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Marcos poll protest prompted years-long battle with falsehoods on social media

Four and a half years after its filing, the Supreme Court, sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), unanimously voted on Tuesday, Feb. 16, to dismiss “for lack of merit” the entire election protest of former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. that challenged the victory of Vice President Leni Robredo in the 2016 national elections.

“Out of the 15 members of the Tribunal who were present in today’s meeting, 7 members fully concurred in the dismissal while 8 concurred in the result,” a press briefer from the High Court read. It said Robredo’s counter protest was likewise dismissed.

Marcos filed his poll protest on the eve of Robredo’s oath-taking on June 29, 2016, after losing narrowly by 263,473 votes.

The topic of Marcos’ protest is one that is rife with disinformation.

Just a few hours after the SC announced the result of its vote on the protest, the former senator’s camp was insisting that the tribunal’s ruling covered only his second cause of action (to recount ballots in 36,465 clustered precincts), and not his third motion (to nullify votes in three provinces in Mindanao over allegations of voter intimidation and harassment).

Throughout the litigation of the case, running just 15 months short of the next presidential elections in 2022, Marcos and his camp have sustained a vicious campaign to cast doubt on Robredo’s win.

What ran alongside it was a barrage of falsehoods that circulated on social media, which overwhelmingly propped up Marcos and painted Robredo as a fraudster.

In August 2017, VERA Files Fact Check began tracking falsehoods making the rounds on social media. That year, the news organization observed that Marcos, second to President Rodrigo Duterte, appeared to have benefitted the most from online disinformation. (See VERA FILES YEARENDER: Who benefited most from fake news, and other questions, answered in three charts)

In 2018, the vice presidential vote recount was the top event that triggered the most number of falsehoods online. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK YEARENDER: VP poll recount, Dengvaxia issue spark the most fake news online in 2018)

Since 2017, VERA Files has published 31 fact check articles debunking disinformation having to do with the Marcos poll protest. Below are four patterns that emerged:

1) Claim of ‘Marcos win’ was recycled over 4 years

Ten reports, comprising a third of the 31 stories, had to do with social media posts and website articles that falsely claimed Marcos’ victory.

The first such piece of disinformation debunked by VERA Files was published in November 2017 by the website du30balitaph, which could have reached 1.3 million people and peaked with 2,918 likes per hour on Facebook (FB).

The latest circulated this January, posted in a video format by the FB pages DU30 and PDU30, and received nearly 30,000 reactions on the platform:

2) Robredo was painted as fraudster, and shaken by news of poll protest

Six posts gave false or unsubstantiated reports of Robredo’s “cheating.” These included claims that she ordered for-Marcos ballots to be burned, and that the Commission on Elections “confirmed” that she received 8,700 ghost votes:

There were also social media posts that presented the vice president as having violent reactions toward Marcos and the vote recount:

Not included in the count of 31 fact check articles were several online posts that attempted to smear the name of Robredo by connecting her with the New People’s Army or having a secret “ex-lover.”

3) False figures of VP vote count tally were likewise popular

While Marcos’ first motion to nullify Robredo’s win was denied by the PET, the tribunal proceeded with his second motion to conduct a vote recount in three pilot provinces chosen by the Marcos camp: Camarines Sur, Iloilo and Negros Oriental.

The recount happened from April 2018 to October 2019 and ended with Robredo’s lead widening to 278,566 votes (or about 15,000 more votes from the election day count).

The number of the votes garnered by Robredo and Marcos became a popular topic of disinformation. In 2018, 2019 and 2020, VERA Files debunked several graphics that gave such false figures:

4) Justices were not unscathed in poll protest-related disinfo

Lastly, VERA Files also observed attempts to smear the image of the justices tasked to lead the poll protest case.

In 2016, Marcos himself defended the PET and said one’s words must be measured when speaking of the SC. His camp also welcomed several instances in which the PET ruled in favor of him.

But come January 2018, Marcos changed his tune and called the tribunal “unfair and unjust” after his case was reported to have been raffled off to Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa. (See: VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Marcos backtracks on PET, now says it’s ‘unfair, unjust’)

In September 2019, VERA Files dissected a video uploaded by the YouTube channel Bagong Lipunan that referred to Caguioa as “biased” and “the dishonest man behind the delay of VP recount.” Of the 10 claims from the video that VERA Files looked into, six were false while three lacked context. (See: VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Pro-Marcos YouTube channel mixes fact with false claims on VP vote recount)

A month later, the poll protest case was raffled off to Associate Justice Marvic Leonen.

The magistrate likewise became the subject of disinformation in December 2020 after lawyer and self-confessed Marcos loyalist Larry Gadon wrongly claimed that Leonen is not qualified for his position. (See: VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Gadon makes wrong claim on Leonen’s qualifications as SC associate justice)