MANILA, Philippines — Rey Pinga vividly remembers the day he lost his mother.
She was playing cards outside near their home in Manila, when masked gunmen riding three motorcycles came barreling through.
“The first motorcycle barred one end of the alley, the second one barred the other end. The one on the third motorcycle shot my mom,” he told VICE World News. “She died due to a shot here,” he said, pointing to his neck.
He had been at the alleyway leading to their house at that time, but after the men had left, ran out to find his mother.
“I went to check on my mom and it was really her. She was lying down on the ground with a broken hand,” he said. “She was dead on arrival.”
The day was June 2, 2017, just over a year since the inauguration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and the start of his brutal drug war. Edna Pinga, Rey’s mother, was one of an estimated 27,000 people, according to rights groups, who died during Duterte’s crackdown, as suspected dealers, users and even unlucky bystanders were gunned down in extrajudicial killings.
Pinga insists his mother never used or dealt drugs, but was on a watchlist because of a former partner who had been involved with drugs. “I miss her so much,” he said. “Sometimes when I get mad or something, I need my mother to reduce my problem. Tell everything to her.”
Life has been difficult for Pinga since the death of his mother. He was 17 when he lost her and has had to provide for himself, doing bartending gigs or finding things to resell on Facebook. Then the pandemic hit, making it even harder to find work and earn money.
But he is hopeful that the hardships that started the day his mother was gunned down will soon be alleviated. As Duterte ends his six-year term and the Philippines approaches election day on May 9, he said he is excited to cast his ballot come Monday as a first-time voter in the presidential polls, throwing his support behind a candidate he believes will be a strong leader that will put the welfare of the Filipino people above all.
His choice? Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
Marcos Jr. is the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who oversaw decades of rights abuses in the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. His running mate is Sara Duterte, daughter of the president who was responsible for Pinga’s mother’s murder, and Marcos Jr.’s vow to block international investigations into human rights abuses during the Duterte drug war.
Pinga said there is no use in pursuing justice for his mother anyway, since it was the cops who killed her and they would be the same ones investigating their case. Instead, he just “wants change” which he believes Marcos Jr. can bring.
“Many have ran before and they’ve made a lot of promises. They talked a lot during the campaign but once they won they didn’t do anything,” he said. Marcos Jr. on the other hand, “was alive when his father was in power.”
“They’re a political family. So surely he would’ve learned something from his father. It would be impossible that he hasn’t.”
Asked what he knows about the state of the Philippines under Marcos Sr., Pinga said that he had done his research.
“I conducted my research and they said it was good [during his time],” he said. “I saw it on Facebook.”
Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was elected president in 1965, ruling for more than two decades. During that time, he seized complete control of the country in 1972 for nine years, establishing a period of martial law that “unleashed a wave of crimes under international law and grave human rights violations,” according to Amnesty International.
“Tens of thousands of people [were] arbitrarily arrested and detained, and thousands of others tortured, forcibly disappeared, and killed,” the rights group said.
It is estimated that more than 70,000 people were jailed, 34,000 tortured, and more than 3,200 killed during his dictatorship.
The family was eventually overthrown in a popular people’s revolt in 1986, but they managed to steal billions of dollars from the Filipino people by the time they fled the country to the U.S.
Yet Pinga is far from alone in his support for Marcos Jr., who is the distant frontrunner in the presidential race less than a week before the country’s 67.5 million registered voters cast their ballots.
Part of this success can be explained by a successful PR campaign conducted by the Marcos camp in recent years, which has been peddling disinformation about his family’s past, and systematically rebranding their name on social media through Facebook posts and Tiktok videos.
Many young people believe it. More than half of the country’s electorate were born after martial law ended, including 23-year-old Pinga.
In a country that spends the most hours a day on social media globally, and where access to Facebook is free even without mobile data, pre-election surveys show the propaganda has been effective.
Latest survey results show 56 percent of voters are choosing Marcos Jr., while Leni Robredo, the current vice president, trails far behind at 23 percent in second place. Other candidates lag farther behind, including former world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao.
Robredo, the only female candidate in the crowded 10-person presidential race, has inspired a fierce following that has propelled her largely volunteer-driven campaign to pose the only credible challenge to Marcos Jr. Her clean record as a government official and her efforts to assist the public, especially when much of the country endured prolonged lockdowns due to the pandemic, have drawn a segment of voters actively and independently campaigning for her as the rational choice for president.
“I think [she] is the best person for this position, because she proved herself as vice president, what more as a president?,” Anj Gueco, a first-time voter told VICE World News in a Robredo campaign rally in Pampanga, that drew an estimated 220,000 people.
“She was able to give help to people who are in the far ends of the country during calamities, during typhoons and the like. She was able to show that she's really willing to do her work as vice president of this country.”
But Robredo has been the biggest target of negative disinformation in the Philippines, an academic fact-checking group said in February. Posts and videos disparaging Robredo are about as easy to find as those praising the Marcoses. They include clips of Robredo’s speeches spliced to make her appear incoherent, and false claims that she had been married to a communist guerrilla, or that she had been pregnant out of wedlock.
It’s the reason Pinga said he would not vote for Robredo. “She’s spaced out,” he said, echoing a common joke about Robredo that resulted from her spliced speeches.
The same fact-checking study found that much of the false or misleading claims “largely favor” or “seek to promote” Marcos Jr.
In 2020, whistleblower Brittany Kaiser from political data and consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which was accused of interference during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, said Marcos Jr. himself had approached the firm to help “rebrand the family’s image.”
The Marcoses were infamous for having lived in luxurious extravagance during their reign while the country plunged into poverty and violence, and had largely been a political pariah in the years after they were deposed. Marcos Jr wanted to whitewash all that, and he allegedly sought the help of the now-defunct firm to do so.
“You call it historical revisionism, that’s exactly what it is, but it’s done in a data-driven and scientific way. You undertake just enough research to figure out what people believe about a certain family, individual, politician, and then you figure out what could convince them to feel otherwise,” Kaiser told journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa in an interview. A spokesperson for Marcos Jr. has denied they hired the firm.
In any case, content denying the atrocities of the Marcos regime, extolling its achievements real or imagined, and vilifying the family’s political opponents have been lurking on social media for at least a decade. Researchers found it ramped up starting in 2014 ahead of Marcos Jr. running for the vice presidency in 2016, when he narrowly lost to Robredo.
Now, countless videos on Facebook, YouTube and TikTok are spreading disinformation favorable to Marcos Jr.—pushing narratives that his family had been framed, their stratospheric wealth was an inheritance, they never stole public money, and their opponents merely slandered them to grab power. They echo other false claims that his father had been the wealth custodian of the world’s royal families, the family owns vast gold reserves that they would redistribute if restored to power, and that Marcos Jr himself had graduated from prestigious universities like Oxford and Wharton, even though school records show he failed to graduate from both institutions.
In this revised version of events, the “golden years” of the Marcos regime were the country’s most prosperous: flashy buildings were built, people were well-fed and happy, the streets were peaceful, and life was good. The truth was Marcos Sr. had plunged the country into debt for show projects, insurgencies resulted in violence in the streets, people had to queue for scant food rations, and suffering was so rife people eventually revolted for regime change in the mid-1980s.
The Philippine government itself estimates that the Marcoses amassed up to $10 billion in ill-gotten wealth, with only $3 billion so far recovered. The family’s unpaid estate tax bill of nearly $4 billion is an issue reporters have repeatedly put to Marcos Jr. during his campaign, but one he has refused to answer.
But facts like these hardly matter to Pinga and other Filipinos taken in by the sanitized narrative the Marcoses have cultivated, and they earnestly believe Marcos Jr. would restore their fortunes if the family returned to power. It could be a case of underdogs identifying with someone they’ve come to perceive as an underdog too, a recent study found.
“The tentpole narrative here is how the Marcoses were the victim of a cover-up among academics, media institutions and even the international community, and they have elaborated on this story with the many propaganda apparatuses they have,” Fatima Gaw, a communication research professor at the University of the Philippines, told VICE World News.
She co-led a 2021 study called Digital Public Pulse, which looked into the spread of disinformation and propaganda on Philippine social media. “This not only made the public resonate with the Marcoses’ political agenda, but also sympathize with their purported victimhood by the elite, though they are part of the elite themselves.”
Alongside this was disinformation to discredit Robredo, perceived early on as a challenger to Marcos Jr.’s bid for the top post. “In the absence of his own political credentials, he latched on the whitewashed legacy of his father and tainted Robredo's reputation to generate political favor from the public through an entrenched network of hyperpartisan and disinformative channels and content,” Gaw said.
The countless little posts and videos on social media all point to a “disinformation machinery,” running since at least 2016, from which Marcos Jr. is now benefitting, Gaw said. The posts employed targeted and coordinated messaging, and were then spread by an intricate network of websites and social media pages run by keyboard warriors employed by political operators, other studies found. Celebrities and influencers are brought in to help amplify the narrative, and the posts go viral.
“These videos and channels were assumed to be fringe, often dismissed as 'trolls' and nuisance, when in fact they were the building blocks of political propaganda that is undermining the integrity of the 2022 Philippine election,” Gaw said. “This neglect allowed for these actors to exponentially build their social capital.”
Gaw’s study found evidence of “networked political manipulation” on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, with political messaging packaged as entertainment or mimicking news, and incendiary content shared, propagated and then taken down after it had already triggered massive engagement. Much of it has gone unchecked, its accumulative detrimental effect only becoming apparent as the lead-up to the election shaped up in favor of Marcos Jr.
Marcos Jr. denies employing trolls to spread disinformation. “We have no trolls. None. Not a single one. I have been offered a click army. I’ve been offered a troll. I did not use it,” Marcos said in a TV interview in late April.
But many observers say the net effect of disinformation points to a single source. “The Marcos family has really invested so much in the disinformation machinery that now they [are] only enjoying, reaping the benefits of that particular investment,” Cleve Arguelles, a political science professor at the De La Salle University, said in a Rappler interview.
Meanwhile, social media platforms have touted their efforts to combat disinformation. In January, Twitter removed some 300 accounts it found to be promoting Marcos Jr, saying they violated rules on spam and manipulation. "We remain vigilant about identifying and eliminating suspected information campaigns targeting election conversations," a Twitter spokesperson said at the time.
YouTube said in March it was introducing features on its platform such as panels that offer links to accurate information on candidates and the elections, as it cracked down on disinformation including those that deny “well-documented violent events” such as the Marcos dictatorship.
In April, Facebook parent company Meta said it “removed a network of over 400 accounts, Pages, and Groups in the Philippines that worked together to systematically violate our Community Standards and evade enforcement,” in an effort to protect the elections.
One of the suspended pages mainly shared non-political dance videos but renamed itself to become “Bongbong Marcos news,” Meta said in a press release.
But these are far from enough.
As journalists, historians and other groups now race to fact-check and refute disinformation, Gaw worries it won’t turn the tide in time for the election. “While there are campaigns now that actively seek to correct and repair public knowledge and history about Marcos, I would argue that these interventions are too little, too late to undo the manipulation and change people's perception of that era.”
Human rights lawyer Edre Olalia remembers Marcos’ dictatorship. He finds it difficult to believe that the Philippines is yet again on the verge of electing another Marcos into power.
“It’s unbelievable,” he told VICE World News, shaking his head. “Unbelievable.”
But he understands why. Growing up, he said the song of Marcos Sr.’s political party was so ubiquitous, so much so that he remembers it to this day, 40 years later.
“Well, it's embarrassing to admit that during that time, I idolized Marcos Sr. And there was an explanation because we were bombarded with propaganda,” Olalia said.
The country was still under Martial Law when he got to college, and it was only then that he started to realize that the government’s carefully curated optics didn’t match reality. He learned about the brutality unfolding around him, including the death of his uncle Felixberto and cousin Rolando, trade union leaders that were detained, tortured and killed for their activism.
Olalia has since dedicated his life to representing clients with human rights cases, including victims of Duterte’s drug war, and even those still seeking justice from Martial Law decades later.
Having lived through the Marcos years, he emphasized that young voter Pinga was right about one thing: Marcos Jr. learning from his father. “He was already a grownup during the time of dictatorship,” said Olalia, and even took up a government position at that time, and “so he couldn't wash his hands [of his father’s crimes]."
Additionally, by actively engaging in a disinformation campaign surrounding the human rights violations under his father’s rule, Olalia said Marcos Jr. is complicit in covering up the deaths. “If somebody who denies reality, who does not acknowledge fact, and revises history and record—independent and credible ones—then there is really something wrong,” he said. “You are complicit in the perpetuation of a false memory… complicit in justifying all these killings.”
Olalia also worries that the return of the Marcoses could in some ways be worse than the regime that came before, especially with the culture of impunity that has been instilled over the years.
“They have learned how to deal with protests with dissent, with criticism, and they have entrenched themselves in power. They have put themselves in all the institutions of society,” he said, referring to the Marcoses’ practice of installing allies and cronies in key institutions and businesses. “So, if they're going to come back, they're going to come back with a vengeance.”
Yet as popular as Marcos Jr. continues to be, Olalia refuses to give up. With his generation— the one that lived through Martial Law—slowly dwindling, he said it is needed to bear witness now more than ever.
“If we're going to go down here, you go down fighting,” he said, his voice choking. “I mean, I have a kid… I'm going to be ashamed of myself if, when he grows up, he asks me: What did you do?”
“It is going to be a mortal sin if you could have done something or spoken out, and instead, you just remained silent and didn't do anything in the face of injustice.”