The 2022 Philippine presidential race is packed. Among the dozens of candidates who submitted their papers, there are five favorites: Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domgaoso, Christopher “Bong” Go and Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo . Meanwhile, the Philippines is struggling to come out of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With only about a third of the population fully immunized, the ability of a presidential campaign to effectively use social media and dominate digital spaces will be critical in shaping national opinion. Government lockdowns also make it difficult to hold traditional campaign events in person. Candidates, therefore, will rely even more on social media to reach voters than in previous elections.
Social media is a fundamental force in Filipino society. It’s a convenient and accessible way to consume content, especially since internet connectivity is often slow and unreliable. The accessibility of social media makes it a platform of choice for influencing public opinion. Therefore, political actors are ready to do anything to capture the attention of the public.
Over 90% of Filipinos with Internet access are on social media. Facebook and YouTube dominate the country. In 2021, around 81% of the Filipino population was on Facebook. Meanwhile, 85% of Filipinos with Internet access watch YouTube. The average Filipino internet user spends almost four hours a day on social media.
Facebook is deeply rooted in Filipino society in large part thanks to its expansion initiatives in developing countries. Facebook Basics, introduced in 2013, has partnered with local operators to offer Facebook at no data charge. As a result, Facebook has become the de facto Internet for many Filipinos.
A 2017 survey found that Filipinos with internet access trusted social media more than mainstream media: 87% of those respondents said they trusted information found on social media. But with unreliable internet coverage and the rest of the web actually paying off, it’s very difficult for Filipinos to check what they see on their Facebook feed or in Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber chats, even if they want to.
Facebook is increasingly under surveillance as it is seen as a threat to democracy. Due to the Philippines’ strong connection to Facebook, the social media company opened an office in Manila in 2016. On the Internet and especially in the Philippines, the “trolls” who post inflammatory content online to gain attention are ubiquitous. They congregate in online spaces like Facebook to spread disinformation, sometimes working together as “disinformation army” or “troll army”. Often times, these trolls aren’t even real people.
Initially, Facebook didn’t do anything about them. In response to criticism of its laissez-faire approach to disinformation, the company has since removed hundreds of offending pages. However, it is not clear if these actions will do anything to hamper the trolls and their armies of disinformation. The disinformation spread by trolls is not limited to news feeds. Instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook Messenger are prime platforms for fake news and disinformation. When it comes to private interactions, they are even more difficult to regulate than the main Facebook platform.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign was the first to harness the virality of social media in the Philippines. Under instructions from his social media manager, Nic Gabunada, Duterte’s campaign employed an army of internet trolls tasked with “amplifying” his message in Filipino cyberspace. These trolls are propaganda for Duterte and continue to disseminate messages supporting his policies.
With 2016 being the Philippines’ first “social media election”, the hotly contested 2022 elections could prove to be a more dramatic second act. After the shocking success of Duterte’s social media campaign, disinformation is ingrained even deeper into Filipino society. This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, during which disinformation posed a threat to government public health initiatives. Trolls are now rampant in Filipino cyberspace: corporations, celebrities, and politicians employ trolls to smear opponents or create the appearance of a staunch fan base. They are frequently hired by politicians to fight on their behalf. Often times, they create a supportive polish through seemingly organic tweets by “real” people. Teams of hired trolls pose as real people across multiple SIM cards and social media accounts to amplify and spread misinformation while stifling opposition.
Candidates for next year’s election are inheriting the legacy of Duterte’s chaotic social media campaigns. Candidates and their supporters have either considered these tactics or have repudiated them. Manila Mayor Isko Moreno put his own spin on Duterte-style demagoguery, denouncing the “decent” and “moralistic” politicians of the Liberal Party. He reacted aggressively to the #WithdrawIsko hashtag circulated by Leni Robredo supporters, using a press conference to smear the vice president and her supporters. Understandably, Robredo’s supporters fired back on Twitter, perpetuating the cycle of social media toxicity.
Meanwhile, Bongbong Marcos and his family continue to work behind the scenes to modernize the disinformation campaigns they have been running for decades. Facebook pages, YouTube channels and influencers are amplifying claims that change public perception of the Marcos family, often downplaying or denying kleptocracy and martial law-era human rights abuses. Marcos’ campaign has been criticized for “whitewashing” his father’s brutal regime as a “golden age” for the Philippines, while perpetuating myths and exaggerations about the Marcos family that date back to the 1960s, when the elder Marcos was president.
Disinformation conveyed through social media threatens to sow further divisions in Philippine society and politics. As such, the 2022 elections will be a difficult fight for each candidate. The right balance between outrage, virality, disinformation and trolling could be enough to tip the scales in favor of any candidate, as only a simple plurality is required to win the presidency. The stakes in this election are high: Filipino voters will decide whether the country weakens or strengthens its democratic institutions.
This article originally appeared on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission.