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The World Should Be Worried About a Dictator’s Son’s Apparent Win in the Philippines

6 minute read
Ong is an associate professor of global digital media at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center. He is a 2022 Andrew Carnegie Fellow.

After a maddening campaign season, which saw a polarized electorate disagree on everything from the methodology of opinion polls to the moral significance of showing up for public debates, voters in the Philippines have elected a new set 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.”

Read More: How TikTok Helped Marcos Rewrite His Family’s Brutal Legacy

For a while, the Marcoses were “cancelled” public pariahs. Merely extending a social invitation to a Marcos was the stuff of scandal. But thanks in part to a patient long-term project of brand rehabilitation on social media, and expedient power-brokering with 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.

End Of The Marcos Regime
Late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos stands by as his wife Imelda sings to supporters from a balcony of the Malacanang Palace in Manila, February 25, 1986. Their son, Bongbong Marcos, is at far right. This was the last public appearance by Marcos and his family before exile.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

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. But this is reductive. For me, the Marcos victory should instead trigger a hard and honest reckoning of how and why most Philippine voters are willing to delve deeper into authoritarian fantasy and reject the high principles and hero 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. They are artfully compelling stories for the young and the excluded.

For too long, progressives have taken for granted that facts in themselves are sufficient. 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.

When the opposition finally went to the grassroots and had a dialogue with Marcos supporters, it was inspiring, monumental, and important. 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). At the same time, I hope such dialogues will turn from a campaign exigency into a sincere, long-term willingness to listen and understand the issues faced by excluded communities, while respecting their own agency and cunning in political participation.

Read More: How the Son of a Dictator Became So Popular in the Philippines

Such a project might help reframe the thorny issue of disinformation and trolling in the Philippines and elsewhere. Rather than scapegoating social media as a technological brainwasher, turning out voters who support populist strongmen, we must consider why communities resonate with, and willingly participate in, myth-making, misinformation, and historical revisionism online. When we actually talk to paid political trolls, we might be surprised as to why this has become a gig for many. We might also consider why progressives have failed to offer hurt and traumatized communities any satisfying narratives to address their concerns, leaving far-right media manipulators to have full control of information voids.

Philippines Prepares For Presidential Elections
Supporters of Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. and running mate Sara Duterte cheer during their last campaign rally before the election on May 07, 2022 in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines.Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Marcos and the media

With his family’s comeback decades in the making, Marcos presumably has a heavy axe to grind. Canned slogans of unity and positivity during his campaign might mean that he will eschew any high-profile quarrels with rival political families. However, the incoming president and his family are very explicit about being victims of an important player in liberal democracy: the press.

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 and his sister, Senator Imee Marcos, have also accused social media giant Facebook of bias in its choice of fact-checking organizations.

Read More: 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 are too hostile, then they might find themselves villainized and restricted, as in other illiberal democracies. Platforms instead need to work collaboratively with academics and legal experts for strategic policy advocacy. Content takedowns and de-platforming alone will not solve the disinformation crisis in the Philippines or elsewhere.

Authoritarian incumbents and exiles around the world are watching the Marcos comeback story with avid interest and have already been given a powerful takeaway. As authors of the first draft of history, the press are Marcos’ first target and an easy one. But his ultimate target is history itself. 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.

To fight back, progressive leaders should advance their own counter-narrative and persuasive vision. But first, they must acknowledge their failure to listen.

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