Philippine President-elect Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr, the son of late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

Rodrigo Duterte’s remarkable victory in the 2016 Philippine presidential election marked a significant shift in the country’s politics. Running on a fierce campaign against drugs coupled with his signature vulgarity, Duterte clearly distinguished himself from his opponents.

In spite of his controversies, Duterte somehow managed to secure 16 million votes. His popularity, however, was unlike those of previous presidents.

The 2016 presidential campaign took place at a crucial stage that saw the enhancement of social media’s role in politics. In fact, Duterte’s campaign manager built on Facebook’s growing significance and depended on the platform as a means of garnering support.

The tactics employed, however, were far from legitimate, relying on paid trolls and prominent public figures to propagate misinformation to Duterte’s supporters on social media. Moreover, the highly personalized yet obscure processes by which Facebook regulates content further foster a vulnerable political environment.

As the 2022 presidential election draws near, these issues are all the more prevalent. It is evident, therefore, that social-media platforms such as Facebook have threatened – and continue to threaten – the integrity of the Philippines’ democracy.

Since the 2016 elections, the surge in agents of misinformation on social media, along with Filipinos’ heavy reliance on these platforms as a source of information on current affairs, has been detrimental to the public sphere, ultimately creating an alarmingly divided and ill-informed voting population.

With more than a billion users, Facebook undeniably holds considerable global influence. The Philippines, known as the “social-media capital of the world,” has a staggering 67 million Facebook users. The site, however, serves more than just to connect friends and family. Indeed, a 2017 survey found that of those with access to social media, 87% trusted it more than “mainstream media.”

This heavy reliance on Facebook is exacerbated by its convenience and affordability. In the Philippines, users can avail of Facebook Basics, a simplified version of the app that allows users to surf the platform without Wi-Fi for free but incurs charges when visiting external sites, thereby increasing citizens’ reliance on Facebook.

Considering its extensive presence in the country, could it then be argued that Facebook serves as a modern-day public sphere? Defined as a place wherein “issues of importance to a political community are discussed and debated,” Facebook affords its users the platform and ability to do so not only domestically but internationally as well.

Respondents to a recent survey also reported using Facebook to promote political awareness and “persuade others to share their opinions.”

The ability of individuals to discuss, share, and create content is what ultimately distinguishes social-media sites from traditional media. It is this feature, however, that also makes them detrimental to the public sphere. In spite of being generally free from state control, social-media platforms have enabled an increase in misinformation.

In the context of the Philippines, agents of misinformation are seen in the mobilization of online trolls. Online trolling, defined as efforts to provoke others “by posting … offensive online messages,” undoubtedly proved successful during Duterte’s campaign.

Nic Gabunada, his campaign manager, exploited Facebook’s prominence in the country. Individuals were hired to manage dozens of Facebook groups and create content to be extensively shared through other platforms with the aid of click-farm workers.

Duterte’s influence was further enhanced through the employment of social-media influencers such as singer Mocha Uson and blogger R J Nieto, whose platforms garnered millions of engagements combined. Both were rewarded for publicly supporting Duterte, ultimately influencing their millions of followers into also doing so.

Considering the extent and intricacy of these tactics, they blur the line between the country’s actual political views and those generated by Duterte’s campaign team.

The implications of these strategies on the upcoming presidential election raise even more concerns. In recent years, particularly in Facebook pages indicating support for the late Ferdinand Marcos Sr, there has been a move toward re-envisaging the country’s martial-law era as a period of affluence rather than one of authoritarianism and human-rights violations.

In fact, the late dictator’s son is currently the most popular presidential candidate. The harsh reality of that era, however, was exemplified in the revocation of civil rights, the detention of thousands of dissenters, and extrajudicial killings.

In spite of the availability and considerable accessibility of Filipinos to factual information, why do Facebook pages rife with disinformation continue to gain traction?

The heightened presence of these actors could be attributed to the way Facebook regulates its content. There is a shared organizational belief within the company that it does not have the duty to edit content beyond the rather limited scope of Facebook community standards.

Although it has prohibited hate speech through AI (artificial intelligence) mechanisms, Facebook opts to recommend content to its users rather than remove it. Another issue arises regarding political advertising on the platform that can be targeted at specific demographics, such as one’s education levels.

Moreover, the growth of “extremist” Facebook groups is often alarmingly prompted by the algorithm when users are given suggestions on groups to join.

The irony of Facebook, therefore, is that despite the availability of differing perspectives on its platform, the reality of the system is that individuals are only exposed to those with the same views.

Facebook’s ability to connect people and disseminate information is abundantly clear. Its benefits, however, pale in comparison with its harms.

A study found that when users are constantly exposed to the same issues, they may become “more extreme in their position” because of group polarization, further leading to radicaliaation. Case in point, Duterte supporters issued rape and death threats in response to criticism against the president being posted on Facebook.

Furthermore, echo chambers thrive when people “interact primarily within their group.” As is the case with Facebook’s recommendation mechanisms, users are only exposed to content of a homogeneous perspective in line with their own, thus reinforcing the creation and sustenance of echo chambers. Within these environments, the more repeated a story is, the likelier its acceptance, despite being “completely fabricated.”

The circulation of falsified news stories by fake accounts within and among Facebook circles of Duterte’s and Marcos’ supporters, aided by Facebook’s intricate algorithm, has intensified these echo chambers. In fact, their supporters even went as far as “[attacking] professional journalists,” in essence delegitimizing their credibility. It is evident, therefore, that Facebook has aided in radicalization.

Free from state restrictions and censorship, the Internet’s public sphere was a concept that aimed to empower citizens’ political participation. In a world where real life is seemingly intertwined with social media, however, the public sphere is arguably under threat.

While platforms such as Facebook have allowed everyday citizens to enhance their political participation and engage with others, they have also led to the abuse of content-creation tools. The combination of citizens’ heavy dependence on Facebook, the increase in  misinformation, and Facebook’s content regulation practices ultimately undermined the benefits that the platform would have otherwise served.

Instead, Facebook further divided its users politically, resulting in the intolerance of opposing views fueled by the consumption of falsified information.

Despite the growing awareness of the tactics employed during the 2016 elections, similar patterns persist today, further putting the country’s democratic principles at risk. As Filipinos continue to use Facebook and other social-media sites for political engagement, there is no guarantee that these platforms can continue to serve truly and effectively as a productive public sphere in the near future.

Isabelle Amurao

Isabelle Amurao is a third-year university student in Thailand, majoring in international relations.