In the Philippines, a thriving ecosystem for political lies

CAVITE, Philippines — Arnel Agravante, a YouTuber in the Philippines, told his followers last October that he knows how Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the presidential frontrunner and his go-to candidate, got rich.

The story, he said, was simple: Mr. Marcos’ dictator father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., did not steal government money, as has been widely reported. Instead, he received tons of gold from a secret Philippine royal family. “It’s what they call ‘ill-gotten wealth,'” Mr Agravante said, ridiculing critics of Mr Marcos.

The golden story has been debunked by several fact-checkers as well as Mr. Marcos himself, but that hasn’t stopped Mr. Agravante from repeating it. According to him, he is part of the “alternative media” which opposes a mainstream press “spreading stupid and misleading information about our history” ahead of next week’s election.

“The Philippines is paying the price for not having regulatory oversight and for not ensuring that the general population has the necessary cognitive resilience against these kinds of outright and blatant lies,” said Richard Heydarian, a political analyst at the University. Polytechnic of the Philippines.

Much misinformation is peddled on Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. The violent era of Marcos is redefined as a period of strong economic growth and infrastructure projects. Leni Robredo, the country’s vice president and Mr. Marcos’ main rival, is portrayed as a communist who has achieved nothing in power.

In a video, Jovalyn Alcantara, known to her 24,000 TikTok followers as Mami Peng, falsely claims that the Philippines’ debt doubled to $50 billion under Corazon Aquino, who became president after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.

“And if it is false? she said when a New York Times reporter pointed out that she was wrong. His video has been viewed over 27,000 times.

President Rodrigo Duterte won the 2016 election in part because his allies flooded Facebook with fake news about his opponents. But Mr. Marcos’ supporters have taken a different approach to social media: live video.

YouTubers livestream Mr. Marcos’ rallies while echoing the candidate’s election narrative. They spread false information about his wealth and repeated allegations that Ms Robredo cheated to defeat him in the 2016 vice-presidential race.

Analysts predict that this army of streamers is so large and dedicated that Mr. Marcos would most likely turn to them — rather than traditional news outlets — to spread his message as president.

“All candidates, all political parties engage in misinformation,” Benjamin Abalos Jr., Mr. Marcos’ campaign manager, told The Times.

Streamers say they are not paid by Marcos’ camp, although they are officially accredited as “vloggers” and roam freely at his rallies. A dozen of their channels have a total of 1.6 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 500,000 subscribers on Facebook, according to a Times study.

A YouTube spokesperson said the company removed more than 400,000 videos between February 2021 and January for violating hate speech, harassment and election misinformation policies. A spokeswoman for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said an account reported by The Times had repeatedly shared false content and had been banned from monetizing those posts.

But false claims cannot be easily verified or removed during a livestream, and the growing prevalence of apps such as TikTok has made it harder to weed out bad actors.

“If this election is won using disinformation, it will become a tried and tested formula that will be used in every election,” Ms. Robredo warned in an address to the Catholic Church, urging the Philippines not to believe the lies on the internet. .

Yvonne Chua, who runs Tsek.ph, an independent fact-checking project in the Philippines, said in an email that her partners’ fact-checks mostly point to supporters of Mr. Marcos, who “engage in a lot of the fire”.

“You also see incorrect information from some applicants, but that’s rare,” said Professor Chua, associate professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines.

Mr Agravante, who promoted Mr Marcos’ debunked wealth theory, was a call center agent before deciding to become a full-time YouTuber last year, producing amateur videos for his 109,000 subscribers. A longtime supporter of Mr. Marcos, he knows that the candidate has refuted the claim about gold. Yet Mr. Agravante is shameless.

“Why should I change my mind just because he denied it?” he said.

The power of amateur videos like those produced by Mr Agravante is that they “appear authentic or organic”, said Harvard disinformation researcher Jonathan Corpus Ong. “They sound like the language of the street or the everyday person, compared to the commercials and professionally produced music videos of the Robredo campaign.”

Pro-Marcos videos often use bold letters and colorful graphics and photographs of Mr. Marcos and Sara Duterte, Mr. Duterte’s daughter, who is running for vice president. One of these videos contained an interview with a Marcos acolyte who claimed that the 1986 People Power Revolution, which toppled the Marcos regime, was the product of “brainwashing” by the Aquino family.

Vincent Tabigue, who made the video, disputed the various lawsuits against the Marcoses, pointing out that no family member had been jailed for stealing money from the government. “It’s just a political attack,” he told The Times.

Mr Tabigue, 27, said he quit his job as a salesman to become a full-time YouTuber in 2019 and was earning nearly $10,000 a month.

While no one in the Marcos family was imprisoned, Mr. Marcos’ mother, Imelda, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for setting up private foundations to hide his unexplained wealth. She posted bail in 2018; his appeal is pending.

The Senate acknowledged the problem of disinformation in the Philippines in 2018 when it held a series of hearings on the crisis. But no concrete action has been agreed, leaving individual lawmakers to struggle to get the matter under control.

In February, Senator Francis Pangilinan, the vice-presidential candidate in support of Ms Robredo, called on the Senate to review criminal laws to combat disinformation and proposed a bill to address the problem. His efforts came to nothing.

During a recent motorcade with Mr. Marcos’ presidential campaign, Ms. Alcantara, the TikTok influencer, held a phone in her left hand as she helped another supporter set up his livestream. With her other hand, she flashed the peace sign, the trademark symbol of Mr. Marcos’ father.

“Mark always!” she screamed.

Ms Alcantara, 44, said her TikTok account had been temporarily banned several times after it was flagged by Ms Robredo’s supporters. “Why is the problem only with us, the Marcos supporters? ” she asked. “It’s the same with what supporters of other candidates are doing. They also publish misleading claims, don’t they? »

She cried as she remembered “all the good things” the Marcos had done for her community. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for,” she said.

Sui Lee Wee and Jason Gutierrez contributed report.

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