How Marcos Jr weaponised social media to rewrite history and win power

SATURDAY, MAY 14, 2022

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr’s landslide presidential election win was secured with a social media disinformation campaign that whitewashed his father’s brutally corrupt dictatorship, falsifying not only Philippine history but also his own education credentials.

Marcos Jr has waited 36 years to restore his family to the Malacañang Palace, and now returns as the 17th president of the Southeast Asian nation of 112.5 million people.

However, not everybody is happy to see the return of the Marcoses. Those who lived between 1965 and 1986 remember the 21 years under Ferdinand Marcos Sr and the brutal martial law he declared from 1972 to 1981 to eliminate his political enemies.

Dark history

Human rights abuses were rampant during his tenure, which was marked by arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, torture and killings. Amnesty International reported that 70,000 people – including priests, human rights defenders, labour leaders and journalists – were flung behind bars, more than 34,000 tortured and over 3,000 killed.

The Marcoses were also known for corruption that fuelled an extravagant lifestyle of jet-setting and luxury spending sprees, including on Imelda Marcos’s infamous shoe collection.

Efforts are still being made to recoup some of the US$10 billion that the Marcoses are thought to have plundered from the Philippines. However, those efforts are likely to be curtailed following Monday’s election victory.

In February 1986, Marcos Sr was ousted in what came to be known as the “People Power Revolution”. The disgraced family fled to Hawaii, where Marcos Sr died three years later.

The Philippines Presidential Commission on Good Governance (PCGG) is still working on getting the stolen funds back. It is also handling more than 100 cases of embezzlement and human rights violation from victims of Marcos Sr’s oppressive rule.

How Marcos Jr weaponised social media to rewrite history and win power

Brushing clean

However, it appears as if the pain and anguish suffered by the previous generation was largely ignored by the new generation of Filipinos, who spend a big chunk of their time on social media.

This helps explains why Marcos Jr won over 24.7 million votes from the younger generation, aged 18-41. According to data, these people spend an average of four hours per day on social media – the tool weaponised by Marcos Jr to whitewash his family’s past.

Instead of distancing himself from his father’s legacy, Marcos Jr used the online platforms to turn him into a national hero, claiming that he brought a “golden age” to the Philippines.

On Tuesday, he visited his father’s tomb at the national Heroes’ Cemetery in Metro Manila. For decades, the Marcoses and their supporters campaigned to have his remains transferred there, before President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to do so in 2016.

Marcos Jr also claimed on social media that he has a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University. However, the university said he failed to complete his degree and was awarded a special diploma in Social Studies in 1978.

Marcos Jr became vice governor of his home province of Ilocos Norte at age 23, running unopposed with his father’s party. He was governor when, six years later, his family was chased into exile.

The family returned in 1991 and Marcos Jr was once again elected governor in Ilocos Norte. In 2010 he became a senator, before running for vice president in 2016. He lost narrowly to former human-rights lawyer Leni Robredo – also his key rival in the 2022 presidential race.


The power of propaganda

To say that Marcos Jr won the presidential election by using social media as a propaganda tool is no exaggeration.

Bongbong masterminded a years-long strategic campaign on social media that has helped rebuild and polish his family’s image. Pro-Marcos propaganda has proliferated on social media – from glossy TikTok clips showing “fun times” during the Marcos era to YouTube videos declaring there was no martial law.

An official from political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica reportedly said it was approached by Marcos Jr to delete unfavourable records of the Marcos regime on social media platforms so he could gain momentum in the election.

Observers say however that Marcos Jr’s landslide win cannot just be put down to social media whitewashing. Many also point to people’s disappointment in the political establishment and democratic rule over the past three decades, which have seen presidential impeachment trials, political protests, corruption and more.

One sociologist put it succinctly: “The faith people had in liberal democracy has dried up.”