CAVITE, Philippines – Arnel Agravante, a YouTuber in the Philippines, told his followers last October that he knew how Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the presidential candidate and his favorite candidate, had become rich.
The story, he said, was simple: Mr. Marcos’ dictator father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., did not steal money from the government, as has been widely reported. Instead, he was given tons of gold from a secret royal family in the Philippines. “That’s what they call ‘illicitly acquired wealth,'” said Mr. Agravante, while confronting critics of Mr. ridiculed Marcos.
The golden story has been debunked by multiple fact-checkers and by Mr. Marcos himself, but that stops Mr. Agravante doesn’t like to repeat it. As he sees it, he is part of the “alternative media” opposing a mainstream press that is “spreading stupid and misinformation about our history” ahead of next week’s election.
“The Philippines is paying the price for failing to oversee regulations and ensure the general population has the cognitive resilience it needs to deal with these kinds of brazen and blatant lies,” said Richard Heydarian, a political analyst at the Polytechnic University of the United States. Philippines.
Much of the misinformation is spread on Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. The violent Marcos era is being recast as a period of strong economic growth and infrastructure projects. Leni Robredo, the country’s vice president and Mr. Marcos’ main rival, is portrayed as a communist who has achieved nothing in office.
In one video, Jovalyn Alcantara, known to her 24,000 TikTok followers as Mami Peng, falsely claims that the Philippines’ debt doubled to $50 billion under Corazon Aquino, who became president after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.
“So what if it’s not right?” she said when a New York Times reporter pointed out that she was wrong. Her video has been viewed more than 27,000 times.
President Rodrigo Duterte won the 2016 election in part because his allies flooded Facebook with false news about his opponents. But Mr. Marcos’ supporters have taken a different approach to social media: livestream video.
YouTubers are streaming Mr Marcos’ demonstrations as they repeat the candidate’s election story. They are spreading false information about his wealth and repeating allegations that Ms. Robredo cheated to defeat him in the 2016 vice presidential race.
Analysts predict that this army of streamers is so large and committed that Mr. Marcos will most likely turn to it — rather than the traditional news media — to get his message out as president.
“All candidates, all political parties are engaged in disinformation,” Benjamin Abalos Jr., Mr. Marcos’ campaign manager, told The Times.
The streamers say they are not paid by the Marcos camp, although they are officially accredited as “vloggers” and roam freely at its gatherings. A dozen of their channels have a total of 1.6 million subscribers on YouTube and more than 500,000 followers on Facebook, according to a review by The Times.
A YouTube spokesperson said the company had removed more than 400,000 videos between February 2021 and January for violating policies on hate speech, harassment and misinformation about elections. A spokeswoman for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said an account flagged by The Times had repeatedly shared false content and had been barred from monetizing such posts.
But false claims can’t be easily checked or removed during a live stream, and the growing prevalence of apps like TikTok has made it harder to weed out bad actors.
“If this election is won using disinformation, it will be a tried and true formula that will be used in every election,” Ms Robredo warned in a speech to the Catholic Church, calling on people in the Philippines to stop the lies on the internet. unbelieveable .
Yvonne Chua, who leads Tsek.ph, an independent fact-checking project in the Philippines, said in an email that his partners’ fact-checks mainly pointed to Mr. Marcos’ supporters, who are “involved in fire-fighting”.
“You also see misinformation from certain candidates, but these are rare,” said Professor Chua, an associate professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines.
Mr. Agravante, who promoted the debunked theory about Mr. Marcos’ wealth, was a call center agent before deciding to become a full-time YouTuber last year, making amateur videos for his 109,000 subscribers. He has long been a supporter of Mr. Marcos and he knows that the candidate has refuted the claim about the gold. Yet Mr Agravante is not apologetic.
“Why would I change my mind just because he denied it?” he said.
The power of amateur videos like Mr. Agravante’s is that “they seem authentic or organic,” says Jonathan Corpus Ong, a disinformation researcher at Harvard. “They sound like the language of the street or the common people, compared to the professionally produced advertisements and music videos of the Robredo campaign.”
The pro-Marcos videos often use bold and colorful graphics and photos of Mr. Marcos and Sara Duterte, daughter of Mr. Duterte, who is running for vice president. One of those videos featured an interview with a Marcos acolyte who claimed that the People Power Revolution of 1986, which overthrew the Marcos regime, was a product of “brainwashing” by the Aquino family.
Vincent Tabigue, who made the video, disputed the various lawsuits against the Marcoses, pointing out that no one in the family had been jailed for stealing government money. “That’s just a political attack,” he told The Times.
Mr Tabigue, 27, said he quit his job as a salesperson in 2019 to become a full-time YouTuber and was earning nearly $10,000 a month.
Although no one in the Marcos family is imprisoned, Mr. Marcos, Imelda, sentenced to 11 years in prison for setting up private foundations to hide her inexplicable wealth. She paid bail in 2018; her appeal is pending.
The Senate recognized the problem of disinformation in the Philippines in 2018 when it held a series of hearings on the crisis. But no concrete steps were agreed, leaving individual lawmakers struggling to get the issue under control.
In February, Senator Francis Pangilinan, who is running for vice president in support of Ms. Robredo, called on the Senate to review criminal laws to curb misinformation and proposed a bill to address the issue. His efforts came to nothing.
During a recent motorcade featuring Mr. Marcos, Ms. Alcantara, the TikTok influencer, held a phone in her left hand while helping another supporter set up his live stream. With her other hand she showed the peace sign, the trademark symbol of Mr. Marcos’ father.
“Marcos always!” she screamed.
Ms. Alcantara, 44, said her TikTok account had been temporarily banned several times after being reported by followers of Ms. Robredo. “Why is the problem only with us Marcos supporters?” she asked. “It’s the same with what the supporters of the other candidates do. They also post misleading claims, right?”
She wept as she remembered “all the good things” the Marcoses had done for her community. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for,” she said.
Sui-Lee Wee and Jason Gutierrez reporting contributed.