Filipino journalists, experts allege online attacks, disinformation from Marcos camp

BenarNews staff
2022.05.03
Manila and Bangkok
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Filipino journalists, experts allege online attacks, disinformation from Marcos camp Supporters of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte-Carpio use their mobile devices to take photos and videos of the running mates during a campaign rally in Santa Rosa, south of Manila, March 11, 2022.
Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews

Philippine journalists and experts marked World Press Freedom Day by expressing grave concern Tuesday about alleged online attacks by supporters of presidential aspirant Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and urging social media giants to patrol their online platforms.

They also pointed to a disinformation campaign via social media, alleging it had skewed the race in favor of Marcos with less than a week to go till Election Day. The frontrunner in surveys is the son and namesake of the late dictator who ruled the Philippines for 21 years, mostly under martial law.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP), which includes reporters working for some of the Western media’s leading news agencies, said several members had faced intimidation while reporting on Marcos.

FOCAP expressed its “grave concern over online attacks against some of our members by supporters of presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and the alarming difficulty we have faced in getting his clear, coherent and substantial explanations on issues imbued with public and national interest.”

“As we commemorate the World Press Freedom Day, we call on companies behind social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google, and YouTube, to investigate these attacks as possible coordinated behavior and how provocative content by pro-Marcos personalities endangers, smears, and incites hate and possible attacks on independent journalists,” FOCAP said in a statement.

Journalists also alleged that free speech would suffer if Marcos Jr. were to win the election set for May 9.

Marites Vitug, editor-at-large for the Philippine news website Rappler, said that of all the candidates in the presidential field, Marcos had been “the least open” one.

“He does not grant interviews to all, is very selective in … press conferences. They do not invite everyone in the media, and they screen questions,” Vitug said during a panel discussion on the Philippine elections organized in Bangkok by the Asia Centre, a media forum.

FOCAP noted that Marcos Jr. had remarked in a recent television interview that he wondered why journalists were complaining about the lack of access to him, when videos of journalists struggling to get near him have circulated widely online.

“I don’t know why they say that I am hard to ambush (doorstop) interview ... I’m always out in public. Of course, we are doing something else also. I don’t know why they say that because I can’t avoid them. I'm always out in public,” Marcos said in the TV interview on April 26.

On Tuesday, the Marcos campaign did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews seeking comment for this report.

“All these restrictive actions undermine a critical and free press in an Asian bulwark of democracy and have sparked fears on how independent media would be treated under another possible Marcos presidency,” FOCAP said.

FOCAP alleged that at least two of its members – Regine Cabato, a reporter for the Washington Post, and Howard Johnson, a correspondent for BBC News – were recently targeted in attacks from Marcos supporters.

Cabato was called a “whorenalist” and subjected to other online intimidation for a story she reported about Marcos Jr.’s tendency for “historical revisionism.” Johnson was threatened online by one Marcos supporter, who allegedly said, “someone will slash your neck for besmirching the Filipino’s reputation.” 

FOCAP was founded when President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law in 1972.

The media profession in the Philippines is considered one of the most dangerous globally, watchdog groups have said. Since 1992, as many as 88 members of the Philippine media have been killed because of their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

On trolls and disinformation

Meanwhile, US Filipinos for Good Governance (USFGG) launched TrollExposer.com, a website dedicated to exposing troll pages, accounts, and groups on Facebook that propagate fake posts and accounts, which have maliciously tagged independent presidential candidate, Leni Robredo, a “communist terrorist.” 

The group urged tech giant Meta, he parent company of Facebook, to immediately remove fake posts and accounts. 

“Our country has become extremely polarized through vigorous troll activity,” said Eric Lachica, the Washington-based coordinator for USFGG.  

“Having the presidency decided based on lies that re-write history and hide the fact that much of this troll activity is state-sponsored would be a tragedy. We hope it is not too late to detoxify the minds and hearts of our people.” 

Lachica said the USFGG had “exposed” a hundred pro-Marcos trolls.

Marcos-Sara-seated.jpg
Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (left, seated) and his vice-presidential running mate, Sara Duterte-Carpio, attend a campaign rally in the suburb of Santa Rosa, south of Manila, March 11, 2022. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

According to Joel Mark Barredo, a Filipino activist-researcher, “disinformation has slowly become an emerging cultural industry.”

“Social media, in this pandemic of the oppressed, had become a tool of authoritarians to control our narratives to tell us who we are and what we should be doing,” he said at the Bangkok event.

Marcos has an “army” of trolls working for his campaign, including some who had lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barredo later told BenarNews.

“[P]eople earn thousands and thousands of pesos spreading misinformation,” he said.

“It’s not something that happened overnight. This has been a calculated, well-planned, long-term project.”

If Marcos Jr. wins the presidential election next week, it will primarily be due to the disinformation campaign, warned Analiza Liezi Perez-Amurao, an assistant professor at Mahidol University in Bangkok.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint, you know, the exact percentage, but I would say that majority of it would have come from coming from disinformation on social media,” she told BenarNews on Tuesday.

Vitug, the editor for Rappler, said the Marcos family “has used social media extensively for a number of years to rehabilitate their image by peddling lies.” 

She said they have played down or denied human rights violations during the martial law years (1972-86), exaggerated their achievements, and vilified critics, rivals, and mainstream media.

And even though social media platforms removed some of the pages or accounts, they still “used social media cleverly to reach the new generation of Filipinos,” she said at the Bangkok event.

If Marcos Jr. wins, “I think disinformation will continue. He will rely on it,” Vitug said.

Jeoffrey Maitem, Basilio Sepe, and Jojo Riñoza contributed to this report from Manila, and Subel Rai Bhandari contributed from Bangkok. 

Note: BenarNews is a member of FOCAP.

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