Button-down polo, eyeglasses, and mandatory face mask? Check. Fully charged phone and a wired microphone? Check. These were all Eldrin Veloso needed for another day of his passion project: to engage voters in a political discussion in the busy streets of the Philippines’ capital region.
Veloso maintains a TikTok channel called @bakitbetmo — loosely translated as “Why are you betting on your candidate?” — where he would post videos of his interviews with consenting strangers.
“We’ve always been told, ‘Vote wisely!’ But I don’t think we are fully embracing that idea, so I started asking ‘Bakit Bet Mo?’” Veloso told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
His TikTok channel gives space to anyone willing to explain to him why they’re voting for their candidates. It usually turns into a conversation about the latest news and controversies their candidates are involved in.
“We are just talking. I’m not second-guessing their choices,” Veloso said.
He does not discriminate, he said. “Wala akong interview na hindi isinasama (I don’t screen interviews).”
His videos run for five minutes or less. As of this writing, the channel has gained over 40,000 followers and over half a million likes.
Veloso’s social media venture has brought him to the front lines of a raging disinformation war that has sharply divided the country. Many of his interviewees tell him how social media informs them about the candidates, and he sees how they’re making decisions based on “total misinformation” or incomplete facts.
He’s met voters who choose presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. because they are convinced, despite evidence to the contrary, that his father and namesake ushered in a “golden age” for the Philippines and the son would be able to do the same. The dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was a violent regime that imprisoned up to 70,000 people, tortured 34,000, and killed 3,240, according to human rights group Amnesty International.
He’s met voters who dismiss the plunder of the Marcoses despite a string of court decisions recognizing the family assets to be ill-gotten; and voters who exalt projects such as the Heart Center, Lung Center, and the Kidney Center but are oblivious to the massive debts that Marcos incurred. Filipino taxpayers are still paying these debts to this day.
These disinformation narratives pushed by supporters of Marcos have shaped the 2022 elections, according to Jonathan Ong, Harvard Kennedy School research fellow, who has published several studies on disinformation networks in the Philippines.
“For this election cycle, historical revisionism is the main misinformation narrative,” Ong told the PCIJ.
The narratives are pushed by social media “influencers” or popular accounts that push content to a high number of followers. But unlike the 2016 elections, when President Rodrigo Duterte benefited from the likes of Mocha Uson who have millions of followers online, Ong said the 2022 polls saw the rise of micro and nano-influencers. They have less followers but they operate en masse and are much more difficult to track.
Joel Ariate Jr. and Miguel Reyes, researchers at the Marcos Regime Research in the University of the Philippines’ Third World Studies Center (UP TWSC), said the production of online content to promote Marcos increased as early as over a year before May 2022. In their research, they refer to this content as “deliberate misinformation” because there’s “clear intent to propagate something false for the benefit of a particular candidate.”
The media and the academe have led the campaign against disinformation, deploying armies of fact-checkers, exposing networks of operators, and calling out social media platforms to take action. But it has been a difficult battle against pro-Marcos propagandists who have been at it for at least about a decade and appear to know better how to use the social media platforms to their advantage.
On Monday, May 9, 65.7 million registered Filipino voters are eligible to cast their votes and pick President Rodrigo Duterte’s successor.
All known surveys show Marcos is leading the race.
Joel Ariate Jr. and Miguel Reyes are researchers at the Marcos Regime Research in the University of the Philippines’ Third World Studies Center.
TOP PHOTO: Courtesy of the Facebook page of former Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Marcos denied employing troll farms to push his candidacy but studies show, including one by academe-led fact-checking group Tsek.ph, that he is the main beneficiary of false or misleading content on social media, while his closest rival, Vice President Maria Leonoro “Leni” Robredo had been the “biggest victim.”
The online disinformation campaign has been running for at least a decade. As early as 2012, then PCIJ multimedia director Ed Lingao reported on an online campaign to revise the history of the 1986 EDSA People Power, the bloodless revolution that ousted Marcos Sr. According to videos uploaded on YouTube, Marcos Sr. was the real hero of EDSA because he protected the people when he supposedly refused to fire upon the assembled crowds. Corazon Aquino put their lives on the line while she was tucked away in Cebu, the video claimed.
“There were many assertions that had no basis nor attribution. But it was so compelling to watch and it looked authoritative,” Lingao said.
“Ang daming responses pa noon na ‘Ay, salamat. Ngayon ko lang nakita ‘to. Ito pala yung totoo. Ito pala ang katotohanan. (It generated a lot of responses from people saying: Thanks to this. I only saw this now. So this is the truth. This is what actually happened).’”
Uploaded in 2011 by a pseudonymous user, the videos are still available on the video-sharing platform.The person behind the video has not been identified by his real name to this day.
“This is the precursor of micro-influencers,” said Lingao. “It was clear that the simplicity of the message was more important than the content. And it was also clear that the source of the messaging is not as important.”
The same narrative was peddled during the 2022 campaign on Tiktok, the newest social media platform to captivate online users. It shows a clip of Gen. Fabian Ver, a loyal military officer of Marcos Sr., saying there were two fighter jets ready to attack the EDSA forces and Marcos Sr. saying, “My order is not to attack.”
Records attest that violence on EDSA was averted only because soldiers defied orders to attack and withdrew support from Marcos. Ariate said recorded conversation between Ver and Marcos Sr. is just one of those “historical curiosities” that were “refunctioned for electoral purposes.”
Myth of Marcos wealth
The research of Ariate and Reyes show how the Marcoses’ campaign for historical revisionism is not limited to the election season. It has been continuous and dates back even before EDSA or the age of social media.
“They didn’t really stop,” Reyes said.
This was echoed by PCIJ founding executive director Sheila Coronel, a journalist during Marcos Sr’s years, in a lecture she gave about martial law in February 2022.
“Today we blame social media disinformation and the textbooks that glorify or normalize Marcos and martial law. But the lies, evasions, elisions, exaggerations were sowed almost a hundred years ago. If they are difficult to weed out now, it is because they are so deeply rooted,” Coronel said.
Ariate said one “key point” in the Marcoses’ disinformation campaign before and after EDSA was to “deny that they have looted the country.” It is cleverly done through the circulation of myths about the wealth of the Marcoses, attributed to either the Tallano or Yamashita gold.
One of Veloso’s interviewees, for example, attributed the Marcoses’ massive wealth to the patriarch’s service in government. “Hindi mo alam kung siya ‘yung pinaka-Diyos-Diyos ng tao sa Pilipinas kung pera ang pag-uusapan (We don’t know if he might be the supreme being in the Philippines when money is concerned),” he said. Asked where he thinks the money came from, the interviewee replied, “Maaaring may magic din (There might be magic involved).”
The narrative also continues to tell the story of the Marcos family’s supposed plan to distribute their wealth to Filipinos. A diary that Marcos Sr. wrote, where he said he would “give away” his possessions through the Marcos Foundation he established, has created an illusion of the family supposedly renouncing their riches.
Filipinos believe this online, and it “almost excuses the plunder,” Ariate said. “Sa mga naniniwala, ito ay isang pambihirang pagkakataon para maiangat ang kanilang buhay (For the people who believe it, it is an extraordinary chance for them to uplift their lives),” he said.
These disinformation narratives that have circulated for decades have been given a “veneer of history and of received knowledge… to the point na hindi na ma-trace kung saan nila unang narinig (they can’t trace anymore where they heard it first),” Reyes said.
The rise of social media
Disinformation in elections did not happen as a consequence of social media, said Gerardo Eusebio, political science lecturer at the De La Salle University Manila, a campaign strategist for Marcos Jr. during the 2010 elections, when he won a seat in the Senate.
Disinformation was called black propaganda before the age of social media. Eusebio cited examples such as the perception of brain damage, or “Brenda,” that he believed cost Miriam Defensor-Santiago the presidency in the 1992 polls.
It echoes the “Leni lutang” campaign against Robredo, where false quotes and manipulated videos are circulated online to present her as incompetent.
Eusebio also cited the rumor that former president Elpidio Quirino had a golden orinola (chamber pot), which he said ruined Quirno’s reputation and cost him the elections.
“The instinct of human beings is to destroy the enemy, come hell or high water,” he said. He likened his job of a campaign strategist to that of lawyers. “My work is to win… Hindi naman (not necessarily) ‘no matter what’ but to win as squarely and fairly,” he said.
What social media did was allow black propaganda to spread faster and become more targeted, he said. “Even without social media, there was already an element of special operations, deceptive actions, but without the speed and accuracy of how you train these arrows of hate now,” he said.
Present-day disinformation had been “more vicious and more toxic,” he said.
The growing reliance of voters on social media also allowed propagandists to bypass the mainstream media, which had traditionally played the role of fact-checkers.
While mainstream media, TV in particular, remains the main source of news about politics, one in two or 48% of Filipino adults get their political news from the internet, according to a survey of Pulse Asia in September 2021. The same survey found that Facebook and YouTube were the most popular social media platforms among internet users.
This explains why journalists were “sidelined” in these elections, said Jonathan de Santos, chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
The 2022 elections saw unprecedented attacks on journalists by the camps of the candidates themselves. Some candidates preferred to attend campaign activities over press debates and forums. Marcos Jr. himself had been very selective in his media interviews in what some analysts described as an attempt to “control the narrative.”
De Santos said the “atmosphere of illiberality, of distrust in democracy” also exacerbated the problem. “’Yung idea na pino-promote ng (The idea promoted by) disinformation that there’s conspiracy or some secret information na hindi natin inilalabas (that we don’t publish)… it weakens our institutions.”
Evading fact-checks through de- and re-contextualizing
As disinformation networks grow in influence, their tactics are only getting better. The content has evolved to evade fact-checkers.
In the social media platform TikTok, pro-Marcos videos often showed archival footage and photos of the then-first family’s activities, isolating them from the context of the times.
These included their meetings with state leaders to show the Marcos children as stately or the Marcos siblings’ choice of fashionable clothes to portray them as patrons of the arts.
Other videos showed Marcos Jr. assisting his mother Imelda during public events.
The “decontextualization” in these posts evades fact-checking, said cultural writer and commentator Katrina Stuart Santiago. Santiago founded People For Accountable Governance and Sustainable Action (Pagasa PH), a group that utilizes social media to bring awareness to current issues.
“Wala kang ipa-fact-check doon kasi nagandahan lang naman sila sa mga anak (There’s nothing to fact-check because viewers only found the children attractive). And so much of the content is like that. ‘Grabe, ang ganda talaga maglakad ni Bongbong (Wow. Bongbong walks so beautifully).’ Ano’ng gagawin mo dun (What can you do with that)? It’s just an image of him walking,” she said.
These posts endorse neither the candidacy nor platforms of Marcos Jr. They are hand-picked moments uploaded online — similar to “fan content."
These posts included idealizing the marriage of former president Ferdinand and former first lady Imelda like a showbiz love team (without mentioning the former’s illicit affairs) or getting inspired by the latter’s extravagant shoe collection.
“Sa atin, offensive ‘yung maraming sapatos at marangyang damit ni Imelda, pero sa fans, bahagi ‘yun ng pagiging artista (For us, having too many shoes and extravagant clothes is offensive, but to the fans, it is part of being a celebrity) ,” Santiago said. “Hindi nakaka-offend kundi katanggap-tanggap siya (It is not offensive but is in fact acceptable) given the relationship of the fan to the idol.”
Santiago, who studied pop culture in graduate school, said the showbiz hook was also very effective because Filipino fans were “aspirational.”
“Whether or not you’re talking about someone who (may be) president or someone who just won a Best Actress award after struggling through a difficult career, halos pantay lang ‘yun (it’s almost the same),” she said. “This (Marcos Jr.) is a man that deserves to be president because he has gone through so much suffering.”
Ariate said the supporters of the Marcoses also believe that EDSA stole the presidency from Marcos Sr.
“Kung na-deny sa kanila ‘yung kanilang rightful na place, ‘yung supposed another term ni Marcos, justified na maibalik sila sa pwesto, kasi ninakaw sa kanila ‘yung pagkakataon na ‘yun e. That’s why kahit pagkatalo ni Bongbong sa vice presidency, nakakabit na doon sa logic na ‘yun na hindi lang once but twice na na-deny sa kanila ang kanilang right to a political position (If they were denied their rightful place, the supposed next term for Marcos, then their return to power is justified. Because that opportunity was stolen from them. That’s why even Bongbong’s defeat in the vice presidential elections is now attached to the logic that their right to a political position was denied to them not once but twice),” Ariate said.
He said the family’s political revival was no longer just “naked ambition but rectification.”
For his part, Ong said not only were pro-Marcos posts decontextualized but they were also “recontextualized or “reframed under a different story to advance one person’s agenda.”
“It can be historical photographs and it’s about the campaign of today. To me, this is really a gray area. Di siya (They are not) obviously true or false. But you are using and building up evidence through the power of images, and images have a way of being so evocative and so powerful. How can you refute what you are seeing?” Ong told PCIJ.
This presents a new challenge in combating disinformation, he said. “Investigations of disinformation need to be less literal of whether it’s true or false. One needs to deconstruct and analyze the tactics behind the narratives. One needs to report on this as a whole pattern… a whole narrative with different ways in which media from different times are being used.”
Ong also warned against amateur-looking videos posted by influencers who could possibly be tapped to peddle disinformation. “Sometimes the amateur-ness of the video is the whole point of it because it actually feels more organic… ‘Yung pagka-amateur noong production (The amateurishness of the production) is engineered from the get-go.”
This was a 180-degree turn from false narrative videos in the early 2010s.
TikTok is aware of the problem. Philippine Public Policy head Kristoff Rada told the PCIJ the short-video platform was primarily designed as an "entertainment app" but they've taken efforts to address the spread of disinformation content on their platform.
Rada said misinformative content on TikTok is filtered through a machine-learning system. For complex forms of misinformation, there's a dedicated team that deliberates whether or not to keep them on the app.
He also cited TikTok's partnerships with the Commission on Elections and news groups Agence France-Presse, Internews, and GMA News for the 2022 polls.
But while TikTok has guidelines against harmful content, “we also want to make sure that we protect the authentic expression of our users, whether (it involves) elections and political beliefs,” he said.
“The best way to fight misinformation… is not necessarily to take them down but through positive speech. That is why, as a platform, we have taken a position to not just take down these pieces of misinformation but also provide credible sources of information,” he said.
These efforts have not been enough, however.
After May 9 elections
Ariate warned that another Marcos in Malacañang would lead to the institutionalization of false historical narratives, a repeat of what has already been done in the past.
“Sa harap ng panibagong kapangyarihan, kadalasan ay nagiging masunurin din ang mga nagre-regulate ng ganitong bagay. So hindi natin inaasahang mawawala kundi mas magiging pormal pa ‘yung pagtuturo o pagkukumbinsi sa mga tao na ito ang dapat n’yong paniwalaan,” (With new power in place, regulators of these things often become submissive. So we cannot expect this to disappear but instead, instructions that this is what people should believe in will become even more formal),” he said.
A few months after the elections, on September 21, the Philippines will mark the 50th year of the declaration of Martial Law. Ariate is also afraid of the possible pandering of government officials.
Ong said a Marcos victory would bring an “existential crisis” in many institutions such as the press and the academe.
“What does it say about the work that we do? The fact that we stand for truth? The fact that we stand for democracy? The fact that we have over 50% of Filipinos voting for someone who has blatantly lied and also who doesn’t show up in debates and engage in healthy, critical discourse and dialogue?” he asked. “What I’ve been doing has amounted to nothing. Right?”
NUJP’s De Santos said this should also trigger a “recalibration” in the journalism practice. But ultimately, he said it’s a “question that we as Filipinos have to think about.”
“Gusto ba natin ‘yung gobyerno na ang point of view at ang debate ay bangayan lang, o ang kritisismo ay negative campaigning lang o away lang (Do we want a government where the point of view or debate is mere fighting, or criticism is just negative campaigning or fighting)?” he said.
Ong said a better understanding of how and why disinformation works is needed. The victims cannot be branded simply as “brainwashed” by what they see on social media. They also do not deserve to be called derogatory names, he said.
“They vote on issues that are very relevant to them and they vote for people who reflect their own values." Others also vote “out of anger, resentment, and how they’ve been done dirty for so many years,” he said.
Veloso of @bakitbetmo shared a similar sentiment. He said his interviews made him realize how “disenfranchised” most voters felt.
“You would hear that a lot: ‘isang boto lang naman ako (I am only one vote),’ ‘wala namang mangyayari sa boto ko (nothing will come out of my vote anyway).’ But when you try to explain to them that ‘yung boto mo ba, naniniwala ka na makakaapekto sa buhay ko, makakaapekto sa buhay ng mga anak mo, naniniwala sila doon (will your vote affect my life, the lives of your children, they will believe that).”
This only strengthened Veloso's resolve to keep initiating in-person dialogues. And by uploading his videos on social media, particularly TikTok, he said he wanted to show internet users that social media is only a “smokescreen of what the real world looks like.”
To battle disinformation, Ong said the “imperative and objective of listening” has to be made on the ground and not just on social media.
He said the house-to-house campaigning of Robredo’s supporters “beautifully did this for this election cycle,” but he said it should have been done much earlier.
“To open a conversation and therefore create stories, narratives that will appeal to them is something that the Robredo campaign has started. I only hope they started six years sooner,” he said.
Photo from the Twitter account of Jillian Robredo
Regardless of the election results, the disinformation war is expected to continue. Ong said accusations of electoral fraud or foreign interference were to be expected because they had already been at play for the past few months.
“Whichever side, they are going to believe different kinds of numbers. So, this is really the function of six years of disinformation,” he said.
But what’s important is for the public to do their part in the “disinformation war,” he said. He encouraged the continuation of conversations offline.
“We need to participate in the disinformation war. Not by talking down on the masa, not by shaming the troll but by listening to them. We can create better stories to respond to them in a way that will affirm our shared futures. That’s how I will be working for the next years,” Ong said.
This is the challenge for everyone after May 9. END