Disinformation war falsifies Philippine election

By Federico Segarra

Manila, Apr 20 (EFE).- The disinformation strategy with which some political forces manipulate social networks with fake news wars threatens to distort the Philippines’ May 9 presidential elections, in which Rodrigo Duterte’s successor will be chosen.

Although the battle to control the popular narrative is absolute, it is the campaign in favor of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, son of the deceased dictator, that has the most power of public reach and manipulation, according to experts.

Marcos’s propaganda team, favorite with more than 50 percent support in the polls, is spreading the story of an idyllic Philippines in his father’s time (1965-1986) on social media. It takes advantage of hoaxes believed by thousands of citizens, such as the fact that his family hides a great treasure of gold bars they will distribute among the population if he is elected president.

The millions of dollars looted from public coffers during his term and the torture and summary executions seem not to weigh on the collective memory of the country. Leni Robredo, the only candidate who could challenge Marcos for the presidency, appears to be the biggest victim of the campaigns, with hoaxes that show an alleged sex tape of her daughter or messages that she is allied with communist insurgents.

“The use of disinformation in social media before the elections is overwhelming,” said Fatima Gaw, professor of Communication at the University of the Philippines and leading researcher at the Philippine Media Laboratory, a special team created to uncover disinformation networks in the upcoming elections, among other tasks.

Gaw said the Marcos campaign “has been using disinformation networks for years (…), not only about him, but also about his father.” It is about “historical revisionism,” she said, where “the atrocities committed by his father are denied and lies are spread” about the bonanzas of his government.

The disinformation strategy is not new in the country: Facebook and other platforms have recognized its existence during the Duterte administration, to which dozens of false accounts are associated. Gaw said the tandem formed by Marcos and Sara Duterte (daughter of the outgoing president and vice-presidential candidate), has sophisticated it to “reach the youngest through influential personalities in social media.”

However, most candidates accuse each other of twisting the narrative and spreading fake news, accusing fact-checkers of being driven by ideological or partisan affinities, and only publishing their results “one way.”

“We have also found evidence of the use of disinformation in other candidates,” says Jon B. Bunquin, co-lead researcher at the laboratory, who spoke about other runners such as Ping Lacson, as an example.

Gaw and Bunquin did not provide specific data on the number of users involved in the current disinformation networks, but said they have fine-tuned their strategy for these elections, and “teams of prepared people” are acting to shape public discourse in their interest.

Facebook closed earlier this month a network of more than 400 accounts in the Philippines, China and the United States for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which “amplified content” in favor of certain candidates in the Philippine elections, from duplicate accounts where they “disfigured information” and has allied itself with fact-checking portals to limit disinformation.

Still, “there are no effective mechanisms to combat disinformation networks. Facebook or Twitter close accounts, and more appear again almost immediately,” Bunquin said. EFE


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