The 2022 Philippine presidential race will be crowded. Of the dozen of candidates who have submitted their papers, there are five top runners: Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domgaoso, Christopher “Bong” Go, and Maria Leonor “Leni.” “Robredo. Meanwhile, the Philippines are struggling to overcome the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With only about a third of the population fully vaccinated, a presidential campaign’s ability to use social media effectively and dominate digital spaces will be critical to national opinion-forming. The government lockdown also makes it difficult to hold traditional, face-to-face campaign events. Candidates will therefore rely even more on social media to reach voters than they did in previous elections.
Social media is a fundamental force in Filipino society. It’s a convenient and accessible means of consuming content, especially since the internet connection is often slow and unreliable. The accessibility of social media makes it a prime platform for influencing public opinion. As a result, political actors are ready to do whatever it takes to attract the public’s attention.
Over 90 percent of Filipinos with internet access use social media. Facebook and YouTube dominate the country. As of 2021, around 81 percent of the Filipino population will be on Facebook. Today, 85 percent of Filipinos with internet access watch YouTube. The average Filipino internet user spent nearly four hours every day on social media.
Facebook is deeply anchored in Filipino society, largely thanks to its initiatives to expand into developing countries. Launched in 2013, Facebook Basics has partnered with local wireless carriers to offer Facebook with no data fees. As a result, Facebook became the de facto internet for many Filipinos.
A 2017 survey found that Filipinos with internet access trust social media more than mainstream media: 87 percent of these respondents said they trust information on social media. But with unreliable internet coverage and the rest of the internet with effective paywall, it is very difficult for Filipinos to check what they see on their Facebook feed or on Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber chats, even if they want to.
Facebook is increasingly perceived as a threat to democracy. Due to the Philippines’ strong connection to Facebook, the social media company opened an office in Manila in 2016. Across the Internet, and particularly in the Philippines, “trolls” posting inflammatory content online to get attention are ubiquitous. They gather on online spaces like Facebook to spread misinformation and occasionally work together as a “misinformation army” or “troll army”. Often times, these trolls aren’t even real people.
Initially, Facebook didn’t do anything about it. In response to criticism of its laissez-faire approach to misinformation, the company has since removed hundreds of offensive pages. However, it is unclear whether these actions will hinder the trolls and their misinformation armies. The disinformation spread by trolls is not limited to newsfeeds. Instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook Messenger are prime platforms for fake messages and misinformation. Since these are private interactions, they are even more difficult to regulate than Facebook’s main platform.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign was the first to unlock the virality of social media in the Philippines. Under the direction of his social media manager Nic Gabunada, Duterte’s campaign deployed an army of internet trolls to “amplify” his message across Filipino cyberspace. These trolls are spreading propaganda for Duterte and continuing to spread messages in support of his policies.
With 2016 being the first “social media election in the Philippines”, the hotly contested 2022 elections could prove to be a more dramatic second act. After the shocking success of Duterte’s social media campaign, misinformation is even deeper anchored in Filipino society. This was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, where misinformation posed a threat to government public health initiatives. Trolls are endemic to Filipino cyberspace today: companies, celebrities and politicians use trolls to slander opponents or to create the appearance of an ardent fan base. They are often hired by politicians to fight for them. Often times, they create a semblance of support through seemingly organic tweets from “real” people. Teams of hired trolls pretend to be real people via multiple SIM cards and social media accounts to amplify and spread misinformation while drowning out the opposition.
The candidates in next year’s election inherit the aftermath of Duterte’s chaotic social media campaigns. Candidates and their supporters have either followed these tactics or rejected them. Manila Mayor Isko Moreno has put his own Duterte-style demagoguery in a nutshell, vilifying the Liberal Party’s “decent” and “moral” politicians. He reacted aggressively to the hashtag #WithdrawIsko spread by supporters of Leni Robredo and used a press conference to slander the Vice-President and her supporters. Of course, Robredo followers returned fire on Twitter, continuing the cycle of social media toxicity.
Meanwhile, Bongbong Marcos and his family continue to work behind the scenes to modernize decades of misinformation campaigns. Facebook pages, YouTube channels and influencers reinforce claims that change the public perception of the Marcos family and that often downplay or deny the kleptocracy and human rights abuses of the martial law era. Marcos’ campaign has come under fire to “wash white” his father’s brutal regime as the “golden age” for the Philippines, while perpetuating myths and exaggerations about the Marcos family dating back to the 1960s when the elder Marcos Was president.
Misinformation through social media threatens to sow further divisions in Filipino society and politics. Therefore, the 2022 elections will be an uphill battle for any candidate. The right balance of outrage, virality, misinformation, and trolling could be enough to make the difference for any candidate, as it only takes a mere majority to win the presidency. Much is at stake in this election: Filipino voters will decide whether the country weakens or strengthens its democratic institutions.
This article was originally published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on New Perspectives on Asia and is reprinted with permission.