Why the World Should Be Concerned by the Marcos Victory

After an exhausting election season that saw the Philippines elect a number of different leaders, including those who disagreed with the methodology and morality of public debates, they have now elected a new group of leaders.

In unofficial election results announced on Tuesday, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is leading Leni Robredo, his main rival and leader of the brave yet beleaguered political opposition, by a wide margin. A Marcos Jr. win would complete his once-disgraced family’s resurrection arc.

Exiled to Hawaii three decades ago in the aftermath of a peaceful revolution that overthrew his father’s brutal regime, Marcos and his family are set to return to Malacanang Palace—the presidential residence—with riches intact, new and powerful allies, and a frighteningly bold electoral mandate. Filipino columnist Benjamin Pimentel could only describe this bewildering plot twist in the language of high fantasy: “It’s as if Kylo Ren emerged and the Empire is back in power.”

Continue reading: How TikTok Helped Marcos Rewrite His Family’s Brutal Legacy

For a while, the Marcoses were “cancelled” public pariahs. The scandal was in the simple act of inviting a Marcos to social media. It was possible thanks to both a long-term, patient project of brand rehabilitation via social media and the expedient power-brokering between the powerful Dutertes to unify forces against their “liberal elite” rivals, the family has made a successful comeback. Their restoration presents a democratic—indeed existential—crisis for the Philippines.

The Marcos family’s rehabilitation should not be a surprise

In recent years, many analysts have unfairly caricatured the so-called “surprise” electoral victories of populist leaders as the result of uneducated voters brainwashed by disinformation. This is too simplistic. The Marcos victory must instead prompt an honest and hard reckoning about why many Filipino voters will go further into authoritarian fantasy, and how they can reject the great principles and heroic personalities of liberal democracy. It is also reflective of the shared problems of many advanced democracies—and not just those in the global South.

The Philippines may be one of Asia’s oldest and largest democracies, but its continued embrace of strongman leaders is a wake-up call that liberal democracy’s messages of equality and rule of law will eventually run hollow once voters get tired of the same old heroes and political dynasties. The Marcos myths of a strong and stable nation—and of being misunderstood victims who could thus relate with anyone’s social and economic victimhood—would resonate in many countries. These stories are compelling for young people and those who have been left out.

Too many progressives believe that facts alone are enough. In the case of the Philippines, the liberal weapons of historical accuracy and fact-checking are simply no match for Marcos’ creative folklore, turbocharged by social media fan culture and relatable influencers.

It was a moment of inspiration, greatness, and importance when the opposition went directly to Marcos’ supporters and began a dialog. It was also too little too late, coming after too many decades of blaming or patronizing the “bobotante” (the dumb voter) and “the masa” (masses). But, at the same time I believe such dialogues could transform campaign urgement into a sincere and long-term desire to understand and listen to excluded communities while also respecting their agency and cunning in participating politically.

Continue reading: Why the Philippines’ Son of a Dictator is So Popular

A project like this might be able to help address the difficult issue of trolling and disinformation in the Philippines. Instead of blaming social media for brainwashing voters and turning them into populist strongmen supporters, let’s examine why people are open to myth-making and misinformation online and how they can be used by communities. It might surprise us to learn why many people have become paid political trolls. We may also be interested in why the progressives failed to provide traumatized and hurt communities with satisfying stories to address their issues, leaving far right media manipulators full control over information gaps.

Marcos, the media

With his family’s comeback decades in the making, Marcos presumably has a heavy axe to grind. He may avoid high-profile disputes with other political families by using canned slogans that promote unity and optimism during his campaign. The incoming president, and his family, are openly revealing that they have been victims of an important component in liberal democracy: media.

In some interviews, Marcos has let slip that he sees himself as the victim of mainstream media, insinuating that journalists have “their own agenda.” Borrowing a line from Donald Trump’s playbook against liberal media outlets, he has recast as “fake news” legitimate evidence of his family’s ill-gotten wealth. Marcos’ sister Senator Imee Marcos has also accused Facebook of biased selections of fact-checking agencies.

Continue reading: The Philippines’ Problem With Dynastic Politics

Rather than introduce top-down censorship of the press, as his father did during martial law, Marcos Jr.’s strategy will likely involve stigmatizing unsympathetic news outlets. He may support a stratified media ecosystem, split between friendly organizations granted access to the halls of power and critical ones, banished from Malacanang’s antechambers. Philanthropic foreign attempts to bolster the local liberal press, or support democratic organizations and opposition groups, will likely be attacked as unpatriotic by Marcos in the emotive language of nationalism—as Duterte did before him and as Modi does in India.

Tech platforms must now tread very carefully under a leader determined to rewrite his family’s—and the nation’s—history. If they become too hostile they could find themselves being marginalized or restricted as in other liberal democracies. For strategic advocacy, platforms should instead work in collaboration with lawyers and academics. Disinformation in the Philippines and elsewhere will not be solved by content takedowns or de-platforming.

The Marcos story is being watched by exiles, as well as incumbents all around the globe. They have been given some powerful insights. As authors of the first draft of history, the press are Marcos’ first target and an easy one. However, history is his ultimate target. By recasting himself as the victim of “elite” historians and academics—as the victim, even, of the activists who survived torture and abuse during his father’s dictatorship—Marcos shows that false victimhood claims can effectively appeal to an anxious public when packaged in compelling myth and melodrama.

Progressive leaders must develop their own persuasive and counter-narrative vision to fight back. First, however, progressive leaders must admit their inability to listen.

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