A Re-Written History: How Digital Misinformation is Distorting Facts in the Philippines 

  • David Broughton

Ahead of the May 9, 2022, elections, civil society organizations (CSOs) in the Philippines have set their sights on the digital space to combat increasing threats to democratic ideals and values. Social media remains the dominant news source for most voters and presents an opportunity for anti-democratic actors to exploit the space and perpetuate mis- and disinformation. Anti-democratic actors have flocked to social media to push false narratives about candidates that distort democratic debate and mislead voters. The International Republican Institute (IRI) has supported CSOs to aid and amplify their efforts in countering digital manipulation campaigns, including through mis- and disinformation trainings and subawards to promote information integrity.  

When you want to rip the heart out of a democracy, you go after the facts.

Maria Ressa, Nobel Prize Laureate 

Information integrity has been under assault ahead of the Philippines elections and, in turn, so has the integrity of democratic norms and processes. With an increasing number of voters in the country relying on digital platforms for information, the elections provide ample opportunity for malign actors to spread falsehoods and distort narratives. The Philippines kept the top spot on the rankings of global social media usage for the sixth straight year with the average Filipino spending approximately four hours each day on social media in 2021, a significant rise from previous years. Nearly half of all adult Filipinos get their news from digital sources, with 44% citing Facebook as their primary news source.  

The Internet offers voters in any country an easily accessible and streamlined way to obtain election information, news, and updates. On the other side of that coin lies the opportunity for anti-democratic actors to grow and professionalize digital manipulation campaigns. In the Philippines, a 2020 Oxford Internet Institute survey found that government agencies, politicians, CSOs, and political parties had all personally conducted or hired private firms to conduct digital manipulation campaigns. This presents real threats to democratic norms and processes. Critics of the current president have been subjected to online intimidation and false claims levied against them by individual accounts that are then amplified by support networks, or troll farms, that share and forward the original post. Journalists have routinely received death threats on social media, almost immediately after asking a critical question on a televised broadcast. When a lone death threat is amplified by 10,000 trolls, it can create an unyielding wall of dissent for a journalist to overcome and continue reporting critical facts against the president.  

In the 2022 Philippines presidential race, armies of misinformation promoters loyal to some candidates have, despite the best efforts of pro-democratic actors, successfully spread disinformation across large parts of the electorate. For example, social media content has taken hold across the country that “whitewashes” former president Ferdinand Marcos’ record, including patently false claims such as that no arrests were made under the martial law order of 1972. However, Amnesty International estimates that some 70,000 were imprisoned, 34,000 tortured, and 3,200 killed from 1972 to 1981. Paired with a vast network of troll farms and influencers that push these misleading and false narratives, the potential to mislead the voting decisions of millions of Filipinos is a real threat.   

Ahead of the elections, IRI has provided technical assistance to pro-democracy CSOs in the Philippines to aid and amplify their efforts in countering digital manipulation and misinformation. This includes workshops on how to identify and combat digital information manipulation, digital security trainings, and subawards to CSO partners to conduct activities that counter this threat to democracy.  

Democracies rely on facts to inform the decisions of voters and the digital efforts of anti-democratic actors leading up to the elections threaten to distort the facts, and with them, the voting process. 

Up ArrowTop