Publishers of disinformation were at full throttle this year in their production of inaccurate election-related posts — most of which circulated to either prop up or attack certain political aspirants even before the official start of the campaign period for next year’s national polls.
The top beneficiary of such posts was former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., while Vice President Leni Robredo appeared to be the most targeted.
VERA Files Fact Check, a third-party fact checking partner of Meta, debunked 336 viral online posts from Jan. 1 to Dec. 10. Over a third of these (120) were related to the upcoming elections.
Of this number, 52 either promoted Marcos, who is aspiring for the presidency in the May polls, or distorted facts about his family’s ill-gotten wealth cases and the atrocities committed under the administration of his father, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
Marcos’ distant runner-up is his running mate Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, with 15 posts in her favor. Her father, President Rodrigo Duterte, ranked third with 11 posts.
The last time VERA Files’ made a similar analysis, President Duterte emerged on the top spot.
The post that garnered the most views and had the highest reach among all election-related content online verified by VERA Files Fact Check was an April 2020 Facebook (FB) video that resurfaced this November. It carried false, misleading, and inaccurate claims about the Swiss bank accounts that Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos opened in 1968 to hold ill-gotten assets.
The video was revived around the time petitions were filed seeking to cancel Marcos’ certificate of candidacy (COC) or to disqualify him from running in 2022. The erroneous clip was viewed over 21.9 million times and possibly reached 24 million netizens, according to social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle.
Notably, the most viral content flagged by VERA Files Fact Check that carried claims advantageous to Marcos involved his father, specifically those denying the crimes charged against the late president.
The second most viewed disinformation piece we debunked, with an accumulated 8.5 million views from the platforms it circulated in, was a video falsely claiming that the human rights violations committed during Martial Law “were never proven in court.” Meanwhile, the posts that ranked third and fourth in terms of audience reached — with 10.8 million and 5.2 million internet users, respectively — both said none of the cases filed against the Marcoses presented evidence that they stole from the country’s coffers. This is a repeatedly disproved lie.
Here are the other trends that surfaced from an analysis of the fact checks on online election-related disinformation that VERA Files Fact Check published this year:
Real-world political events triggered election-related disinformation
There were 28 such claims debunked in November, the highest among all months, followed by October with 24.
Most of the viral posts flagged during this period were hinged on the context of the filing of COCs from Oct. 1 to Oct. 8, but which extended until Nov. 15, the last day for the substitution of candidates based on withdrawal, death, or disqualification.
The filing of several petitions challenging Marcos’ presidential bid prompted a spike in the number of disinformation content published involving him in November, mostly promoting his candidacy or fancying up his name.
Common themes in pro-Bongbong disinformation, apart from his family’s ill-gotten riches, included false claims about his Oxford education and manipulated images and videos that were made to show electoral rallies in support of his candidacy but were, in fact, of different events.
An example of the latter was an Oct. 25 TikTok video which claimed to show a group chanting Marcos’ name while walking around the Manila Baywalk Dolomite Beach. But the truth was that the original video showed members of a religious organization singing praise songs at the tourist spot; a different audio file, where people could be heard chanting Marcos’ name, was overlaid on the clip. The doctored post went viral, garnering 1.1 million views, 140,000 likes, and 3,000 shares.
Meanwhile, the most-targeted subject of disinformation publishers was Marcos’ political rival, Vice President Leni Robredo. With 28 flagged disinformation posts targeted against her, Robredo was the main prey of election-related false claims among local public figures.
The first wave of erroneous content concerning Robredo emerged in February. To recall, it was on Feb. 16 when the Supreme Court (SC), sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, dismissed Marcos’ election protest on her win in the 2016 elections.
Throughout the year, VERA Files fact-checked 11 viral posts related to the poll protest — 10 of which poked at the credibility of Robredo’s victory in 2016. The other one falsely claimed that the case’s ponente, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, was getting impeached.
Another dominant theme among disinformation posts aimed at the vice president was the depiction of her making nonsensical remarks and being incompetent to hold public office. Of the nine fact checks related to this, five involved made-up statements attributed to Robredo. The latest was a revival of an old fake quote where she supposedly encouraged illegal drug users to carry a gun for a “fair fight” during police raids.
Boxing champion and senator Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao also found himself on the receiving end of a wave of disinformation from May to July, making him the second most-targeted public figure following Robredo.
The attacks began after he made an unfavorable comment regarding President Duterte’s position on the West Philippine Sea dispute. His remarks resulted in a word war between the allies who belonged to the same political party and finally led to a split of Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban).
The friction between the two factions of the party gave birth to social media content largely biased against Pacquiao. Of the 11 fact checks published debunking inaccurate information in the context of the PDP-Laban rift, three were about Pacquiao’s college degree from the University of Makati. Netizens repeatedly claimed that the boxer acquired his diploma only within three months of study, when in fact, he underwent and completed a specialized program that ran for 16 months.
Most election-related disinformation posts in 2021 were in video format
The video format was the top choice of disinformation peddlers in creating election-related content this year. Of the 120 flagged posts, 56 concerned videos. Photos came in second with 33 posts in this format, while quote cards — the most dominant type of social media disinformation in 2019 — came in third with 21.
It was also observed that while most misinforming videos related to the elections were uploaded originally on YouTube, their dissemination and amplification are done usually by FB pages and private FB users who repost the videos either in public FB groups or on their own accounts. This resulted in a wider reach for the erroneous clips.
This scheme between YouTube channels and FB accounts also appears to be coordinated. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK YEARENDER: YouTube disinformation more notorious and networked on Facebook in 2021)
We also flagged three erroneous clips sourced from TikTok. More election-related disinformation content may be expected from users of this social media site as supporters of 2022 political aspirants have started utilizing the platform to promote their bets to a larger online audience.
Social media accounts that peddle disinformation either present themselves as “news” outlets or carry names of public figures such as “Duterte” and “Marcos”
As of Dec. 10, VERA Files Fact Check has flagged 160 FB pages, 49 public FB groups, and 10 YouTube channels guilty of uploading, sharing, or generating traffic to online election-related disinformation. The amount of these flags further underscore the role of social networking platforms in the continuous amplification of disinformation on the Internet.
Of this number, 35 FB pages, one FB group, and eight YouTube channels either carried a word related to news in their name (such as “news,” “today,” “live,” and “tv”) or presented themselves as accounts that publish regular updates on current and relevant events.
A number of these accounts also carried in their handles renditions of the names of Marcos Jr. (38), the Dutertes (28), Robredo (8), and SAGIP Partylist Rep. Rodante Marcoleta (6).
Three of the five most-flagged social media accounts that pushed out inaccurate election-related information were YouTube channels: Banat News TV (flagged 17 times), Showbiz Fanaticz (flagged 10 times), and DDS NEWSINFO (flagged five times). FB pages Duterte News Info and Rodante Marcoleta live were flagged at least six and four times, respectively.
— with reports from Bryan Manalang
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Commission on Elections, Resolution No. 10695, Feb. 10, 2021
Supreme Court of the Philippines, PRESS BRIEFER, Feb. 16, 2021
ABS-CBN News, Pacquiao: Duterte’s stance vs China waned after 2016 elections, May 3, 2021
Inquirer.net, ‘Nakukulangan ako:’ Pacquiao finds Duterte’s recent stance vs China over WPS lacking, May 3, 2021
GMA News Online, Pacquiao finds Duterte’s statements on Chinese incursions at WPS lacking, May 3, 2021
(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)