Philippines Election: How TikTok Is Helping Bongbong Marcos

One of the most popular posts on Joey Toledo’s TikTok account is a 13-second clip of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s conversation with Juan Ponce Enrile. In the video, the 94-year-old Enrile—who served as justice secretary and defense minister under Marcos’ father, the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.—claims that the Philippines was so safe under martial law imposed by the elder Marcos that a Filipino could leave his home unlocked, and “nobody would touch it.”

The video received 92,000 views, and while Toledo has some doubts about Enrile’s claims (“I’m not just sure if [Enrile’s] story is 100% percent accurate because he’s already old”), the 27-year-old says he believes Enrile “knows what happened during that time.”

The appeal of the video on TikTok, and many others like it, goes a long way to explaining why Bongbong Marcos looks likely to win the May 9 presidential election—potentially returning one of the Philippines’ most prominent dynasties to power more than 35 years after it was ousted following decades of dictatorship.

TIME reached out to 32 TikTok pro-Marcos TikTok founders, but they refused to speak for the record. One exception, Toledo, a native of Nueva Ecija, a province about 69 miles north from the capital Manila. Typical of many of his peers, he does not believe the well documented history of the Marcos family’s human rights abuses and corruption.

Toledo, who works day to day as an IT support desk worker, has been using his account for eight month. But he says that he noticed a significant increase in followers after he posted pro-Marcos video posts. Toledo insists he’s not associated with Marcos, isn’t paid for his content and says that not all of the posts he sends to his 22,000 TikTok fans contain any misinformation. One post, a repurposed video, suggests that the Marcos family’s vast wealth comes not from the looting of Philippine public coffers, but from his earnings as a lawyer. Another video asserts that Marcos was “the best president in the world” during his time in office.

Taken together, they offer insight into how Bongbong Marcos has been able to leverage social media to rewrite the history of his father’s rule in the Philippines. According to World Bank and United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the Marcos family amassed $10 billion of ill-gotten wealth. Under the dictator, 70,000 “enemies of the state” were arrested, 34,000 were tortured, and more than 3,000 killed, according to Amnesty International. But through countless TikTok videos, and other social media posts, a false picture of stability and economic growth has been created that leaves many Filipino voters pining for the “better years” of the Marcos regime.

Marcos leads by an unprecedented margin over other presidential contenders in pre-election surveys: Pulse Asia poll conducted in April showed him with a 33-point lead over his closest opponent—opposition candidate Vice President Leni Robredo.

Rappler, a Philippine media outlet, and VERA Files revealed that Marcos reaps the benefits of coordinated disinformation campaigns via social media platforms. Alan German, a campaign strategist at Philippine PR firm Agents International, tells TIME that some political content creators are paid as much as $4,700 on a monthly retainer basis—a small fortune in a country with a $170 monthly minimum wage. Bongbong Markos has said that he does not pay trolls for his image.

Although misinformation can be found on all social media platforms, it is particularly prevalent in the Philippines. Facebook can be used on smartphones data-free, but TikTok access costs money. Together with the country’s poor digital infrastructure, expensive cellular data and subpar media literacy, Filipinos often have difficulty accessing verified sources of information.

TikTok is a popular source of political views and news in this Southeast Asian country with 110 million people. Facebook still remains the Philippines’ most prominent social media site. Although the Chinese-owned social media platform is private, it is difficult to confirm its user data. However, a DataReportal report, an independent data aggregator that tracks digital trends around the world, revealed that 36 million Filipinos are using the app. According to the same data aggregator, Facebook boasts as many as 8 million users in Philippines.

Toledo says it’s fun to make and share pro-Marcos content on the app—not least because he enjoys getting a rise out of supporters of Marcos’ rivals. “Sometimes it’s just to vex the other party so that they’ll have some engagement. You know how Filipinos are: they love clashes.”

He may have made TikTok work for him by his stupid approach to it. Jonathan Corpus Ong, a disinformation researcher at Harvard University, says that compared to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, TikTok’s algorithm can catapult a user to stardom with just one post in a couple of days. Users like Toledo are encouraged to produce punchy content and spread viral fame. “The potential of misinformative content to achieve a ‘viral sensation’ kind of dynamic is much higher in TikTok than in other platforms,” Ong says.

TikTok Philippines’ public policy director Kristoffer Rada said that once an video is flagged to disinformation, TikTok takes it off its list.

Political comebacks are possible after years of hard work

Bongbong Marcos’ father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., was president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Many celebrate him for projects that survive to this day, including the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the country’s longest inter-island bridge. However, his rule of two decades was marked by widespread human rights violations and corruption as well as stealing from national treasury. In 1986, a popular revolt, People Power Revolution, saw him be ousted. The Marcos family fled to Hawaii.

In 1991, after returning to exile, Marcos’ family started revising the history of their homeland. They denied or remained silent on any allegations of atrocities, and they also began revising historical facts. The family members took over the seats of local governments in Ilocos Norte and successfully restored their image. (The dictator’s widow, Imelda, even ran for president in 1998 but eventually withdrew amid low public support.)

Marcos’ family has used social media in recent years to further rewrite the story. Political science professor Julio C. Teehankee at De La Salle University in Manila says that Bongbong and the rest of the Marcos family have adapted Marcos Sr.’s support networks and vast wealth to create a “well-oiled” and “well-financed” social media campaign.

Two other factors contribute to Bongbong Marcos’ popularity: Successive governments since the fall of the Marcos regime have failed to address basic social problems. More than one fifth of Filipinos live below the country’s poverty threshold, while the riches are concentrated among businessmen and political families. According to a 2018 state-run report, only 1.4% of Filipinos are considered high-income earners. This is based on an annual $43,400 estimate.

Another factor that influences the voting age is their gender. Around 56% of the 65.7 million registered voters are under 40—meaning that they either weren’t born during the rule of Marcos Sr., or were too young to remember it. Teehankee says that social media, with its mandate to keep content short and succinct, flattens history—making it easier for myths and disinformation to take hold in the minds of young voters. “They do not have any experience or memory or knowledge about the Marcos regime,” he says, adding the Millennials and Gen Z appear to be driving much of the support for Bongbong Marcos on social media. Pulse Asia, an international survey company found that Marcos is supported by 72% of 18-24-year-olds.

Despite being a tumultuous era in Philippine history, Marcos’ dictatorship is barely discussed in schools or in textbooks. The result is that misinformation learned on social media tends to stick—even when supporters of Bongbong Marcos are confronted with fact-based rebuttals. “Let’s say [Ferdinand Marcos] really did steal money,” Toledo says. “There are a lot of projects built. Some of the money actually materialized.”

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Toledo believes the fact of the Marcos dynasty’s ill-gotten wealth is a falsehood peddled by long-time political rivals the Aquino family. Corazon, Corazon’s wife, assassinated senator Benigno Aquino Jr. was elected president in 1986 and 1992. Their son Benigno Aquino III served as president from 2010 to 2016.

Truth be told, Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda made illegal deposits of $658 millions into Swiss bank accounts. Imelda, who was also convicted in 2018, was also charged with graft in connection to the private foundations that she established for concealing unexplained riches.

TikTok is a tool to combat disinformation

Some people are trying to combat disinformation and creating their own videos. On the anniversary of Marcos’ declaration of Philippine martial law on Sept. 21, she posted a video dispelling the notion that the economy boomed during the dictatorship. She cited her sources, and explained the data in an external Google Docs link in her TikTok’s page bio. The video was viewed over 1.6 million times and has been liked more than 156,000 times.

While her video got a lot of positive feedback, Marcos loyalists criticized her comments. Magno-Veluz says many of them “weren’t interested in understanding the economics. They were just there because they felt outrage that I hinted that the martial law era was not our golden years.”

Magno-Veluz, who was a student at the time Marcos’ ouster was announced, says that she was shocked by how passionate Marcos supporters were in claiming their version of events is better. She says her critics—most of whom were too young to remember the Marcos regime—make her feel like “being gaslighted by somebody who wasn’t there.”

TikTok claims it is partnering with the Philippine Commission on Elections and the local broadcaster GMA News to fight disinformation. TikTok has also partnered alongside Agence France-Presse to check the factual content of Philippine users. TikTok takes down accounts of people who misinform and notifies them. TIME was told by a spokesperson from TikTok that the company does not disclose how many posts or videos have been removed.

More Than 70% of Toledo’s posts on his political TikTok account now have disclaimers, which lead to the app’s landing site for the May 9 polls. The site contains information about voting, but doesn’t attempt to fact-check false claims. Toledo says he hasn’t received any warning from TikTok for promoting disinformation and adds that he is “sure” his posts “aren’t fake.”

He also says that he isn’t worried about the shutdown of his account. “The information will always be there. My account may disappear, but the information won’t.” For Philippine voters, that is precisely the problem.

—With reporting by Ella Hermonio / Manila

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