Ecosystem thriving with political lies in the Philippines

CAVITE, Philippines — Filipino YouTuber Arnel Agravante told his followers in October that he learned how Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the presidential candidate and his chosen candidate, got rich.

He said the story was simple. Marcos’ dictatorial father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., did not, as is widely known, steal money from the government. Rather, he received a huge amount of gold from the secret royal family of the Philippines. “That’s what they call ‘illegal wealth’,” said Mr. Agravante said with a laugh at Marcos’ critics.

The gold story was uncovered by several fact-checkers and Marcos himself, but that didn’t stop Mr. Agravante from repeating it. He sees him as a member of the “alternative media,” fighting the mainstream media “spreading stupid and misinformation about our history” ahead of next week’s general election.

Richard Heydarian, a political analyst at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, said: “The Philippines is paying a price for not overseeing regulatory oversight and not making the general public cognitively resilient to these kinds of blatant and outright lies. .

Most of the disinformation is being sold on Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. The violent Marcos era is being recast as an era of strong economic growth and infrastructure projects. The country’s vice president and Marcos’ biggest rival, Lenny Robredo, is portrayed as a communist who has failed to achieve anything in power.

In one video, Jovalyn Alcantara, known as Mami Peng to 24,000 TikTok followers, falsely claimed $50 billion in debt, doubling the Philippines’ debt under Corazon Aquino, who became president after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.

“Then what if it’s wrong?” She said when a New York Times reporter pointed out she was wrong. Her videos have been viewed over 27,000 times.

President Rodrigo Duterte won the 2016 presidential election because his allies spread false news about his opponents on Facebook. However, supporters of Marcos have opted for a different approach to social media: live stream video.

YouTube users live Marcos’ rally as they retell the candidate’s election story. They spread misinformation about his fortune and reiterate the allegation that Robredo tricked him into winning the 2016 vice president election.

Analysts predict that this streamer army is so large and dedicated that Marcos will most likely rely on them rather than traditional news media to spread his message as president.

“Every candidate, every political party is involved in disinformation,” Benjamin Abalos Jr., Marcos’ campaign manager, told The Times.

The streamers say he’s officially certified as a “blogger” and that he doesn’t get paid by Marcos’ camp to roam freely at his rallies. According to a review by The Times, 12 of their channels have a total of 1.6 million subscribers on YouTube and over 500,000 followers on Facebook.

A YouTube spokesperson said the company removed more than 400,000 videos between February and January 2021 that violated its hate speech, harassment and misleading election information policy. A spokesperson for Facebook’s parent company Meta said accounts reported by The Times had repeatedly shared false content and were banned from monetizing such posts.

However, false claims cannot be easily verified or eliminated during live streaming, and the growing prevalence of apps like TikTok makes it more difficult to get rid of malicious users.

In a speech to the Catholic Church, Robredo urged the Filipino people not to believe the lies on the Internet, saying, “If this election is won using misinformation, it will be a verified formula in all elections.” .

Yvonne Chua, who heads, an independent fact-checking project in the Philippines, said in an email that the partners’ fact-checking mostly pointed to Marcos supporters.

Professor Chua, an associate professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines, said, “You may see misinformation coming from certain candidates, but this is rare.”

Mr. Marcos promoted a false theory of wealth. Agravante was a call center agent before deciding last year to become a full-time YouTuber producing amateur videos for 109,000 subscribers. A longtime supporter of Marcos, he knows the candidate has refuted claims about gold. Still, Mr. Agrabante does not apologize.

“Why would I change my mind because he rejected it?” he said

Jonathan Corpus Ong, a disinformation researcher at Harvard, said the power of amateur videos like those produced by Mr. Agrabante “look real or organic.” He “sounds like the language of a street or ordinary man compared to the professionally produced commercials and music videos for the Robredo campaign.”

Videos supporting Marcos often use bold text and colorful graphics and photos of Marcos and Duterte’s daughter, Sarah Duterte, who is running for president. One such video included an interview with a Marcos monk who claimed that the 1986 People Power Revolution that overthrew the Marcos regime was the product of the “brainwashing” of the Aquino family.

Vincent Tabigue, who made the video, disputes various legal lawsuits against Marcoses, noting that none of his family members have ever been imprisoned for stealing money from the government. “It’s just a political attack,” he told The Times.

Tavig, 27, said he quit his job as a salesman to become a full-time YouTuber in 2019, earning close to $10,000 a month.

Although none of the Marcos family were imprisoned, Marcos’ mother Imelda was sentenced to up to 11 years in prison for creating a private foundation to hide her unexplained wealth. She went on bail in 2018. Her appeal is pending.

The Senate held a series of hearings on the 2018 crisis, acknowledging the Philippines’ misinformation problem. However, specific steps have not been agreed upon, making it difficult for individual lawmakers to control the issue.

Senator Francis Pangilinan, who ran for Vice President in February in support of Robredo, asked the Senate to review the Penal Code to reduce misinformation and proposed legislation to address the problem. His efforts went nowhere.

In a car procession alongside Marcos’ recent presidential campaign, TikTok influencer Ms. Alcantara was holding a phone in her left hand as she helped another supporter set up a live broadcast. With her other hand, she blinked Marcos’ father’s trademark peace sign.

“Marcos always!” she shouted

Alcantara, 44, said her TikTok account was temporarily banned several times after Robredo’s supporters reported it. “Why are only our Marcos supporters having problems?” she asked “It’s just like what supporters of other candidates do,” she said. They also post misleading claims. right?”

She cried as she recalled “everything good” Marcoses did for her community. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for,” she said.

Yusui And Jason Gutierrez contributed to the report.

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