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In the Philippines, grass-roots campaign takes on the Marcos juggernaut

Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo, a candidate in the Philippines' presidential election, speaks at a rally in Quezon City in February. (Lisa Marie David/Reuters)
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VALENZUELA CITY, Philippines — In the final stretch of the Philippines’ pivotal presidential election, the underdog campaign is mobilizing public flash mobs, a “truth army” to fight online disinformation, and door-knocking by pink-shirted volunteers inspired by the candidate’s stay-positive philosophy.

On Monday, they and the country will see whether the effort has given Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo enough momentum to overtake front-runner Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator.

Robredo has faced a tough fight from the start. Her young canvassers have been heckled and even had water dumped on them as they’ve sought voters’ support. During one group’s recent foray into a low-income neighborhood in this city just north of the capital, only a few people asked for campaign literature, and from behind a closed door, a woman called out that the canvassers shouldn’t even bother knocking: “We’re solid Marcos here.”

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But although Robredo was still a distant second last month in polling by Pulse Asia, her numbers were up eight percentage points from earlier in the year. A surge in the final weeks could still make the election competitive — and prevent the Marcos family from returning to power.

A lawyer and social activist who entered politics after her husband’s death, Robredo defeated Marcos to win the vice presidency in 2016. In office, she became embroiled in a combative relationship with President Rodrigo Duterte. (The Philippines elects its president and vice president separately, and Duterte and Robredo are from different parties. Term limits block him from running for reelection.)

Ten candidates are in the running, but since beating Marcos in 2016, Robredo has been in the crosshairs of an intense smear campaign focused on both her professional and private lives.

Yet her star-studded rallies still draw hundreds of thousands. In a country where politics and entertainment collide, beauty queens, rock stars and high-profile celebrities offer her endorsements. Artists paint murals of her.

Robredo’s main message is a variant of the radical love strategy used by the opposition in Turkey against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The approach rejects polarization by listening to the supporters of populists rather than speaking over them and by prioritizing issues that are highly relatable, such as hunger and employment.

The election will test this strategy and the capacity of Robredo’s campaign to have an impact in an information ecosystem largely defined by paid propagandists.

In the Philippines, nearly everyone is online, but most people are not adept at distinguishing between disinformation and authentic reports, according to Miguel Rivera, director of the Ateneo Martial Law Museum. He calls it a “perfect-storm example” of what happens when people have access to social media platforms but low media literacy.

“We have high technical literacy … but we have not developed a communicative culture,” Rivera said. “We have not really established how we talk to each other about our common problems.”

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The answer, said Anton Lim, Robredo’s campaign manager for the southwestern region of the southern island of Mindanao, is an army of volunteers that he hopes can combat a rampant culture of vote-buying with trips to far-flung communities. They must debunk conspiracy theories such as the one that falsely claims Robredo killed her husband (he died in a 2012 plane crash) as well as fake scandals targeting her three daughters. They persevere out of a sense of frustration.

“I feel it in my gut that if we don’t help her win … it will make our life as community development workers hard,” Lim said. “If we have another six years of [disinformation], the damage will be permanent.”

Robredo enjoys a broad range of support, from Catholic Church leaders to farmers whose land rights she once fought for. But she is struggling to crack Marcos’s popularity across all social groups — at least according to the polls.

Analysts describe her brand of “slippers” leadership — named for the flip-flops she wears on the campaign trail — as the antithesis of the traditional politics of dynasties typified by Marcos.

The grass-roots initiative is “challenging the traditional notion of patronage and clientelism,” said Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

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Complementing the door-to-door efforts is a volunteer operation to combat disinformation.

Anton Carranza is an administrator for the Digital Warriors, a network of more than 400 group chats that he calls Robredo’s “truth army.” After concluding that social media companies were not doing enough to fight disinformation, Carranza helped organize private citizens to seize control of the algorithm — and narrative — from sophisticated, full-time troll armies that blanket social media with material supporting Marcos.

When news items about Robredo are deluged with hate, his volunteers — many of whom are retirees or professionals working outside office hours — flood the posts with likes and positive comments to neutralize the trolls. Pro-Marcos accounts typically try to undermine Robredo and spam comment sections with negative remarks.

The network’s house rules are simple: Uphold zero tolerance for fake news. Battle on “neutral ground” such as news articles. And do not engage with trolls and propagandists directly.

“We’re the quick-response team,” Carranza said. “Let’s intensify house-to-house [campaigns], but let’s not leave the social media front of the fight.”

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Though Robredo has a substantial presence on Facebook — and in fact was the largest spender on Facebook advertisements last year of all the candidates — YouTube is effectively Marcos territory.

The platform has fostered pro-Marcos conspiracy theories for years. Even though YouTube announced that it has taken down 400,000 videos uploaded from the Philippines with misinformation in the last year, experts believe it is too little, too late and will make little difference in the election.

“Everything that is borderline or gray, ambiguous … distortion, cherry-picking, all the other more strategic disinformation tactics they use — it’s not part of what can be taken down,” said Fatima Gaw of Digital Public Pulse, a project monitoring election discourse on social media platforms.

Gaw’s research previously found that 8 of 10 Marcos-related YouTube videos sought to rewrite the family’s history and that the platform’s algorithm amplified amateur content and hyperpartisan propaganda as opposed to news and academic sources.

Video blogger Marc Santos Gamboa, who backs the presidential run of Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso, explained that content creators are incentivized to produce pro-Marcos content because there is so much of it on the site, guaranteeing a following and viewership. This allows creators to make a sizable profit through the YouTube Partner Program, which allows creators to monetize their channels.

“YouTube is where brainwashing happens,” Gamboa said. “If I switched to [Marcos] now, I would make two or three times what I’m making.”

The challenge will be how to sustain Robredo’s popular movement after the election. If she loses, said her spokesman, Barry Gutierrez, the movement could turn into “the foundation for the opposition.”

In the narrow alleys of Valenzuela City, 17-year-old Janviper Calacday admitted that he had skipped a week of school so he could knock on doors for Robredo.

“I realized [fighting] on Facebook was wasting my time, because we’re up against paid trolls,” he said. “I can retake my classes, but not the elections.”

In one house, an elderly woman asked for Robredo campaign materials, even while her husband tried to shoo the volunteers away. Her neighbor came and grasped a volunteer’s arm, looked him in the eye and said, “Please work very hard.”


An earlier version of this article misidentified the director of the Ateneo Martial Law Museum. He is Miguel Rivera. The article has been corrected.