The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a dictator’s son rises to power, disinformation fractures Filipino families

A supporter of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Mandaluyong waves a Philippine flag days after the country's May 9 presidential election. (Martin San Diego for The Washington Post)
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MANILA — Louie Crismo remembers the day almost half a century ago when his brother was grabbed off the street by Philippine security forces and never seen again — one of more than 3,000 people killed during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. So he was appalled when the strongman’s son emerged as the front-runner for president earlier this year. His horror grew when he realized Marcos’s supporters included members of his own family.

On the eve of the election last month, Crismo pleaded with his cousins to reconsider.

“Let’s remember his good heart and the pain that martial law brought,” the 64-year-old wrote of his brother, with a link to details about the disappearance. “Hopefully you will join us in helping stop the dictator’s family from returning to power.”

But his message went unanswered. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as “Bongbong,” won in a landslide. And Crismo hasn’t spoken to his cousins since.

How the Philippines’ brutal history is being whitewashed for voters

When Marcos Jr. is inaugurated on June 30, it will cap a decades-long project to rehabilitate the image of the Philippines’ most infamous family with a mixture of online mythmaking, real-world alliances and messages of unity. But the family’s return to power nonetheless has come as a shock to the millions who once celebrated its expulsion.

The pain and confusion has been most intense for the relatives of those killed and for the roughly 70,000 victims who survived detention, half of whom were tortured, according to journalists and human rights groups. Many feel the darkest and most formative chapter of their lives is being erased — not only by Marcos Jr., who refuses to acknowledge or apologize for his father’s abuses, but also by their own families.

The issue has erupted at dinner tables and in family chat groups, splitting relatives and souring friendships. A group of psychologists who have been providing counseling for those who volunteered for Marcos Jr.’s opponent in the election campaign estimated that up to a third of them talk of politically divided households.

“A classmate from medical school told me she voted for Bongbong and said, ‘it’s time to move on,’ ” recalled Imelda Cabatuando, who was detained for three months, electrocuted in her genitals and threatened with rape during the dictatorship. “I said, ‘Don’t you dare tell me to move on. I was tortured under Marcos.’ Then I unfollowed her on Facebook.”

The election has exposed old wounds. But it has also revealed fresh frustrations with liberal democracy in the Philippines, a close U.S. military ally that has drifted toward China under outgoing president and strongman Rodrigo Duterte.

Marcos Sr. declared martial law in 1972 after a series of attacks he blamed on communist guerrillas, some of which were actually the work of his government. For the next 14 years, his forces arbitrarily arrested critics and suspected leftists, often dumping their bodies in public to suppress dissent. Marcos Sr. and his family also siphoned billions from government coffers, some of which went toward the more than 1,000 pairs of designer shoes his wife, Imelda, accumulated.

When the dictator was ousted in a popular uprising in 1986, however, the country never fully reckoned with what it had gone through.

“We didn’t take stock of what happened in 1986 in any significant way,” said Carlos Conde, from Human Rights Watch. Unlike some other countries that endured dictatorships, the Philippines didn’t establish a truth and reconciliation committee to analyze and memorialize the abuses, he noted. It did create one of Asia’s first human rights commissions and enabled victims to receive some compensation from wealth reclaimed from the Marcoses. But political elites held on to power, and little effort was made to educate younger generations about the martial law era.

“A lot of people said we needed to ‘move on’ in 1986,” Conde said. “Now we are again suffering from the effects of this ‘move on’ tendency.”

“It’s collective amnesia,” said Raissa Robles, a journalist who wrote a book on the martial law era. “After the Marcoses left, Filipinos were traumatized. And when you’re a traumatized person, you’d rather forget what happened.”

The rehabilitation of the Marcos name began in 1991, two years after Marcos Sr. died, when his family was allowed to return from exile to face charges of tax fraud and graft. But the family not only avoided prison; they rapidly returned to politics. Marcos Jr. was elected to Congress in 1992. His mother — who is still appealing one set of corruption convictions — and older sister soon followed suit.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the family fully re-emerged as a political force. That year, Bongbong nearly became vice president thanks to a sophisticated and well-funded social media strategy that falsely painted his father’s dictatorship as a “golden age” of law, order and economic prosperity.

That online effort didn’t end with his candidacy but rather continues today, said Jonathan Ong, a disinformation researcher at the University of Massachusetts and Harvard University who studied the 2016 and 2022 elections.

“The Marcoses are saying they are victims of a miswritten history,” he said, adding that Bongbong uses that sense of grievance to connect with ordinary Filipinos frustrated with the status quo. Much of the analysis has focused on Marcos’s alleged use of troll farms and bots to attack critics, Ong said. But what the campaign did effectively was to flood social media with a “creative archive” of Marcos “folklore” that appealed to many demographics.

Mary watched the disinformation ensnare her family. The 52-year-old, who asked that her last name not be used to avoid worsening family tensions, is a “martial law baby,” as they are called here, who grew up during the dictatorship. Her middle-class family was largely insulated from the violence. Like millions of Filipinos, however, she and her siblings took part in the protests that pushed Marcos Sr. out.

In the past year, however, Mary began to see her siblings post pro-Bongbong statements on social media. When she asked, one sister replied that she had “come to a different appreciation of history.”

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

Mary campaigned for Leni Robredo, Marcos Jr.’s main opponent. When Marcos won more than twice as many votes, Mary vowed on Facebook to continue opposing him. Some of her siblings mocked her, and Mary abandoned a family group chat.

“My sisters trolled me,” she said, her voice breaking. “I was so disappointed in my family. Okay, you are pro-Marcos, even if I don’t understand you, that’s your belief, you’re my family, so be it. But trolling me?”

The election pitted Cleta Monsanto against her eldest child. Now 65, she was a mother of three young children in 1985 when her husband, Ireneo, was pulled off a bus and executed by soldiers who suspected the teacher of being a communist rebel. When she recently learned that her son supports Marcos Jr., Monsanto berated him over video chat.

“I feel so angry toward my son,” she said.

Cabatuando, who was detained and tortured by the Marcos regime in 1973, now lives in Australia, where few people know what she endured. But her family in the Philippines is well aware. And on a visit there before the election, she was dismayed to hear younger relatives say they planned to vote for Marcos Jr. because they felt his father’s reign had been prosperous.

“It’s a golden lie,” Cabatuando said. “Not a golden age.”

Marcos Jr., who declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed, has both distanced himself from his father’s dictatorship and downplayed its abuses. But he served as a governor and vice-governor for the last six years of his father’s reign.

“I hold him 100 percent accountable,” Cabatuando said. “He knew what was being done, and he benefited from it.”

“He is in no way innocent,” echoed Bonifacio Ilagan, a playwright and prominent martial law victim. “He has been the chief propagandist.”

Ilagan was detained for two years, tortured and then released just days before his sister was arrested and never seen again. For him, Bongbong’s victory seems like a nightmare from which he can’t wake.

Marcos family once ousted by uprising wins Philippines vote in landslide

“It’s as if all of the stories we’ve been telling people, all the things that happened during martial law, never happened at all,” he said.

Marcos Jr.’s victory wasn’t only down to social media mythmaking, however. It was also due to a very real alliance with Duterte. The strongman praised the martial law era and in some ways emulated it with his bloody six-year war on drugs. Though Duterte was initially skeptical of Bongbong, his party endorsed him after Marcos Jr. struck a deal for the president’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, to be his running mate.

That earned the support of Jaime Barbee Olaivar. Half a century ago, he was a young Marcos Sr. supporter who initially welcomed martial law. Then his father was detained for two years after blowing the whistle on a military scam. By the time of the 1986 revolution, Olaivar had joined the protests.

Yet he and his father blamed the military, not Marcos Sr. And when another strongman came along in 2016 promising to remove drug addicts from neighborhoods like Olaivar’s, he backed him. Olaivar keeps a “Duterte: Man of Action” bumper sticker on his refrigerator, much to the disgust of his two activist children.

Now the family is divided over his support for Marcos Jr., who has embraced not only the Dutertes, but also the drug war. Olaivar’s son, James, 24, works for a government agency devoted to victims of human rights violations and spends much of his time helping martial law survivors. Olaivar’s daughter, Jaynus, 26, directed a film about a family impacted by a drug war killing.

One recent night, the trio renewed their argument over a dinner of noodles and cheese doughnuts.

“Marcos is not our president,” Jaynus said, prompting her father to accuse her and her brother of trying to “destroy” Bongbong rather than give him a chance.

“Forgive and forget,” Olaivar said, making a sweeping motion with his hand. “Move on!”

“Say that to the victims of martial law,” James answered.

They sat at the same dinner table but lived in alternate realities. The children read Rappler, an independent news organization whose founder faces criminal charges and won a Nobel Peace Prize after exposing human rights abuses under Duterte.

Their father felt the outlet deserved its legal troubles and that mainstream media organizations were biased against the Marcoses. He preferred to read pro-Bongbong blogs. As dusk fell outside, he dismissed the idea that Marcos Jr. would repeat his father’s abuses as “BS.”

“You cannot predict the future,” he told his children.

“But you can look at history,” his son said.