‘Welcome to their channel’

How pro-Marcos content creators use deep stories and lax monitoring on YouTube

Ferdinand Marcos announces on live TV on the evening of Sept. 23, 1972 that he has imposed martial law. Proclamation No. 1081 was signed September 21. (Photo from the Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines)

Pro-Marcos YouTube content creators have harnessed deeply felt narratives to perpetuate and spread myths, falsehoods, and conspiracy theories about the ousted dictator—and the platform's premium on views and engagement helps keep viewers hooked on the content.

Speaking at the 3rd National Conference on Democracy & Disinformation this week, Dr. Cheryll Ruth Soriano of De La Salle University and Dr. Earvin Charles Cabalquinto of Deakin University said that these content creators — they referred to the YouTubers as influencers and brokers — have tapped into national pride to further the narrative that Marcos was the greatest president the Philippines ever had and that electing another Marcos will bring the country back the glory it supposedly lost in 1986.

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That the Philippines was an economic superpower during the Marcos years has been a persistent claim that lives on in YouTube, Soriano said, where the pro-Marcos influencers juxtapose infrastructure projects like the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant "with squalor, poverty, and failure of democracy during (Cory) Aquino's rule."

The BNPP, which has been mothballed for years and whose potential revival is brought up every few years, is particularly significant because it is "considered the marker of Marcos' economic foresight and intelligence in governance," she said, despite it being a bad investment and despite safety concerns that have been raised each time government considers activating it.

The myth that the Philippines was a great nation under Marcos is particularly powerful for overseas workers who have gone abroad because of the idea that "if Marcos was there, he would not allow us to be slaves in other countries."

These influencers have also perpetuated the myth of the Marcos gold, sourced either from an ancient Filipino family or from Yamashita’s treasure, that he was supposedly planning to distribute to Filipinos if he had not been ousted by People Power.

The myth, which Soriano described as very interesting and potent, does two things: It diverts attention from documented Marcos ill-gotten wealth and furthers the narrative that bringing a Marcos back to Malacañang would give the country access to that gold, which would make the country great again.

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The content creators have also sought to justify Marcos' policies, like Martial Law as well as the abuses that came with it, "as logical and inevitable," she said, pointing to narratives that only communists suffered under Marcos.

In one video cited in the study, a YouTuber who claims to present alternative history essentially argues that nobody was tortured during Martial Law who didn't deserve it because they were trying to bring the government down.

Soriano said that these stories tap into Filipinos' aspirations for the country and for its greatness that was supposedly taken away by Marcos' ouster.

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The disinformation about the Marcoses, she said, "are sandwiched in these deeply held aspirations," making them difficult to fact-check despite media and information literacy lessons taught in school.

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YouTube, the researchers said, has a culture of DIY knowledge creation that makes it fertile ground for the pro-Marcos content creators. "Here, learning is social. We learn from ordinary people, the experts of lived experience," Soriano said.

And their being "ordinary people" is what has helped these content creators find and grow an audience and, in the case of one content creator last September, enough clout to take potshots at historians and history scholars. 

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They have grown their audiences—one has 563,000 subscribers and views in the tens of thousands on individual videos— by asking viewers to "co-create" the channel by suggesting topics to discuss and by asking them for opinions, as well as by asking for their help to reach targets like viewer and subscriber numbers, which, Cabalquinto said, creates "a sense of collective success" when those targets are met.

They also foster that sense of community by referring to viewers by collective terms and honorifics similar to the "kapamilya" and "kapuso" used by broadcast networks, he said.

Cabalquinto said that these YouTubers have also taken cues from mainstream media to create authority with videos packaged like TV shows and as educational content, while some have used visual and audio cues to get viewers "to invest in an imagined world that is highly curated."

A video about Marcos infrastructure projects could, in one example, feature dramatic music to generate an emotional response in viewers while showing a backdrop of modern-day Vietnam as a representation of the Marcos glory years.

The effect, they said, is that these brokers "make propaganda and political campaigns appear like sincere knowledge pursuits in this DIY cultural media economy."

Engaging content, as well as search optimized titles and the liberal use of keywords and tags—sometimes unrelated to the video's actual content—have allowed the pro-Marcos brokers to take advantage of a platform that Cabalquinto said "incentivizes aggressive content creators [but has] loose and grey areas of platform governance."

The use of what he referred to as "chop suey" elements, having channels classified under "music" or “comedy" while categorizing individual videos on that channel as "news," makes catching falsehoods difficult.

As does the length of some of the videos, which can go on for half an hour or longer.

Cabalquinto stressed that YouTube needs to look into its platform governance and into its role into how these bits of disinformation are processed and filtered but acknowledged that the videos "allow a blurring of boundaries of what is fact and what is opinion."

While the platform has community standards that can lead to videos being taken down, Soriano said that the platform "is erring on the more liberal side" of freedom of expression.

In the meantime, what can be done? Soriano said that those working to undo these attempts at disinformation and historical revisionism should recognize that the myths are rooted in deep stories and look into "what it takes to make a compelling historical narrative."

She added that aside from books, historical accounts on the Marcoses exist on YouTube too, and that there is a need to "harness the openness of Filipinos to look at both sides" to look for those while in the platform’s rabbit hole.

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The 3rd National Conference on Democracy & Disinformation at UP Visayas in Iloilo continues today, February 26. Register through this link or catch the livestream on either the Move.PH or 2021 Democracy and Disinformation by UP Visayas Facebook page (or both!)