An estimated 31 million Filipinos voted for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., catapulting him to power as the Philippines’ first majority president after 1987. He won over Filipinos from all socioeconomic backgrounds and all walks of life. age. Many international observers wonder how Filipinos elected a Marcos to the country’s highest office after driving the family out of the country just 36 years ago. On their decades-long road to Malacañang, the Marcos have worked tirelessly to rehabilitate their image. More recently, social media has emerged as a critical platform to foster nostalgia for the martial law era, glorify the Marcos family, and whitewash the history of the Marcos regime.
Social media misinformation in the Philippines overwhelmingly favors the Marcos family. Some of the more sinister aspects of the old Marcos regime, such as the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement) under martial law, are now harmless TikTok viral background music clips. The Philippines’ TikTokers played “Bagong Lipunan,” a martial law-era march, to their older parents to gauge their reactions. Some of them happily waved and walked to the beat of the music. Meanwhile, thousands of people sang a new pop-rock version of the song at Bongbong campaign rallies.
Beneath the cheerful air lies a grim truth – beneath the “new society” advocated in the song, the Marcos administration has severely restricted freedom of speech, the press and assembly. The administration has claimed more than 100,000 victims – killed, tortured, imprisoned or disappeared. From 1965 to 1986, the Marcos stole between $5 billion and $10 billion from the country, setting back the development of the Philippines by decades.
Given new life on TikTok, “Bagong Lipunan” embodies nostalgia for a Filipino golden age of order, obedience and discipline, supposedly last known during the heyday of the Marcos. Who needs history books and facts when you can experience the magic of a nostalgia never before experienced? Many young Filipinos say they don’t believe their history books, which either gloss over the era of martial law or present incorrect information. Social media, often wrongly, has filled the void. Why memorize bullet points about every Philippine president when you can enjoy clips from the past on TikTok? This nostalgia is a key part of the Marcos family’s extensive social media disinformation campaign.
Through viral “Bagong Lipunan” videos, montages of Imelda Marcos’ extravaganza set to Korean pop music, Sandro Marcos heartthrob shoots, and seemingly heartwarming videos from the Marcos family’s past and present, TikTok and other platforms have greatly shaped the dialogue and momentum behind Bongbong’s Tandem UniTeam. Social media has proven to be one of many kingmakers in the May 2022 elections in the Philippines, but misinformation is most effective when its victims are receptive to it. Misinformation on social media is just one part of a deeper problem in Filipino society that dates back centuries. The power of dynasties, shackled bureaucracy, corruption and a deep sense of societal fatigue have paved the way for social media to wreak havoc.
The eviction of the Marcos family in 1986 was not entirely due to human rights violations under martial law, but to the deteriorating financial situation in the Philippines. Although many supported the EDSA People Power Revolution of 1986 to oust the Marcos and restore Philippine democracy, others saw it as a way to improve their quality of life. The post-revolution Fifth Republic of the Philippines is often criticized for not providing enough to improve the quality of life for the average Filipino. Under President Cory Aquino, Marcos’ cronies gave way to the Terran elite illustrated class, the same influential economic and political elites that had ruled the Philippines since the days of Spanish colonization. Although the Marcos are gone, the dynasties, inequalities and corruption have remained.
The reforms of the Fifth Republic could not adequately strengthen education, improve bureaucracy, and create the change that everyday Filipinos needed to live a better life. His shortcomings set the stage for the Marcos’ comeback. With an anemic education system, many Filipinos lack a sense of the brutality of martial law. Corruptible bureaucracy and a political system based on clientelism do not encourage being matuwid, or virtuous: political volte-face is endemic, parties quickly dissolve or change character, unwelcome candidates flourish, and privileged members of society continue to operate above the law. Infrastructure remains fragile and economic booms do not always benefit the working class. This contributes to a sense of weariness and longing for a better life among the population, leaving the door open to candidates who promise the most radical change and the greatest improvement in their quality of life.
Bongbong Marcos joins many former Philippine presidents who took advantage of this desire. Former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada has made a name for himself in the movie industry and portrayed himself as a man of the people. His nickname, “Erap”, is apt crop, which roughly translates to “buddy” or “buddy”, backwards. Two years after being elected, he was impeached and imprisoned for bribery and bribery. He was replaced by his vice-president, Gloria Arroyo. Once described as an excellent “wrecker” of good character, she became the second Philippine ex-president to stand trial for corruption, alleged bribery and alleged electoral fraud. His successor as president, Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III, dramatically improved government transparency, continued financial reform, and introduced sweeping poverty reduction measures; however, the improvements generated under his administration were not seen by the working class as adequate. Over time, the liberal policies of Noynoy and his mother Cory became associated with an out-of-touch elitism. Liberal Party supporters and politicians have been contemptuously dubbed the dilawans (the yellow ones), after the party color.
Bored with dysfunctional politicians and corrupt bureaucrats, Filipinos grew tired of corrupt officials, slow progress and broken promises. Liberal Party politicians who succeeded the Aquinos, such as Mar Roxas and Leni Robredo, became dilawans and pinklawans (pink + Dilawan), anathema to Filipinos who believed that the Aquinos’ promises of sweeping change and reform were ineffective and elitist. Many longed for a time when life was better, when “mai disiplina pa ang taong bayan(the people still had discipline). This discontent led to the rise of Rodrigo Duterte, who promised to end corruption and bring discipline and order to the country at all costs – as evidenced by the 8,000 to 30,000 deaths in his bloody war on drugs.
This is where the Marcos family’s disinformation campaign came into play. Highly aware of the people’s desire for a better life, stability and order, the Marcos worked to reflect the glamour, stability, continuity and progress. The strongman image of incumbent President Duterte has brought back into vogue the ruthless “disiplina” of law and order, reminiscent of the days of the elder Marcos administration. This call for discipline at all costs attracted Filipinos from all socio-economic backgrounds who were frustrated with government corruption and dysfunction. The decades of rehabilitation of the Marcos’ image, combined with the popularity and legacy of the Dutertes’ no-frills and illiberal “discipline” exhibited by new Vice President Sara Duterte, have created an unstoppable force. Social media was only one piece of the puzzle.
This article originally appeared on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reproduced with permission.