Can social media win an election?


On 30th June, Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. was sworn in as the President of the Philippines, a poignant result for those who remember his father’s 21-year dictatorship. Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s nine-year term, which ended in 1986 following the People Power Revolution, resulted in countless human rights abuses, with thousands having been unlawfully incarcerated, tortured, or killed.

Much of the Marcos’ family success in re-establishing themselves politically can be attributed to their effective use of social media propaganda in a country where, according to DataReportal, the number of social media users is equivalent to 82.4% of its population. Marcos Jr.’s election campaign saw a coordinated campaign of whitewashing of his family history across a variety of platforms, establishing him as the successor of a great legacy. Disinformation efforts were extended to platforms such as TikTok, targeting a generally younger demographic, exacerbating what has been described as ‘historical amnesia’. The suppression of literature relating to the period of martial law, along with the downgrading of history in schools has allowed the Marcos family to falsely depict their heritage as stemming from a golden era. Marcos Jr.’s predecessor as president, Rodrigo Duterte, whose daughter is now Marcos Jr.’s Vice-President, had also instigated clampdowns on independent media, hampering fact-checks of claims by social media and government outlets.

Rappler, an independent Filipino organisation resisting closure, led an investigation into the Marcos campaign’s use of social media, resulting in Twitter suspending over three hundred accounts in January 2022. Rappler found that the majority of these accounts were created in the last quarter of 2021, when Marcos Jr. launched his presidential campaign. These accounts mobilised to create trends at specific times — for example, #LabanMarcos trended on Twitter on 17th January, to generate support in anticipation of the Commission on Elections’ decision regarding petitions to cancel Marcos Jr.’s certificate of presidential candidacy.

These tactics are indicative of the changing nature of information warfare. Peter Pomerentsev, a former investigative journalist, describes this evolution in his book This Is Not Propaganda. In the digital age, political organisations cannot hope to effectively censor information through purely traditional methods of suppressing free speech. Instead of silencing dissent, politicians seek to quash its effects through an abundance of disinformation, creating an environment where it is difficult to verify countless claims made instantaneously. Political campaigns weaponise this by exposing users to a large volume of material, constructing a particular narrative to shape people’s beliefs, whilst facing little accountability.

Instead of silencing dissent, political organisations seek to quash its effects through an abundance of disinformation

Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, asserts that disinformation campaigns firstly aim to suppress the facts, before replacing them. Another trending phrase during Marcos Jr.’s election campaign was ‘REAL PEOPLE POWER’, inverting the events of the People Power Revolution to portray the Marcos family as victims of it, rather than its root cause. This evocation of history, albeit a manipulated one, is a powerful tool for harnessing voters’ emotional support, and shaping it through the lens of a specific political narrative.  Big, abstract ideas, along with emotional appeals drum up an instrumental basis for support, and to an extent give politicians immunity from evidence-based reasoning.

The 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal further displayed how campaigns can micro-target different demographics of voters with these sentiments through tailored political advertisements, on the basis of their specific characteristics. The scandal showed how social media can be utilised to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative, fostering loyalty to a particular faction. The behaviour of certain politicians demonstrates their knowledge of this; for instance, CNBC found that Trump’s most popular tweets contained falsehoods regarding the 2020 election. Trump’s lies on a public platform demonstrate confidence that his support base will not be negatively affected when he is able to simply brand his critics as spreading ‘fake news’.

Big, abstract ideas, along with emotional appeals drum up an instrumental basis for support

Social media-driven political campaigns may be a relatively recent phenomenon, but they have already proven highly effective in generating populist support, in countries all around the world. Disinformation presents a major challenge to political integrity, and ultimately to combat the problem, social media platforms must hold the organisations responsible to account. In the meantime, the role of evidence-based fact checks from independent media will become ever more important in providing useful instruction on how to recognise the subtle signs of disinformation.

Image: Rey Baniquet via Wikimedia Commons

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