The Political Nature of Fake News in the Philippines
The virtual world is a double-edged sword. While it brings information closer to the public sans the restrictions inherent in the mainstream media, it poses a great danger as the distinction between fabricated stories and facts gets intentionally blurred on the minds of uncritical and unsuspecting public.
The loose regulatory practices of the publication of contents online allow false narratives to thrive and victimize incautious social media users.
In contrast to mainstream media, social media platforms do not provide mechanisms to help users identify the legitimacy and the source of information online.
The proliferation of fake news cannot be attributed solely to these loose social media regulatory practices. Its appeal to the public may also be credited to the ability of individuals working behind the scene to manipulate political conversation, stir audience sentiments and shape voting behavior. These individuals are the public relations (PR) professionals who apply the techniques and leadership common in the advertising and marketing industry to election and politics.
A report reveals that fake news is a collaborative work of a network composed of professionals plucked from the advertising industry. With better incentives as an enticement, many professionals have been lured into working in digital undergrounds to enable the proliferation of misinformation. This level of professionalism allows fake contents to be on the same level with the information being released by legitimate sources at least in terms of projecting authenticity.
In the Philippines, this kind of highly organized digital setup has been prominently used as an election strategy in the last Presidential election in 2016.
Political clients finance a huge network to create and peddle fake and/or misleading narratives for political gains.
The main mission of this network, through the help of anonymous users, more commonly known as trolls, is to either glorify a political figure or demonize certain individuals; both of which aim to assimilate fake information into public opinion to reap a political advantage. Of the two, the most common and hostile is the latter.
Since 2016, fake news sees the perceived political rivals of the Duterte administration as its common and primary targets. Online propagandists and trolls tirelessly launch attacks on anyone going against Duterte by degrading the latter’s reputation using unfounded narratives.
And there is no person who receives the largest amount of fake news other than Vice President Leni Robredo, the first in the presidential line of succession.
Fake News Against VP Robredo
Vice President Leni Robredo, once a member of the Duterte cabinet now trying to be the moral compass of the government, has been the main victim of false narratives under the Duterte regime since day one.
Her refusal to remain mum on President Duterte’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Philippines and the bloody war on drugs made her the prime and favorite target of fake news perpetuated by President Duterte’s network of online bloggers and trolls.
Below is a list of fake news that were hurled against VP Leni Robredo:
#1 Leni Robredo faces pregnancy rumors
As early as 2016, VP Robredo was misogynistically harassed by social media users over the pregnancy rumors against her. Posts about the evident change in Robredo’s physical appearance circulated online – explicitly fabricating a story that the Vice President was pregnant – coupled with issues maliciously linking VP Robredo to a Quezon City congressman. Even Duterte himself joined the trend asking the Vice President personally during one of his speeches whether the rumors about her pregnancy were true. To make it more believable, after months of no evidence of pregnancy the trolls started to spread a new lie, that VP Leni had an abortion.
A typical and potent attack on women politician is slut shaming to dissemble her and her credibility similar to what the DDS trolls did to Sen. Leila De Lima, another critic of the Duterte regime. To date, it is the most powerful propaganda waged against VP Leni because it puts into question her moral authority in the minds of people reached by this fake news that aims to devalue her and her politics. After five years, many are still waiting for the gender reveal unfortunately.
#2 Trolls and Mocha Uson falsely accused Leni of election fraud
Aside from the pregnancy rumors, online users ardently call VP Robredo names suggesting that her victory in the 2016 Presidential Election was rigged. The most popular of which is the branding of VP Robredo as “fake VP” who robbed former senator Bongbong Marcos of the Vice-Presidential seat.
Mocha Uson, a high-ranking government official who got appointed by virtue of being an ardent supporter of the President despite lacking the right qualifications, has been overtly making use of this label online to undermine the legitimacy of Robredo’s win.
Questioning the legitimacy of Robredo”s election is not only to decapitate her ability to govern or her chances in future elections but is also helping Marcos’s claim in the legal and extra-legal arena. Many of these DDS bloggers and online trolls have become chummy with the Marcos siblings.
This allegation of electoral fraud was brought to the Supreme Court by Bongbong Marcos himself with the active participation of VP Robredo. On the 16th of February this year, the SC dismissed the electoral protest of Marcos based on his insufficient justification of the annulment of elections in three (3) provinces in Mindanao.
#3 Critics make use of pandesal to discredit the VP
These allegations of electoral fraud, however, have not held Robredo’s office back from staying productive despite not enjoying the luxury of having enough resources at its disposal. Leni Robredo has been one of the first responders to the immediate needs of Filipinos in times of crisis. Her office maximizes the available budget and tapping the private sector for the efforts of Robredo. Such genuine acts, however, have not been spared from politicking of Duterte’s allies.
News about her office distributing pandesal and bottled water to aid the Taal victims circulated online but the spin of the DDS trolls is that Robredo came with more bodyguards and reporters with the intent of undermining Robredo’s crisis action. It is a common troll narrative that the VP is only interested in press coverage than doing actual help. They’re trying to dismantle the “para sa laylayan” persona of the Vice President. Later on, the falsity of the information was proven.
A common troll attacks say that Robredo’s expenditure on her media team prevents the VP to fully exhaust her resources into responding to the immediate needs of the people. They allege that the VP was prioritizing media exposure by personally bringing a director and/or members of the media to document her activities. Or that she is more interested in press conferences. This, however, has been answered by the VP in one of her online posts.
#4 DDS propagandists deliberately confuse Leni with a doctor
Perhaps, one of the latest and totally cringe-worthy fake news thrown at Robredo was her alleged inoculation with COVID-19 jabs in Marikina. The VP was ridiculed online with social media users laughing at a picture of a woman receiving a vaccine shot while wearing a long-sleeved blouse. The intention is to mock the VP for being “boba” which is a common line of propaganda by DDS trolls. A simple misspoke would be magnified a hundred times to bombard the public of the image they want us to see of the Vice President.
Later on, the VP corrected the information in her Facebook post saying that she was not the woman in the picture. The said post was, then, shared by Dr. Flordeliza Grana with a caption: “’Bakuna’ blouse gamit ko. Please report those spreading fake news. Thank you.” Despite the clarification, trolls did not take down their post and no offered apology to VP Leni or Dr. Grana.
The Marcos siblings are accused of faking their academic credentials destroying the myth of a Marcos genius and what better way of countering it by painting your opponent, in this case Leni Robredo, as stupid.
#5 Badoy launches an unfounded attack anew on Leni
Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy overtly associated VP Leni Robredo with the CPP-NPA-NDF calling Robredo “an ally” of the communist group. Her sole basis was the suggestion of the Vice President to realign government funds initially allotted for the projects under the NTF-ELCAC to bridge the gap between the available resources of the government and the needs of the people amid the COVID-19 health crisis. For Badoy, this mere suggestion was enough to carelessly red-tag the VP without substantiating it with actual facts. Recently, such act of labelling has been the convenient tool of both trolls and appointed government officials working at the behest of the President to attack those who do not agree with them.
#6 Tricia is not out of harm’s way
Not only are trolls active when tarnishing the image of the Vice President, but they also see Leni’s children as their prime targets. With an intent of further demolishing the good reputation of Robredo, fake news circulated online accusing Tricia Robredo, Leni’s second eldest daughter, of sending hurtful messages on Facebook. Such allegation was countered by fact-checkers and taken down by Facebook.
Children, especially minors, are usually off limits in politics. But Robredo being a widow and a single parent is being attacked by DDS trolls as a “pabayang ina”. This propaganda indirectly questions her capability to lead the country, kung di nga nya kayang disiplinahin at palakihin ng matino ang kanyang anak paano pa ang bayan.
Impacts on the Next Presidential Election
While VP Robredo has been gracefully enduring the false narratives thrown at her, it cannot be denied that the unregulated circulation of misleading and/or fake information has been dividing Filipinos at a time when we should all be united in the face of existential crisis confronting the country.
Fake news affects the public at large since it stifles critical thinking and the ability of the people to meaningfully contribute to public discourse.
The danger of fake news is further exacerbated by the upcoming 2022 election.
If not properly addressed, the syndicated network of PR professionals and online trolls working with political operatives may be used or tapped once again to sway the results of the 2022 election. The result will be catastrophic for democracy in the Philippines.
The trolls may have been successful in damaging the chances of VP Leni Robredo in 2022. But who really lost? Is it the political opposition or the people? We may miss the chance of having to vote for a hard-working and innovative candidate if she decides not to run for President next year.
It is expected that VP Leni will be at the receiving ends of new barrage of fake news in the coming months until the election day. Or maybe the trolls are too confident that VP Leni is too damaged to win and set their sights into other Presidential contenders like Yorme or Pacman.
Meme warfare has poisoned the political well. And slowly, while no one is taking notice, it is ruining our democracy. Fake news are destroying politicians like the unbothered Queen Leni Robredo but in the end it is us who is destroyed by succumbing to fake news. We end up voting for candidates who call us stupid for believing them.
If our polity will continue to fail in protecting ourselves from the onslaught of insidious fake news, then, how can we ensure that the results of the 2022 Presidential election will be credible and worthy?