Chad de Guzman / Manila, May 5, 2022, Time
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has been able to leverage social media, especially TikTok, to rewrite the history of his father’s rule in the Philippines. He leads in in polls ahead of the May 9, 2022 presidential election by an unprecedented margin. Credit – TIME photo-illustration; Getty images
One of the most popular posts on Joey Toledo’s TikTok account is a 13-second clip of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s conversation with Juan Ponce Enrile. In the video, the 94-year-old Enrile—who served as justice secretary and defense minister under Marcos’ father, the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.—claims that the Philippines was so safe under martial law imposed by the elder Marcos that a Filipino could leave his home unlocked, and “nobody would touch it.”
The video received 92,000 views, and while Toledo has some doubts about Enrile’s claims (“I’m not just sure if [Enrile’s] story is 100% percent accurate because he’s already old”), the 27-year-old says he believes Enrile “knows what happened during that time.”
The appeal of the video on TikTok, and many others like it, goes a long way to explaining why Bongbong Marcos looks likely to win the May 9 presidential election—potentially returning one of the Philippines’ most prominent dynasties to power more than 35 years after it was ousted following decades of dictatorship.
Almost all of the 32 pro-Marcos TikTok creators TIME contacted would not speak on the record. But one, Toledo from Nueva Ecija province, some 69 miles north of the capital Manila, agreed. Typical of many of his peers, he does not believe the well documented history of the Marcos family’s human rights abuses and corruption.
Working by day as an IT support desk staffer, Toledo has had his account for eight months but says he noticed a big uptick in followers when he began posting pro-Marcos videos. Toledo says he is not affiliated with the Marcos campaign, and is not paid for his content, but many of his posts to his 22,000 TikTok followers contain outright misinformation. One post, a repurposed video, suggests that the Marcos family’s vast wealth comes not from the looting of Philippine public coffers, but from earnings as a lawyer. Another video asserts that Marcos was “the best president in the world” during his time in office.
Taken together, they offer insight into how Bongbong Marcos has been able to leverage social media to rewrite the history of his father’s rule in the Philippines. The Marcos family amassed as much as $10 billion in ill-gotten wealth according to the World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Under the dictator, 70,000 “enemies of the state” were arrested, 34,000 were tortured, and more than 3,000 killed, according to Amnesty International. But through countless TikTok videos, and other social media posts, a false picture of stability and economic growth has been created that leaves many Filipino voters pining for the “better years” of the Marcos regime.
Marcos leads by an unprecedented margin over other presidential contenders in pre-election surveys: Pulse Asia poll conducted in April showed him with a 33-point lead over his closest opponent—opposition candidate Vice President Leni Robredo.
Investigative reports from Philippine media outlets Rappler and VERA Files have shown that Marcos benefits from coordinated disinformation campaigns on social media platforms, especially through videos. Alan German, a campaign strategist at Philippine PR firm Agents International, tells TIME that some political content creators are paid as much as $4,700 on a monthly retainer basis—a small fortune in a country with a $170 monthly minimum wage. Bongbong Marcos, in an April 26 interview with CNN Philippines, has denied paying trolls to boost his image.
While misinformation is common to social media everywhere, in the Philippines it is especially pernicious. Facebook can be used data-free on smartphones, but access to the wider internet, including TikTok, costs money. Together with the country’s poor digital infrastructure, expensive cellular data and subpar media literacy, Filipinos often have difficulty accessing verified sources of information.
While Facebook remains the dominant social media platform in the Philippines, TikTok has quickly become a widely used source for sharing political news and views in the Southeast Asian nation of 110 million. The Chinese-owned social media company is privately held, so its user data is hard to verify, but a report from DataReportal, an independent data aggregator on digital trends worldwide, found up to 36 million Filipinos use the app. (The same data aggregator reports Facebook has as many as 84 million users in the Philippines.)
Toledo says it’s fun to make and share pro-Marcos content on the app—not least because he enjoys getting a rise out of supporters of Marcos’ rivals. “Sometimes it’s just to vex the other party so that they’ll have some engagement. You know how Filipinos are: they love clashes.”
His feckless approach to TikTok may explain why it works so well for him. Jonathan Corpus Ong, a disinformation researcher at Harvard University, says that compared to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, TikTok’s algorithm can catapult a user to stardom with just one post in a couple of days. This encourages users like Toledo to create punchy content in bulk in the hopes of winning viral fame. “The potential of misinformative content to achieve a ‘viral sensation’ kind of dynamic is much higher in TikTok than in other platforms,” Ong says.
Kristoffer Rada, the public policy head of TikTok Philippines, says that once a video is flagged for disinformation, TikTok deprioritizes it.
Bongbong Marcos’ father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., was president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Many celebrate him for projects that survive to this day, including the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the country’s longest inter-island bridge. But his two-decade rule was also marred by massive human rights violations, corruption, and stealing from the national treasury. He was ousted in 1986 through a popular uprising, the People Power Revolution, and the Marcos family fled to Hawaii.
After returning from exile in 1991, the Marcos family began revising history in its favor, denying allegations of atrocities outright or remaining silent. Family members took up seats in the local government of their home province Ilocos Norte, successfully rehabilitating their image. (The dictator’s widow, Imelda, even ran for president in 1998 but eventually withdrew amid low public support.)
In recent years, the Marcos family has leveraged the power of social media to recraft the narrative even more. Political science professor Julio C. Teehankee at De La Salle University in Manila says that Bongbong and the rest of the Marcos family have adapted Marcos Sr.’s support networks and vast wealth to create a “well-oiled” and “well-financed” social media campaign.
Two other factors contribute to Bongbong Marcos’ popularity: Successive governments since the fall of the Marcos regime have failed to address basic social problems. More than one fifth of Filipinos live below the country’s poverty threshold, while the riches are concentrated among businessmen and political families. A 2018 report from a state-run think-tank estimated only around 1.4% of the population are high-income earners, estimated at $43,400 or more annually.
The other factor is the age of the electorate. Around 56% of the 65.7 million registered voters are under 40—meaning that they either weren’t born during the rule of Marcos Sr., or were too young to remember it. Teehankee says that social media, with its mandate to keep content short and succinct, flattens history—making it easier for myths and disinformation to take hold in the minds of young voters. “They do not have any experience or memory or knowledge about the Marcos regime,” he says, adding the Millennials and Gen Z appear to be driving much of the support for Bongbong Marcos on social media. Survey firm Pulse Asia also found that 72% of registered voters age 18-24 support Marcos.
Despite being a tumultuous era in Philippine history, Marcos’ dictatorship is barely discussed in schools or in textbooks. The result is that misinformation learned on social media tends to stick—even when supporters of Bongbong Marcos are confronted with fact-based rebuttals. “Let’s say [Ferdinand Marcos] really did steal money,” Toledo says. “There are a lot of projects built. Some of the money actually materialized.”
Toledo believes the fact of the Marcos dynasty’s ill-gotten wealth is a falsehood peddled by long-time political rivals the Aquino family. (After Marcos was ousted, Corazon, the wife of assassinated senator Benigno Aquino Jr., became president from 1986 to 1992 and their son, Benigno Aquino III, was president from 2010 until 2016.)
In truth, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled in July 2003 that the $658 million in deposits made by Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda into Swiss bank accounts and foundations was unlawfully acquired. In 2018, Imelda was also convicted of graft related to private foundations she created for hiding unexplained wealth.
Fighting disinformation on TikTok
Some users are crusading against disinformation by creating their own videos that seek to fact-check the historical white-wash. Mona Magno-Veluz, a 55-year-old genealogist and a self-identified history enthusiast, began posting about Philippine historical figures and events in July 2021 to alleviate boredom during COVID-19 lockdowns. On the anniversary of Marcos’ declaration of Philippine martial law on Sept. 21, she posted a video dispelling the notion that the economy boomed during the dictatorship. She cited her sources, and explained the data in an external Google Docs link in her TikTok’s page bio. That video has since had 1.6 million views and over 156,000 likes.
While much of the response to her video was positive, Marcos loyalists attacked her in the comments section of her post. Magno-Veluz says many of them “weren’t interested in understanding the economics. They were just there because they felt outrage that I hinted that the martial law era was not our golden years.”
Already a college student when Marcos was ousted, Magno-Veluz says she was surprised by how passionate Marcos supporters are in asserting that their version of history is more accurate. She says her critics—most of whom were too young to remember the Marcos regime—make her feel like “being gaslighted by somebody who wasn’t there.”
TikTok says it has partnered with the Philippine commission on elections and local broadcast network GMA News in a bid to combat disinformation on the platform. Leading newswire agency Agence France-Presse also partnered with TikTok to fact-check content shared by Philippine users. TikTok notifies those who post misinformation and takes their accounts down. A spokesperson for TikTok tells TIME that it does not share how many videos or posts have been taken down.
More than 70% of Toledo’s posts on his political TikTok account now have disclaimers, which lead to the app’s landing site for the May 9 polls. The site contains information about voting, but doesn’t attempt to fact-check false claims. Toledo says he hasn’t received any warning from TikTok for promoting disinformation and adds that he is “sure” his posts “aren’t fake.”
He also says that he isn’t worried about the shutdown of his account. “The information will always be there. My account may disappear, but the information won’t.” For Philippine voters, that is precisely the problem.
—With reporting by Ella Hermonio / Manila