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Disinformation Didn't Decide the Philippine Election | Insight

"Disinformation" has become the go-to explanation for democratic erosion. The truth isn't so black and white.

The Briefing: Anti-democratic dynasties.

  • The election results
    • Ferdinand Marcos Jr. won the Philippine presidential election
    • His father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., was the dictator of the Philippines in the 70s
    • He may have earned as much as 58% of the vote
    • His nearest rival, current Vice President Leni Robredo, only won about 30%
    • Marcos isn't the only political dynast to win big—Sara Duterte, daughter of current president Rodrigo Duterte, will be Marcos's next Vice President
  • A struggling country
    • Economically, the COVID pandemic reversed recent growth and improvement
    • Politically, Duterte has targeted opponents with legal attacks and restricted academic freedom
    • He's also conducted an infamous war on drugs, costing thousands of lives
  • A fair election?
    • Some have focused on electoral irregularities such as voting machine malfunctions
    • But Marcos's massive lead in the vote tally suggests that irregularities could only have marginal effects at best
    • The other concern is disinformation—the willful spread of false information

The Big Question: Does disinformation matter?

To put it bluntly, this result is a worrying development. Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was in no uncertain terms a bad man. Although elected in the 1960s, he enacted a period of martial law in 1972 that lasted into the 1980s. Marcos Sr. oversaw rampant human rights abuses, including thousands of extrajudicial killings, tens of thousands of instances of torture, and tens of thousands of imprisonments. What’s more, he and his family pilfered the state for as much as $10 billion over the course of 21 years in power.

After Marcos Sr. was exiled, the Philippines experienced a period of fitful democratic consolidation, but that progress is being undone. Despite enthusiasm for the avowedly liberal Robredo in some corners of Filipino society, democratic decline looks liable to accelerate under Marcos. But there are questions about just what’s responsible for the dangerous turn, and the failure to reverse it.

One object of attention from experts and international media has been disinformation. Filipinos are one of the most engaged nationalities on social media, where fake news and biased information have flourished in recent years. There are reports that the disinformation campaign in Marcos’ favor reached a nearly industrial scale, with social media platforms flooded by pro-Marcos stories and lightning fast responses to critical posts.

The most salacious stories out there are rumors like the one that the Marcos family possesses heaps of gold that it plans to distribute to the public, or that Robredo is a communist. But at the same time, there are more anodyne propaganda campaigns that—while undoubtedly biased in Marcos’ favor—aren’t easily distinguishable from typical political content. Some seem eager to lump both kinds of content into the same category of disinformation, but it’s not clear that’s fair. The New York Times, for example, cited disinformation as a problem, continuing, “[Marcos’s dictatorship] is being recast as a period of strong economic growth and infrastructure projects.”

While such a “recasting” may be disagreeable or misleading, especially in light of Marcos’s horrendous crimes, it’s not clear that it constitutes “disinformation.”

The Theory: Fact, fiction, in-between.

“Disinformation” is a darling explanation for democratic decline these days, particularly among legacy media outlets (which, as an aside, leaves me with the impression that there’s something of a turf war going on here). It’s not hard to see why; rampant lies on easily accessible social media platforms seem obviously liable to have corrosive effects on democracy.

The basic theory of disinformation is that if social media users see a plausible—but false—story about this or that candidate or this or that policy, they may actually change the way they vote. Given the ubiquity of social media, it’s not hard to imagine that viral false stories constitute a viable political strategy for unscrupulous political actors.

But the reality may not be so cut and dry. First, it’s not clear just how convincing disinformation is to voters. Blogger Matthew Yglesias cites a study that found most people were able to distinguish between real and fake news stories. Another study of voters in Germany establishes a causal relationship between disinformation and voting habits, but only along fairly narrow dimensions. Only certain types of people—by no means the majority of the German electorate—were apt to change their votes based on exposure to and belief in disinformation. Another study from Italy suggests that certain types of voters self-select into social media echo chambers where fake news flourishes, rather than being influenced by fake news itself.

Second, Yglesias notes that the line between “disinformation” and “opinion” is very blurry. If someone on a sunny day tells you, “It’s raining,” then you could consider that disinformation, because it’s provably false. However, if there’s a hurricane battering at your door and someone says to you, “It’s lovely outside,” that’s a different situation. While the vast majority of people would infer a different conclusion from the facts, that isn’t disinformation. When it comes to divisive political questions the situation is similar, and controversial conclusions drawn from appropriate facts are often mislabeled as disinformation.

The Takeaway: Don’t be hasty.

To critique the disinformation zeitgeist isn’t to suggest that disinformation isn’t, or can’t be, a problem. For democracy to flourish, citizens must have access to high-quality sources of information. Elections taking place under serious information disparities—between citizens and officials, different groups of citizens, etc.—can’t really be called democratic.

But when we read stories about disinformation in places like the Philippines, we need to examine disinformation as something that takes place in a much broader political ecosystem. Things like the economic downturn imposed by COVID and nostalgia for a very real period of economic growth that took place under Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. (however despicable he was) are crucial to understand, not to dismiss.

Moreover, not every disagreeable form of political speech is “disinformation.” Marcos Jr. and his allies’ attempts to launder his father’s reputation may be disinformation when they come in the form of outright lies. But it’s hardly novel for politicians to rely on nostalgia—often by omitting ugly details—to win votes. We should be careful about placing tried and true practices, which may themselves be regrettable—in totally new categories.

This is all to say that disinformation is a real problem, one that civil society groups and the media are rightfully shedding a light on. But before we jump to conclusions about how and how much it affects politics, we need to know more about it, and, more importantly, we need to carefully scrutinize invocations of disinformation when they arise.

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