History provides context in understanding and building resilience of a community or nation. But what happens when the facts linked to this history have been compromised? Information impacts politics, cultures, and policies where our future depends on, dangerously so if this is inaccurate and misleading. This article provides a brief overview of the recent elections in the Philippines and how almost a decade of disinformation influenced its results. Operations behind disinformation campaigns, and why it matters to our industry were also tackled.

With overwhelming lead over his closest rival, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the namesake and son of the late dictator, was proclaimed as the 17th president of the Philippines. He got 31.6 million votes, while the second-placer, the outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo, received 15 million votes, roughly twofold less than the former. Although controversial, his victory is not surprising as preference surveys prior the May 9th elections showed his unwavering popularity among the rest of the presidential candidates.

Brief background

The 1986 people uprising toppled the decades long rule of his father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., marked with kleptocracy and corruption, thousands of brutal human rights violations, and enormous government debts. The Marcos family was forced to exile in Hawaii taking with them 22 crates of cash valued at US$717 million, deposit slips to banks in the US, Switzerland, and the Cayman Islands worth US$124 million, and the 300 crates of jewelry with undetermined value, among many others. The patriarch died in exile three years later and his family were allowed to come back to the Philippines in 1991. They became wealthy, influential politicians, and positioned a dynastic stronghold of their hometown in the northern part of the Philippines. Marcos Jr. managed to be elected as congressman, governor, and senator in the years after.

Photo 1: The Marcos family at the balcony of the Malacañang Palace in Manila on February 25, 1986 after taking the oath of office as president of the Philippines. Alberto Marquez/AP (SOURCE: WWW.NPR.ORG)

Burdened with the reputation related to Martial Law atrocities, which until now he refused to recognize and apologize for, Marcos Jr. also found himself involved in several issues such as corruption allegations, false academic credentials, and income and estate tax case convictions. In fact, various groups filed disqualification cases to bar him from the presidential race based on his tax evasion conviction, which later were dismissed by the Commission on Elections.

The presidential race

Marcos Jr. ran on a platform of “unity” that appealed to Filipinos who are tired of political bickering and broken promises of development by the past administrations. His running mate, Sara Duterte, the presumptive Vice President who also won by wide margin, is the daughter of the outgoing populist president Rodrigo Duterte. They formed a strong alliance that combined two political dynasties’ bailiwicks – Marcoses’ northern Philippines and Duterte’s southern island of Mindanao. Their team promised to continue Duterte’s policies, including his infamous war on drugs, and infrastructure drive.

On the other hand, the outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo, who once again went head-to-head with Marcos Jr, presented herself as promoting good governance, transparency, and human rights. Robredo defeated Marcos Jr. in a very tight vice presidential race in 2016. She has been a constant recipient of attacks from Duterte’s machinery as she is strongly against Duterte’s bloody drug war and crackdown on activists and government critics. She also chairs the most vilified opposition party, the Liberal Party, making her decision to join the presidential race a tough one, especially that she had low preference ratings in pre-election surveys.

Photo 2: The outgoing Leni Robredo in a campaign rally in Pampanga. (SOURCE: VP LENI ROBREDO FB PAGE)

Having limited resources and no intact machinery to back her run, Robredo, former human rights lawyer and economist, was stood up for by millions of volunteer supporters who later became the heart of her grassroots campaign. Several groups of volunteers donated funds, printed out their own paraphernalia, mobilized public flash mobs, did house-to-house campaigning, and organized rallies attended by mammoth crowds. Her supporters are those who noticed Robredo’s hard work, efficiency, and transparency despite the limited budget given to her office. In fact, her office has received ISO certification for quality management system since 2017 and has been awarded with highest audit rating by the Commission on Audit for three straight years, which are rare occurrences in public offices.

Photo 3: Robredo’s campaign rally in the Makati Central Business District on May 7, 2022 with estimated attendees of 1 million supporters. (SOURCE: VP LENI ROBREDO FB PAGE)

She enjoyed wide-ranging support from Catholic Church leaders, former government and military officials, celebrities, artists, academicians to farmers whose land rights she once fought for. Although inspiring, festive, and remarkable, the grassroots initiatives have been a little too late to trample down the disinformation seed planted in the internet space more than a decade ago. Marcos’ popularity across all social groups is too solid to be broken down by the people’s movement formed just in the last seven months.

Photo 4: Ferdinand Marcos Jr. after his official proclamation as president-elect. Aaron Favila/AP (SOURCE: www.abc.net.au)

Distorting history and evading the truth

It was in 2000’s when the attempt to whitewash Martial Law and Marcos family’s reputation started to proliferate on Friendster, Flickr, and other defunct websites. Marcos Sr., according to several posts that are spreading online, owed their immense wealth from Tallano royal family of the Maharlika Kingdom, who paid 192,000 tons of gold for his legal services. Needless to say, this is an attempt to cover the fact that the family plundered the country’s coffers during their years in power. False stories also described Marcos dictatorship as the “golden age” for the Philippines, claiming that the country was the third richest economy in the world. The messaging extends to their claim of how the family has been unfairly maligned through the years which appeals to their target audience’ emotions.

In 2020, the Cambridge Analytica’s former business development director, who turned whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser, mentioned that the company discussed Marcos Jr.’s alleged attempt to revise history as the company saw it as great financial opportunity. She revealed that Marcos Jr. directly reached out to the team to do a family rebranding. Although this claim was denied by Marcos Jr., as well as the claim that his team hired online troll farms for his 2022 campaign, a report showed that he benefits a lot from misleading messaging on social media while Robredo was described as the “biggest victim” of disinformation. Furthermore, Twitter suspended more than 300 accounts promoting Marcos Jr’s campaign for breaching rules on spam and manipulation.


Video1: TIME’s Philippines Election: How TikTok Is Helping Bongbong Marcos

It can be said that the outgoing president, Rodrigo Duterte, played a big role in setting up the stage for today’s current political and social media scene. Duterte won the presidential campaign in 2016 focusing more on the use of social media to promote pro-Duterte hashtags and pages to boost his popularity. Veering away from the traditional methods of campaigning, he made use of bots on a large scale to intimidate his critics. As a response, Facebook introduced fact-checking partnerships, digital advertising rules, and takedowns of global networks to avoid the spread of disinformation, a merely cat-and-mouse game between the platform and the bad actors.

Shifting media ecosystem

In 2013, Facebook introduced their Free Basics program wherein they tied up with local internet providers and let the users access the platform for free, making it the “de facto internet” for most Filipinos. As a result, Facebook became the most visited website in the Philippines. Social media became the more trusted source of news and information than television and newspapers. Being left with no choice but to compete in the platform, traditional news media organizations tend to write clickbait headlines to increase engagement and ad revenues. This affects users’ comprehension, especially those who rely on Facebook’s Free Basics as external links are not covered by this program. The clickbait links are easily shared even though most people only see the out-of-context title and not the entire article. This paradigm change has become evident during the recent campaign season. Marcos Jr. refused to participate in official televised debates and answer journalists’ difficult questions during the campaign. Instead, he turned to non-traditional media like YouTube vloggers to influence public discussion and perceptions.

Networked disinformation campaign

A 2018 research showed that disinformation in Philippine political operations is widespread and is being run by an organized system. Politicians hire campaign strategies from local small advertising and public relations agencies as “chief architects of networked disinformation campaigns”. Corporate branding techniques like “core campaign messaging” and “brand bibles” are applied in the unregulated political marketing industry. Ad and public relations experts tap digital influencers who have 50,000 to 2,000,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter, and community-level fake account operators who manually operate fake profiles to infiltrate community groups and news pages. This type of campaigns, according to the report, operate with two dynamics – 1) controlled interactivity participated by disinformation workers who are informed by a common script, and 2) volatile virality of social media posts produced from the script.

Since Facebook has initiated takedowns of accounts that showed coordinated inauthentic behavior, troll operations are no longer a copy-paste job. In another report, it was revealed that trolls act like real people now, maintain personalized accounts, share photos and videos, and join groups. The modern troll network was described as a “call center” wherein there is a moderator that commands his team, usually consists of 10 people, to react to a certain post or news item; each member of this team handles dozens of fake accounts. Micro-influencers, who have at least 10,000 followers, are also hired and are paid between US$5,800 to US$6,800 monthly during campaign season. They run a Facebook page and post material everyday with content given by the disinformation agency.

Uncertain future

Sales of books about Martial Law have surged recently as many fear that they will be pulled out and accounts of Marcos Jr.’s father rule will be completely revised. This is not an unfounded fear as Marcos Jr. pushed for revision of history books in one interview in 2020 saying “you’re teaching the children lies”. He mentioned that the content of history books has to be revised as they have depicted their family in a bad light. Adding to the worry, the president-elect appointed his running mate, Sara Duterte, as the secretary of Department of Education, whom has only a little to no experience in the field of education. Furthermore, the government website that contains the history of the late dictator has recently become inaccessible, few days after the election date.

Of the US$10 billion estimated ill-gotten wealth of the Marcos family and their associates, only US$3 billion has so far been recovered. With the son as the elected president, there is more uncertainty whether the rest will be recovered, whether the hundreds of pending cases filed against the family will be fairly resolved, and whether the US$3.8 billion tax they owe the government will be collected.

A day after the elections, the Philippine Stock Exchange Index or PSEi, dropped by 3.14%, and at the end of the week, the index lost 5.6%. A business columnist explained that the uncertainty may came from the lack of clarity of Marcos Jr.’s plan for the economy. In addition, “his past performance and pronouncements clearly defy fiscal sense and good governance”. He won the election without attending debates or interviews to present a coherent platform.

Just recently, he announced the technocrats who would complete his economic team. A welcoming news for many as they have competitive credentials and wide experience in public service. Rightfully so, as they have to deal with PHP 12.68 trillion (US$242 billion) worth debt, a debt-to-GDP of 63.5%, unemployment rate of 5.8%, and an inflation rate of 4.9% last April, the highest in the last three years.

Why does this matter in our industry?

Disinformation attacks spread around the globe. Being the “patient zero” in disinformation crisis, what happened and has been happening in the Philippines are cautionary tales for other countries. Disinformation campaigns are believed to have begun in the Philippine national elections in 2016, followed by Brexit and the US elections. As of 2020, it was revealed that weaponized disinformation has been present in 81 countries despite the several counter-disinformation measures that some social media websites have implemented. This only means that disinformation is unstoppable and getting more sophisticated.

It has become lucrative business and may be outsourced to skilled professionals. Disinformation providers operate in different countries and continuously advertise their service to private sector. The PWC revealed a sample cost for various services: US$15 to US$45 to create 1,000 articles, US$65 to contact a media source directly spread material, US$100 for 10 comments to post on a given news item, US350 to US$550 per month for social media marketing, and US$1,500 for search engine optimization. These rates are higher than what advertising and public relations professionals usually receive from their full-time job but ultimately inexpensive for a service to create and distribute at scale. In the Philippines, it is an open industry secret that advertising and public relations agencies take on roles in political deception, enabling moral displacement. A Washington Post article in 2019 described how operators aimed to be the go-to-place to influence corporate and political campaigns worldwide. With existing professionalized and organized disinformation system, coupled with young, educated, and English-speaking workforce, it is possible that many are already relying on public relations agencies from the Philippines for trolls and click farms.

It has geopolitical impact. The damaging impact on public trust through digital disinformation strategies has contributed to the rise of populist and authoritarian leaders around the globe recently. Consequently, this geopolitical risk may be a threat to fact-based and evidence-based policymaking in economy and security among others. According to PANTA RAY’s Geopolitical Risk Report in 2019, changing political leaderships is among the top ten threats to organizations in terms of frequency and impact. Furthermore, geopolitical risk can cause an average of £2.5 million (US$3.1 million) financial loss.

Disinformation has moved to corporate world. For example, in 2017, a video post by a pediatric medical practice in Pittsburgh on the significance of HPV vaccine was bombarded with false negative user reviews, which were later found to come from anti-vaccination activists in 36 states and eight countries. Starbucks was also not spared, in the same year, tweets with the coffeeshop’s logo claiming it was hosting a “Dreamer Day” and offering free drinks to undocumented immigrants had spread. The company had to respond on social media that the tweets were untrue. It is a serious risk that can cause your company’s reputation, people, as well as financial resources. Currently, there is no mechanism to counteract disinformation in the same speed as it spreads through social media. Pushing back the damage it causes will involve customer relationships, brand protection, crisis management, and security and privacy safeguarding.

Figure 1: PWC’s illustration based on FirstDraft’s The essential guide to understanding information disorder, 2019.

What can be done?

Include disinformation and social media in your crisis management/business continuity plan. The PWC’s report on disinformation attacks in the corporate sector has outlined some specific steps to fight disinformation. It includes the following:

  1. Assess your risks by identifying vulnerabilities specific to your organizations, as well as the possible disinformation actors and methods that may possess great impact on your organization’s reputation.
  2. Monitor your brand on social media by understanding how media manipulation happens and by engaging in third-party monitoring and sentiment analysis. Further, use the power of social media to reach your customers by building a community of advocates and establishing ongoing positive narrative about your organization.
  3. Protect your company name against disinformation by consistently and frequently connecting with your partners and other stakeholders.
  4. Test your plan. Practice for different disinformation attacks by simulations and exercises.

Create and implement a social media policy. Social media policy is essential for businesses as it protects your company’s reputation by clearly setting expectations from employees of what they can do and cannot do on social media channels. In addition, it can encourage them to be involved in driving brand recognition within their social media networks.

Provide digital literacy training in the workplace. Aside from the basic practical skills in using digital equipment, the training can include topics such as critical thinking and safety. With the proliferation of social media applications, people are exposed to volumes of information every day, increasing the risk of encountering fake or misleading information. Equipping them with knowledge of how to determine fake news can help build a disinformation-proof culture in your workplace.

Create opportunity to engage physically. To hold continuous and authentic conversation with your customers and other stakeholders means building trust in the company. By doing this, you are reminding your customers that your brand is being run by real people who listens and is not only reduced by the online posts or reviews they see on social media. This is one of the formula Domino’s Pizza did when they received a lot of negative feedback online. They invited them for a discussion and visited them in their houses to try their new pizza recipe.

Join the call for accountability. As an industry, it is high time that we become proactive in issues beyond the corners of our offices. We must join the public in holding different players accountable in the spread of disinformation. Efforts from multiple actors are necessary to successfully beat back disinformation, together with formal laws and regulations and civil society initiative, private sector also plays a big part.

Author: Lucil Aguada

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