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A TikTok president for the Philippines

Episode Summary

After decades out of power in the Philippines, the Marcos family is on the verge of winning the presidency. We examine how social media played a crucial role in whitewashing their past.

Episode Notes

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has been campaigning to become the next president of the Philippines via the power of TikTok and other social media. And Bongbong’s whitewashing of his family’s violent past has him on the cusp of victory.

Today we go to the Philippines, where the presidential election is taking place next week. And we talk about how social media disinformation, yet again, might put a populist onto the global stage of power. Read the transcript.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times Asia correspondent David Pierson

More reading:

Dictator’s son uses TikTok to lead in Philippine election and rewrite his family’s past

Troll armies, a growth industry in the Philippines, may soon be coming to an election near you

The Marcos diary : A lust for power, an eye on glory

Episode Transcription

GUSTAVO: It's not easy rebranding a dynasty responsible for two decades of authoritarian rule, the murder of thousands of political opponents and the theft of billions of dollars from a country reeling from an economic crisis. 

But it helps when you can harness the power of Tik Tok. 


That's how Ferdinand BongBong Marcos Jr. has been campaigning to become the next president of the Philippines. And Bong Bong’s white washing of his family's violent past has him on the cusp of victory.

BEAT drop

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. It's Friday, May 6th, 2022. 

Today we go to the Philippines where the presidential election is taking place next week. And talk about how social media disinformation, yet again, might put a populist onto the global stage of power.

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GUSTAVO: David Pearson covers Southeast Asia for The Times. David, welcome.

DAVID: Hi Gustavo.

GUSTAVO: So you've been in the Philippines for the past week covering the May 9th presidential elections. What's it been like?

DAVID: So we're getting down to the wire now //  with the elections coming up. 

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DAVID:  And this city is just covered in campaign posters everywhere. People are wearing their favorite candidate's picture on their mask.


DAVID:  People are campaigning in malls. There are massive rallies. 


One candidate, Leni Robredo…


DAVID: Who is trying to close a huge gap with the front runner for Ferdinand BombBomb Marcos…

Rally tape:

DAVID: I would say that the closest thing to some of the rallies here are maybe like the Trump rallies, but with a lot less talking and a lot more singing and dancing.  

Rally tape:

DAVID: It's a lot more festive. 

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DAVID: You're seeing a real grassroots movement for Leni. Whereas Marcos has relied much more on political caravans, on motorcades to go out to the provinces, and he sort of waves from cars and glad hands a lot of these people. And that's mainly a function of the pandemic. And many people are calling this the social media election because people can't get out there for social restriction reasons.

GUSTAVO: When I think of politics in the Philippines, especially in recent years, I think of the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, who came into power at the same time as Trump in 2016 and got criticized for a lot of things that Trump was: being very outspoken, promising fire and brimstone. I was surprised though, to not see his name on the national ballot in some form. Why isn't he?

DAVID: So presidents here in the Philippines can only serve one six-year term and then they're termed out. And so there was, some would say, shenanigans, earlier about maybe Duterte would run for vice president. Because vice-presidents here don't necessarily have to run on the same ticket as the president.They are elected separately from the president. That idea never came to fruition. Instead his daughter, Sarah Duterte Carpio is running as the running mate of Marcos. So his legacy will remain. 

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DAVID: One of the conspiracy theories though is since Duterte has stacked the Supreme Court with loyalists, Marcos, even if he wins the presidency, you know, he's facing a lot of tax fraud charges. So far, he's been able to evade all of them, but you know, who knows, maybe his daughter slides into the presidency, uh, afterwards.

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GUSTAVO: You mentioned the two main candidates earlier, a Bong Bong and a Leni. Who are they?

DAVID: So Bong Bong is the nickname for Ferdinand Marcos Jr. 


DAVID: Now his father, Ferdinand Marcus Sr., was the dictator of the Philippines in the 1970s and ‘80s. 


DAVID: And his legacy, you can see it anywhere in the country. You can see it in the old // trains that sort of constitute the subways of Manila. The country still paying a price for his rule, which lasted about two decades. And he presided over the country, period called martial law, from 1972 to 1986, in which he murdered a lot of political opponents. He plundered billions to dollars from the state, his wife Imelda Marcos of course became famous for her uh shoe collection. His son now, who ran for vice president in 2016, and lost narrowly to Leni Robredo, who is now his primary presidential rival in the election now. Now Leni, as everyone refers to her, is a former human rights lawyer.

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DAVID: She is not from one of these dynastic political families that seem to control the Philippines year after year. Her support is grassroots. She actually has policy recommendations. She is someone who's looking to break the cycle and reform the country that has kept, you know, many millions living in grieving poverty. She's currently behind though in the polls by about 30 points.

GUSTAVO: So Bongbong's is leading? Despite the fact that he comes from a political family with a really bad track is he doing that? "

DAVID: Marcos senior wasn't as unpopular as his record suggests. Despite doing these horrific things, he still has a positive legacy among millions of Filipinos. There is a tendency here to support strong men, and that has something to do with the institutions being weak here with the insecurity that people live in // when it comes to safety, when it comes to just putting food on the table. And so Marcos is revered by many working-class Filipinos, and it's the educated Filipinos, the upper-class Filipinos, the left-leaning Filipinos who suffered at his hands, that have a terrible memory. 

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DAVID: Now, the other thing that has helped Marcos is that they've successfully whitewashed their history. This is an extremely young country. There are millions and millions of Filipinos who did not live through those martial lawyers. Over 60 million registered voters in the Philippines have no real memory of that time. And so, the Marcos family has spent years rebranding their image first in legacy media, and then through Facebook and YouTube. And then now their newest tool is Tik Tok.


DAVID: Tik Tok.

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GUSTAVO: We'll be back… after this.


GUSTAVO: So David what are some of the clips that are helping to rebrand the Marcos family? 

DAVID: So this has been like catnip for young people. During the pandemic, the amount of // young people that have downloaded Tik Tok has exploded here in the Philippines.

Tiktok tape:

DAVID: And what we've seen is just a deluge of pro-Marcos content.

Tiktok tape:

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DAVID: Just really slickly produced archival footage, trying to portray the Marcos years as some sort of glory days.

Tiktok tape:

DAVID: We found one where there was retro grainy footage of former first lady Imelda Marcos meeting with Britain's Prince Charles. And you know, this is set against the, uh, Swedish pop singer Tove Lo’s hit “Habits.”

Tiktok tape:

DAVID: There was another video with more than a million views. That compared all the struts of the former presidents. And of course, when it got to Marcos Sr, suddenly the volume to Coolio’s “Gangster's paradise” starts. 

Tiktok tape:

Rising and there you see the former dictator, you know, striding with confidence in this really 

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DAVID: flawlessly ironed Barang, which is the local shirt for men. And the caption underneath was “FEM walk hits different.” FEM is the acronym for his full name, which is Ferdinand Emmanuel Marcos. 


DAVID: And it's all set against the soundtrack of pop music, uplifting pop music that has this emotional effect on anyone who views it. And so, you know, I spoke to young people across Manila. These are people who didn't really have much of an education in the martial law years. I mean, there's studies showing that as little as 6% of some of the history textbooks are devoted to martial law in some of the lower grades. And so these people are getting education on these dark years through of all things, a Chinese app that is better known for setting viral dance memes.

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GUSTAVO: So while this newer generation’s too young to remember the dictatorship, they’re learning about it now in this glamorized tik tok style just in time for Bongbong to make a comeback. But I know the Marcos family has been trying to get back into power since, well, they got kicked out of the Philippines. What led to this moment that Bongbong is in?  

DAVID: So he ran in 2016 and that was sort of like the test run and what political analysts have told me is that ever since, he has been laser-focused on the presidency. He knows that a social media strategy is crucial in this country. No one uses social media more than Filipinos. Facebook rules in this country. YouTube is a close second, and now Tik Tok is coming up, attracting the young audience. And one of the Cambridge Analytica  whistleblowers–you may remember this from the Trump campaign–told Philippine journalist Maria Raisa that the Marcos campaign even reached out to Cambridge Analytica to help rebrand the family. So they've had a very sophisticated online campaign. Now, no one's been able to directly link Marcos to any of this, but you know, when you see thousands upon thousands of pro-Marcos accounts, it's not his competitor, that's doing it. Or somebody has too much free time. Some researchers show that there is coordinated networking between these so-called troll farms working for Marcos. //And it's really served him really well because it's just been years of rebranding, years of whitewashing of history. And he's turned himself into a very favorable personality. Someone who is seen, again, as continuing Duterte’s legacy is a strong man. Because once again, there's no faith in the institutions in this country. And people believe that you need a strong leader that can rise above and stop the corruption and help the poor. The problem is that that cycle never seems to break.

GUSTAVO: So what are the institutions and, uh, the press trying to do to correct the Marcos record for this election?

DAVID: You know, the institutions are often very weak. And it has been incumbent on the press, which has been under fire in the Duterte years. He has gone after a lot of independent journalists in the courts, and weakened some of these organizations. But the curious thing about the Philippines is that because it's been called the Petri dish for disinformation, this is the place where outside political campaign strategies have tested some of the disinformation strategies that we've seen in the United States, during Brexit, maybe even now with Ukraine-Russia war. They tested it on the Philippines because it's a democracy. Because social media penetration is very deep. Frankly, there aren't that many consequences if you get caught doing it. 

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DAVID: So the press has really had to step in. And what we've seen is just the emergence of fact-checking groups. Fact-checking consortium. The way that we in America turn to the business section, the sports section, there is a fact checking section in the Philippines as a result of that. And there are reporters that just do the meat and potatoes kind of work that we do; that is seeing what's going viral and seeing if it's true or not. And most of the time they're going to have to debunk some ridiculous stuff.

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GUSTAVO: More after the break.


GUSTAVO: So David, Fernando Marcos Jr. He's leading in recent polls. What are the actual platforms that he's running on? What is he promising the voters?

DAVID: Well, we don't exactly know because he has refused to take tough interviews. He has not shown up at political debates. You know what someone is leading this far in the polls, sometimes the strategy is not to say anything, not to have any gaffes and just kind of ride it out until the end. // But really he's running more on an image than the other candidate Leni, who has come in as a reformist and has clear plans on how to boost education, how to increase manufacturing in the country. Marcos, he wants to be seen as a strong man. He wants to be seen as restoring some sort of mythical glory that existed during his father's years. And, you know, that works in a country where a personality sometimes is more important than having policy chops. 

GUSTAVO: And Leni Robredo, Marcos Jr.’s opponent, why isn't she polling well?

DAVID: Well because some people think that the energy is coming late to her campaign. And what we've seen in the last few weeks really is an explosion of grassroots support. And we've seen massive rallies, we've seen people going door to door. We are starting to see them push back on places like Tik Tok. But you know, they don't rely so much on disinformation like her opponent does. The other thing is this is shaping up to be something of a class battle. You know, a lot of working-class, like the way they supported Duterte, are supporting Marcos. And you know, some of the young Filipinos I spoke to, they have a lot of grievances toward Leni and the people that support Leni. They perceive them to be the educated elite. 

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DAVID: They perceive them to be smug, people that have a future in this country. You have to remember that the majority of Filipinos, they live on about $9,000 a year, is the per capita income here. There really isn't much of a path to the middle class. You know, the character I spoke to, she had to drop out of a diploma mill. She has to get a new job every six months because employers have this habit of dumping people right before they have to pay health benefits for them. So, you know, sitting in her commute or long commute to work and watching these glorified Marcos Tik Tok videos showing better times. I mean, it's really striking a chord with her.


GUSTAVO: If Marcos Jr. does win. What does that mean for democracy in the Philippines?

DAVID: You know, the Philippines is really important because it's seen as a bulwark for democracy in this part of the world. And the last few years, we've seen a real backslide in democracy. We've seen what happened in Hong Kong. We're seeing China's threats to Taiwan. We're seeing what the king is doing to Thailand. And this is all at a time when the battle lines are being drawn, with what's going on with Russia and Ukraine. America needs democratic allies all over the world. As you know, geopolitics is shifting right now. Philippines has always been seen as an ally for the U.S. and especially at a time when China is trying to increase its influence in the area, they need to know that the Philippines will stand with the United States and be tough against China, assert their sovereignty in the south China sea. Robredo is on record being tough with China. Marcos, it's a little bit less clear. He's seen as being a little bit more accommodating to China. And those are how some of the battle lines are drawn. There is a fear that Marcos will again send the Philippines back into the era of crony-capitalism that defined the country for many decades since his father was ousted. But no one really knows what a Marcos presidency is going to be, but everyone fears it could be something of a repeat of his father. Though few actually think he has the wherewithal and the decisiveness and the brains, frankly, to be as tough and successful as his father was before he was eventually overthrown.


GUSTAVO: David. Thank you so much for this conversation.

DAVID: Thank you so much for having me.

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Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times

Shannon Lin was the jefa on this episode. 

Our show is produced by Shannon, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown, and Angel Carreras. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our engineer is Mario Diaz. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

And hey, The Times is hosting a debate with some of the top LA mayor candidates later this month, specifically about homelessness, a huge issue of course here in Los Angeles. What questions do you want me to ask? Call or text (619) 800-0717 with your questions. Leave your name and there might be a possibility that I might ask it. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back next week with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.