance authoritarian rule.
Rise of strongmen
The region’s postwar politics, he said, saw the rise of strongmen like President Suharto of Indonesia who ruled for 31 years until he was forced to resign in 1998, and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia who retired in 2003 after 22 years in power but is now back as premier at age 93.
Ferdinand Marcos was elected Philippine President in 1965, imposed martial law from 1972 to 1981, and was ousted in a people power uprising in 1986. He died in exile three years later.
While past leaders used state control over the media to disseminate selective information to advance their interests, today’s trolls and the politicians who fund them have in their arsenal an even stronger weapon of mass disinformation: the internet and social media sites, Gealogo said.
n the Philippines, Facebook has become the most effective social media platform, with about two-thirds of the population, or 67 million, subscribing to it.
Such numbers have increased the reach and visibility of some of the country’s most active politicians, among them the Marcos children. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., a former senator, lost the 2016 vice presidential race but continued to challenge the results, while Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos is gunning for a Senate seat.
As monitored by this writer, some 100 active Facebook pages and groups—with a combined total of more than 6 million followers—are supporting the Marcoses’ return to power, using posts, photos and videos that play loose with the facts on martial law, the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth, and even the Marcos children’s educational attainment.
Apparently confident that their social media campaign is working, the 63-year-old Imee recently declared at a press conference that “millennials have moved on and I think people my age should move on as well.”
Millennials are defined by social researchers as the generation born between 1981 and 1996, which makes them between 22 and 37 years old today. Facebook users in the Philippines aged between 18 and 44 currently number almost 51 million, according to the global media company We Are Social.
So what are the main messages being conveyed by the pro-Marcos Facebook accounts? “Move on” seems to be the dominant theme.
The campaign shifted into high gear following the controversial burial of Marcos at Libingan ng Mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) on Nov. 18, 2016. The posts started amplifying the Marcos family’s claim that their patriarch played a heroic role in World War II, hence he deserved posthumous honors.
Critics, however, countered that Marcos—on top of ushering in one of the darkest periods in Philippine history—faked his war medals and military records.
Joyce Ramirez, a publicist who served as one of Bongbong’s advisers during his 2016 election campaign, said the Marcos scion had “a full team behind him.”
“Let’s just say I am his ‘Dictator of Taste,’” Ramirez said.
Documents from the Commission on Elections show that among Bongbong’s paid campaign staff members was Marco Angelo Cabrera, who now works for the Official Gazette under the Presidential Communications Operations Office.
In September 2016, Cabrera came under fire for a post that appeared on the Official Gazette’s Facebook page, which he was then managing, to commemorate the 99th birth anniversary of the late dictator. Critics protested how the post—on a government website at that—gave details of the late President’s government career but was silent about his declaration of martial law and his disgraceful fall from power.
The post was later revised and updated several times.
But if disinformation can be spread through a state-run website, what more in largely unpoliced portals?
A member of Wiki Society of the Philippines, who has been guarding the country’s cyberspace against disinformation since 2016, noted how it had become too easy to run a fake news machinery to advance a political agenda.
“Here’s the thing,” said the cyberexpert who declined to be named for security reasons. “If people who run troll armies have the money to fund low-level foot soldiers at P500 (around $10) a day to run copy-paste operations, they definitely have the funds to create new websites left and right. After all, a new internet domain name only costs about P500.”
Troll armies usually attack or distort long-established facts through Facebook posts and in the comments section of legitimate news reports. A common characteristic of these attacks is the use of “copy-pasted” or ready-made statements, often laced with insults or nonsequiturs and providing little or no context.
The Wiki cyberexpert also noted that most of the local fake news sites he had compiled since 2016 were slanted to favor President Duterte and the Marcoses, while also attacking prominent opposition figures.
“The Marcos pages I was looking at were extremely sanitized with very little or no mention of corruption and human rights [violations],” he said. “If it stays that way, narratives can be twisted on Philippine-related Wikipedia subjects. We badly need more Filipino Wikipedia volunteers.”
He added: “Content on Wikipedia can be taken at face value and can shape the readers’ concept of facts and reality. If not properly guarded and maintained, these sites can feed the public with misinformation that can be used for political purposes—to devastating effect.” —WITH A REPORT FROM KATHLEEN DE VILLA, INQUIRER RESEARCH
Mariejo Ramos is a Manila-based reporter with the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper. She has written about various topics on social justice, such as the drug war, children in conflict with the law, senior citizens, people with mental illnesses and mental health challenges, women farmers and prisoners, and the urban poor. A journalism graduate of the University of the Philippines in 2014, she is completing her masters’ degree in anthropology from the same university.
This story was published/produced under the Southeast Asian Press Alliance 2018 Journalism Fellowship Program, supported by a grant from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
This report has been published through a grant to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)Fellowship programme for 2018-19 from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The views expressed do not reflect the official opinion of OHCHR.