Manila, Philippines – Francis Gealogo is a seasoned scholar with a doctorate in Philippine history who has taught the subject for 35 years. But much of the teaching he has given lately has not been in the classroom or to his usual students.
Gealogo, who heads the history department at Ateneo De Manila University and has published more than 70 research papers, now follows his classes on social media. The 56-year-old historian said he joined Twitter late last year and launched an account on TikTok in March because he was concerned about a growing wave of misinformation about his country’s history. .
“We shouldn’t let fake story peddlers remain dominant in these new areas,” Gealogo told Al Jazeera, a bit shy about venturing onto social media at his age.
As Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr is set to be sworn in as the Philippines’ next president on Thursday, the story has emerged at the center of political strife in the Philippines.
Marcos Jr, the 64-year-old son and namesake of late Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos, won the presidency thanks to what historians and analysts like Gealogo have called a years-long and well-organized campaign to whitewash the brutal legacy from his father. The late Marcos, who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, declared martial law in 1972, and Amnesty International said it documented 3,257 political killings during that time. Some 70,000 people were also imprisoned and thousands were tortured. The Supreme Court of the Philippines, meanwhile, found that the Marcos family looted at least $658 million from state coffers as the country’s debt grew and millions of Filipinos lived in dire poverty.
Public anger over the Marcos’ abuses and corruption boiled over into a ‘people power’ uprising in 1986, in which the president was overthrown and forced to flee to Hawaii, where he died three years old. later.
Despite this historic record, Marcos Jr, who will take office on the 50th anniversary of the declaration of martial law, has used social media to rewrite history, downplaying the atrocities of the martial law era and describing his father’s tenure as a “golden age” for the Philippines. In an online interview earlier this year, Marcos Jr said his father brought the Philippines into the “modern world”, and a day after the election he visited his father’s grave and released a statement calling the late president an “inspiration” who “taught him the value and meaning of true leadership.”
“Tsunami of disinformation”
Diosa Labiste, a professor at the College of Mass Communication at the University of the Philippines, said there has been a “bombardment” online of “brazen lies” about Marcos’ legacy. “These distortions were supposed to make Marcos Jr win,” said Labiste, who checked social media posts for the last two elections as one of the experts for the Tsek.ph coalition, funded by Google and Meta. “And of course these were massively shared by a network of broadcasters.”
These posts included a video, which claimed that no one had been arrested during the martial law period, had racked up more than 187 million views by the start of the official election period on February 8, 2022. Another post which claimed that Martial law victims had fabricated human accounts of rights violations to extort reparations from the state was posted in 514 Facebook groups and viewed more than 89 million times.
“The combined fact-checkers are no match for the systematic networks of news operators behind martial law disinformation,” she said. “We’ve only done fact-checking for the last six months and we’re dealing with this tsunami of misinformation. Sharing suggests that the behavior is coordinated by repeat broadcasters or established channels and influencers.
What Labiste described as a “well-oiled operation” took years to prepare. The Marcos Jr campaign has used Facebook pages and groups, YouTube channels and TikTok videos to reach Filipino voters, most of whom use the internet to get their political news. A whistleblower from British data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, which helped former US President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, also said Marcos Jr asked for help renaming the image of the family in 2016, a claim he denied.
His revisionist campaign, however, received a boost from the Philippine government the same year when incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte decided to give his father a hero’s funeral. At the time, Gealogo, the history professor, was a commissioner with the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), which has an advisory role to the president. Gealogo opposed the decision, and he and his colleagues published an article titled “Why Ferdinand Marcos should not be buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery)”.
He was ignored. Just like public outrage.
Gealogo said Duterte’s decision was intended to absolve Marcos of his crimes. “It was a gross affront to the NHCP. So, I resigned in protest,” he said.
The hero’s burial for Marcos led to an explosion of misinformation that culminated in Marcos Jr.’s election victory. His family’s reputation, previously “known as corrupt, greedy, abusive” was “recalibrated into something amusing and contemporary,” Gealogo said. “Even the idea of Marcosian opulence – there are YouTube channels showing the family shining the light like they’re just like us.”
As disinformation threatens to erode established truths about the dictatorship, Gealogo said repositories of historical information are also under attack.
Last October, the government asked universities to purge their libraries of all “subversive” material, including accounts of the country’s martial law era. In March, several bookshops offering some of the same supposedly “subversive” texts were vandalized. When children’s book publishers Adarna House announced the sale of its collection of martial law literature in May, state intelligence chief Alex Monteagudo called it an attempt to “radicalize Filipino children against our government”.
NHCP historical sites researcher Eufemio Agbayani III said “what is written in our libraries and museums is still there” but acknowledged that Marcos Jr’s victory is likely to complicate matters for archivists, especially since the new president can order changes to historical documents, much like his father during the time of martial law.
“It’s like we’re between two rocks crashing into each other,” Agbayani said. “Marcos supporters will say we are biased because we have studies refuting Marcos Sr’s war record and videos discussing parts of martial law. We also manage the People Power monument and commemorate the occasion as part of our work. On the other hand, other people think the NHCP is not doing enough because of the rampant misinformation.
But he said any intervention by the NHCP in the debate would run counter to the commission’s commitment to political impartiality.
The Marcos campaign’s use of social media to spread disinformation comes at the same time that Philippine history has itself been downgraded as a subject in schools. Since 2014, it has only been taught as a separate subject at primary level.
Vladimer Quetua, union leader of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers in Metro Manila, described high school history lessons as “chop suey, a mix of bits and pieces but never the whole thing.” The lack of proper education, he said, created historic amnesia among young voters, many of whom were too young to remember the abuses of the martial law era.
“At the beginning of my term, the students were simply apathetic. It was difficult to introduce them to the history of the Philippines. Today they are fully engaged in politics but come from a place of misinformation. He said teachers were competing with “the sister tandem of Google and Wikipedia”, which is now supplanted by YouTube and Tiktok to “complete the family”.
Quetua said many of his fellow teachers have simply gone out to do their jobs and ensure that every child completes their compulsory education, but he fears that in the long run Filipinos will lose their understanding of what happened. happened during the period of martial law and its contribution to the trauma of the nation.
“The program limits you as an educator. Many students will believe the myths of having had a “golden age”. They see Marcos and yearn for his wealth,” he said.
For the Marcos family, the presidential victory of Marcos Jr was long in coming and a chance to cement their grip on power.
Imee Marcos, Marcos Jr’s sister and senator, said shortly after her brother’s election victory that the victory would finally allow the rehabilitation of their family’s name and legacy. Marcos Jr’s mother, Imelda, remains an influential political broker well into her 90s, while her son also sits in Congress. A cousin seems on track to become speaker of parliament.
Meanwhile, Sara Duterte, the daughter of the incumbent president, who has cracked down on independent media, is the country’s vice president.
Amid the new regime’s efforts to consolidate power, Labiste, the scholar and fact-checker, offered a sobering reminder of the challenge facing those who want to ensure people know the truth of the past. .
“Duterte’s playbook of suppressing independent media while favoring highly partisan news sources will continue,” Labiste said. “The challenge is to fight misinformation by verifying the facts. To do this, we need a movement.