Philippine Elections 2022: The Dictator's Son and the Discourse around Disinformation.

AuthorOng, Jonathan Corpus

Social media was central to Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.'s electoral success, but not in the sense that his campaign had somehow unlocked their hidden features for technological brainwashing. Unfortunately, some pundits looking for quick rationalizations for his landslide victory in the May 2022 polls repeated much of the same explanatory devices from 2016. Many pundits had then attributed the wave of "surprise" populist victories of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the United States to what were hyped to be election-determining factors of social media-fuelled disinformation, troll and bot armies, and Russian influence operations.

Critical scholars have since advanced more holistic analyses in recent years, including the powerful critique from Global South researchers that emphasized the diverse interlocking factors that shape contemporary digital political culture. Many have pointed out that the warlike operations of political fandoms and attention-hacking techniques of media manipulators have flourished due to the longer histories of charismatic leadership and patronage politics, inter-elite competition and factionalism, and the entrepreneurialism of partisan media outfits. (1) As such, it was disheartening that the key questions raised in liberal spaces about Marcos Jr.'s presidential win reverted back to the reductive discourses of 2016, asking questions such as "Are opinion polls even trustworthy?" (2) and "Did Filipinos vote with free will, or were they insidiously manipulated on social media?" (3)

Discourses about social media disinformation exerting outsized influence and causing a "behaviour modification" in voters are not only reductive; they are also downright dangerous. Insofar as such discourses blame the less-educated, the poor and the younger generation for their gullibility as audiences of disinformation and for their responsibility as the primary producers of disinformation, such expressions have only exacerbated the social divisions that populist leaders have stoked to their advantage. Worse, when progressive politicians, social movement organizers, journalists and academics scapegoat "online trolls" as the newest version of the historically problematic "dumb voter" ("bobotante") trope, (4) they affirm the populist publics' perception of the progressive movement as elitist, hypocritical and detached from everyday realities. When finger-pointing is too focused on external or technological villains, we might miss asking the much tougher questions of how to penalize the local creative economies churning out attack memes for profit, or how progressives might develop more satisfying narratives that directly speak to the populist publics' grievances.

If progressives want to truly address the deeper structural issues relating to social media-fuelled disinformation and rebuild the movement for a future beyond the second Marcos presidency, then we need to get the discourse about disinformation right this time around. If we continue to perceive that the problem with social media is in how it serves as the tools of top-down mind control of the "bobotante", and thus channel our energies to hunting down the stereotypical lower-income-class Marcos or Duterte troll, then we risk advancing solutions that do more harm than good and alienate the communities historically excluded from social reform. If we mischaracterize the disinformation crisis, then we risk letting off the political and economic elites who are the chief disinformation architects commissioning, designing and profiting from these toxic campaigns. (5) Indeed, liberal politicians' own legal proposals that claim to address "fake news" have fixated on unmasking anonymous accounts rather than going after the ambitious masterminds behind these networks. (6)

Moving forward, what we need are strategic policy advocacies, sincere efforts at grassroots listening and persuasive narratives addressing communities' fears and anxieties. Clearly, based on our investments in the Philippines' disinformation mitigation space in the past six years, the liberal weapons...

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