The Triumph of Marcos Dynasty Disinformation Is a Warning to the U.S.

It was 9 P.M., and Maria Ressa, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist, was pacing back and forth in the newsroom of Rappler, the news site she co-founded a decade ago. The polls in the Philippines had closed two hours earlier, and about half the votes had been counted. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the son and namesake…

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It was 9 P.M., and Maria Ressa, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist, was pacing back and forth in the newsroom of Rappler, the news site she co-founded a decade ago. The polls in the Philippines had closed two hours earlier, and about half the votes had been counted. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the son and namesake of the former Philippine dictator, was leading by a margin so wide it was clear he would soon be President.

Across the newsroom, the reality was sinking in. Rappler journalists, most of them in their twenties, had reported on the campaign with courage and verve, posting videos, stories, and updates on their site and on multiple social-media platforms. Most important, Rappler had helped launch an innovative network of journalists, fact checkers, lawyers, activists, and academics to identify, track, and expose disinformation to voters. The outcome of the election would determine the future of Philippine democracy, and Rappler’s, too.

Marcos, Jr., had campaigned on a promise of restoring what he falsely claimed was the golden age of his father’s rule. He portrayed himself as the avenging prince, fighting to reclaim the power that had been unjustly wrested from his father. Ferdinand Marcos and his First Lady, Imelda, in fact, had enacted martial law, jailed dissidents, killed and disappeared thousands, plundered the treasury, and left the country in economic ruin. Like his father, who referred to critical journalists as “mosquitos,” he showed little patience for an inquiring press.

“They did it,” Ressa said, as early returns showed a landslide victory for the former dictator’s son who had whitewashed his father’s repressive rule. “They did it.”

Marcos, Jr.,’s running mate, and the country’s next Vice-President, was Sara Duterte, the daughter of the outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, barred from seeking reëlection. In his nearly six years in office, Duterte, a strongman populist who excelled at manipulating social media, had muzzled the press, jailed critics, and launched a war on drugs that left thousands dead and filled Manila’s sprawling shantytowns with corpses.

Rappler’s journalists reported on the cruel excesses of that war, which included thousands of extrajudicial killings by police and unknown gunmen, and exposed Duterte’s well-oiled online disinformation machine, which demonized dissenters and amplified the President’s call for blood. For Rappler, the blowback was swift: first online, mostly on Facebook, with a deluge of insults and threats to its reporters and Ressa in particular. Then came a barrage of lawsuits, so many that if the potential jail sentences from them were added up, Ressa would be imprisoned for more than a hundred years.

In 2019, Ressa was arrested by plainclothes officers who came to the Rappler office. She was detained overnight and posted bail, but, a month later, at the Manila airport, when she arrived home from an overseas trip, she was arrested again. In the newsroom, there was fear and dread. Editors stationed guards outside the Rappler office, in a suburban mall, and prepared the staff for more arrests and possible closure.

The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded last December, lifted morale in the newsroom and earned Rappler global acclaim. Duterte, now a lame duck, came under attack for corruption and the ineptitude of his pandemic response. As campaigning began in earnest, the country’s pro-democracy groups, battered by Duterte’s rule, coalesced around the candidacy of Maria Leonor Robredo, the current Vice-President. Her call for a more caring, transparent, and responsive government drew record crowds. Tens of thousands of youthful campaign volunteers believed a “pink revolution” was sweeping the country—pink was Robredo’s campaign color.

Ressa graduated from Princeton in 1986, the year that angry citizens chased the Marcos family out of the Presidential palace and forced them into exile. Inspired by “people power”—an uprising where nuns praying the rosary and young women offering flowers stopped Marcos’s troops from firing at protesters—she returned to the Philippines to work as a journalist. Like many Filipinos of her generation, she believed that the Philippines, a nation of a hundred and ten million that is the oldest democracy in Southeast Asia, had rid itself of strongman rule.

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