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Within the Philippines, a Flourishing Ecosystem for Political Lies

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CAVITE, Philippines — Arnel Agravante, a YouTuber within the Philippines, told his followers last October that he knew how Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the presidential front-runner and his candidate of alternative, had turn out to be wealthy.

The story, he said, was easy: Mr. Marcos’s dictator father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., didn’t steal money from the federal government, as has been widely reported. Somewhat, he was given tons of gold by a secretive royal family within the Philippines. “That’s what they call ‘ill-gotten wealth,’” Mr. Agravante said, ridiculing Mr. Marcos’s critics.

The gold story has been debunked by multiple fact checkers in addition to by Mr. Marcos himself, but that has not stopped Mr. Agravante from repeating it. The way in which he sees it, he is a component of the “alternative media” countering a mainstream press “spreading silly and fallacious details about our history” before next week’s election.

“The Philippines is paying the value for not having regulatory oversight and never ensuring that the overall population has a vital cognitive resilience against these sorts of brazen and blatant lies,” said Richard Heydarian, a political analyst on the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.

Much of the disinformation is being peddled 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 chairman and Mr. Marcos’s chief rival, is being painted as a communist who has achieved nothing in office.

In a single 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 autumn of the Marcos dictatorship.

“So what if it’s incorrect?” she said when a Recent York Times reporter identified that she was fallacious. Her video has been viewed greater than 27,000 times.

President Rodrigo Duterte won the election in 2016 partly because his allies flooded Facebook with false news about his opponents. But Mr. Marcos’s supporters have chosen a distinct approach to social media: livestream video.

YouTubers livestream Mr. Marcos’s rallies while echoing the candidate’s election narrative. They spread false details about his wealth and repeat allegations that Ms. Robredo cheated to defeat him within the 2016 vice-presidential race.

Analysts predict that this army of streamers is so large and devoted that Mr. Marcos would more than likely turn to it — slightly than to the standard news media — to spread his message as president.

“All candidates, all political parties engage in disinformation,” Benjamin Abalos Jr., Mr. Marcos’s campaign manager, told The Times.

The streamers say they should not paid by the Marcos camp, though they’re officially accredited as “vloggers” and roam freely at his rallies. A dozen of their channels have a complete of 1.6 million subscribers on YouTube and over 500,000 followers on Facebook, in line with a review by The Times.

A YouTube spokesman said the corporate had removed greater than 400,000 videos between February 2021 and January for violating hate speech, harassment and election misinformation policies. 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 fact-checked or removed during a livestream, and the growing prevalence of apps equivalent to TikTok has made it harder to weed out bad actors.

“If this election is won using disinformation, it will turn out to be a tried and tested formula that will probably be utilized in every election,” Ms. Robredo warned in a speech to the Catholic Church, urging people within the Philippines to not imagine the lies the web.

Yvonne Chua, who leads Tsek.ph, an independent fact-checking project within the Philippines, said in an email that the actual fact checks from its partners pointed mostly to Mr. Marcos’s supporters, who “engage in fire-hosing loads.”

“You furthermore mght see misinformation coming from certain candidates, but these are rare,” said Professor Chua, who’s an associate professor of journalism on the University of the Philippines.

Mr. Agravante, who promoted the debunked theory about Mr. Marcos’s wealth, was a call-center agent before deciding to turn out to be a full-time YouTuber last yr, producing amateur videos for his 109,000 subscribers. A longtime supporter of Mr. Marcos, he knows the candidate has refuted the claim in regards to the gold. Still, Mr. Agravante is unapologetic.

“Why would I alter my mind simply because he denied it?” he said.

The ability of amateur videos just like the ones produced by Mr. Agravante is that “they seem authentic or organic,” said Jonathan Corpus Ong, a disinformation researcher at Harvard. “They sound just like the language of the streets or the unusual person, as in comparison with the professionally produced ads and music videos of the Robredo campaign.”

The professional-Marcos videos often use daring letters and colourful graphics and images of Mr. Marcos and Sara Duterte, Mr. Duterte’s daughter, who’s running for vice chairman. One such video contained an interview with a Marcos acolyte who claimed that the 1986 People Power Revolution, which toppled the Marcos regime, was a product of “brainwashing” by the Aquino family.

Vincent Tabigue, who made the video, disputed the varied legal cases against the Marcoses, declaring that nobody within the family had been put in prison for stealing money from the federal government. “That’s only a political attack,” he told The Times.

Mr. Tabigue, 27, said that he had quit his job as a salesman to turn out to be a full-time YouTuber in 2019 and that he earned near $10,000 a month.

While nobody within the Marcos family has been imprisoned, Mr. Marcos’s mother, Imelda, was sentenced to as much as 11 years in prison for creating private foundations to cover her unexplained wealth. She posted bail in 2018; her appeal is pending.

The Senate acknowledged the issue of misinformation within the Philippines in 2018 when it held a series of hearings on the crisis. But no concrete steps were agreed upon, leaving individual lawmakers struggling to get the difficulty under control.

In February, Senator Francis Pangilinan, who’s running for vice chairman in support of Ms. Robredo, called for the Senate to review of criminal laws to curb misinformation and proposed a bill to deal with the difficulty. His efforts went nowhere.

On a recent motorcade with Mr. Marcos’s presidential campaign, Ms. Alcantara, the TikTok influencer, held a phone in her left hand as she helped one other supporter arrange his livestream. Along with her other hand, she flashed the peace sign, the trademark symbol of Mr. Marcos’s father.

“Marcos all the time!” she yelled.

Ms. Alcantara, 44, said her TikTok account had been temporarily banned several times after being reported by Ms. Robredo’s supporters. “Why is the issue just with us Marcos supporters?” she asked. “It’s the identical with what the opposite candidates’ supporters are doing. Additionally they post misleading claims, right?”

She wept as she recalled “all the nice things” the Marcoses had done for her community. “That is the moment we’ve been waiting for,” she said.

Sui-Lee Wee and Jason Gutierrez contributed reporting.

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