On the day he was born, a thunderstorm was brewing. As a young, aspiring lawyer, he topped the bar exam with a rating of 98.01 percent—the highest in Philippine history. In World War II, he led Ang Maharlika, a guerilla force in Northern Luzon that pushed back the Japanese. And in his two decades as president, he ushered in a golden age of economic growth.
None of those statements are true, but they are a testament to how Ferdinand Marcos Sr.—who would have turned 105 this year—portrayed himself as a larger-than-life figure and cultivated a cult of personality that continues to this day.
Deeply ingrained into society was this mythmaking that, despite repeated attempts to debunk these claims, many Filipinos still chose to believe the Marcos narrative and even propelled his son to the highest office in a landmark election.
The man, the myth
The thought of one day being judged by history must have weighed on Marcos Sr.’s mind. Early in his political career, the future dictator was already rewriting his past. He claimed to have garnered numerous military achievements in World War II, boasting of himself as the “most decorated war hero of the Philippines” in his 1962 senatorial campaign. He even claimed that it was none other than Gen. Douglas MacArthur who bestowed him the awards.
But he knew that in order to build an elaborate lie, it must be ubiquitous. So, ahead of the 1965 presidential elections, he commissioned a biography, For Every Tear A Victory, to stamp his fables onto the page, and a biographical film, Iginuhit ng Tadhana, to immortalize his faux valor on the silver screen—and in the minds of voters.
The gamble paid off, and Marcos Sr. rose not only to the Senate but also to the presidency. “History should not be left to the historians,” he once noted in a 1971 diary entry. “Rather, be like Churchill. Make history and then write it.”
Ascending to the highest office gave Marcos Sr. a greater opportunity to maintain his image of a peerless statesman, which he did through writing books—which were later found to have been written by ghostwriters—and extensive diary entries. Having state control over the press during Martial Law also meant that what was reported would always paint him in a positive light, while an absence of a paper trail for his crimes would make it challenging for his critics to discredit his achievements later on.
Shape the past, control the future
These attempts to document his legacy would prove useful for his surviving family, who used these records as “evidence” to combat their critics. “Disinformation is the Marcoses’ avenue to rehabilitate their legacy and discredit the achievements of the EDSA People Power,” explains Enrico Berdos, a researcher for VERA Files, a news outlet focused on fact-checking.
While pro-Marcos propaganda never really went away even after the EDSA Revolution, it became more voluminous on social media after Marcos Jr. declared his candidacy in November 2021, an observation that Berdos had in common with some users on the platform. “They (pro-Marcos supporters) weren’t commenting on anything that [I was] posting. It’s just that in my FYP (For You Page), all of a sudden, it’s about BBM,” recalls Reb Atadero, a theater actor who began producing informative content on TikTok during the pandemic.
But the lies looked familiar. Many of them, Berdos highlights, “mainly come from books written by a network of pro-Marcos aides and allies,” citing a 2020 study from the UP Third World Studies Center. The researchers found that the propaganda machine’s so-called “source books” came from a web of personalities, many of whom had personal or business ties to the Marcoses. The books provided a trove of materials; social media provided a platform for wider dissemination.
Berdos, however, points out that based on VERA Files’ analysis, around 72 percent of online Marcos propaganda do not originate from the source books and instead come from “recent events and people quoted by the media.” The LaSallian’s fact-checking initiative would often tackle fake quote cards, alongside recycled tales of Marcosian heroism and presidential achievements.
The strength of disinformation lies in its ability to convince its audience that farce is fact. Atadero, who also does fact-checks on his page, remarks that the posts are often declarative, “but there is a lot of data lacking behind it. And they bank on that—that you believe it—because who has the time to research, right?”
Berdos reasons that while it can be argued that most comments come from paid trolls, “the effect of trolls saying that the Marcoses are ‘good’ and the Aquinos were ‘bad’ [would] eventually force others to ‘conform’ and agree because of group pressure,” comparing the phenomenon to Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” Berdos summarizes, quoting Joseph Goebbels, the chief propagandist of the Nazi Party.
Today, numerous activists and organizations continue to work toward fighting back the disinformation machinery amid another Marcos presidency. Fact-checking initiatives, educational discussions, and promotion of Martial Law-related films and documentaries are some of the efforts these groups are making.
“Our plan is to launch a truth campaign, or join other organizations to launch a truth campaign to combat the spread of disinformation,” shares Deputy Secretary-General of Education and Training for the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) Lance Avery Alo in Filipino. In the past, NUSP had launched truth campaigns with other organizations, holding workshops and student consultations to actively combat disinformation.
“More than just conferences, more than just seminars, magkakaroon din kami ng integration sa mga tunay na victims ng disinformation,” Alo furthers.
(We’ll have integration [sessions] with the true victims of disinformation.)
However, amid efforts to combat decades of historical distortion, Berdos admits that individual action may be insufficient. “The machinery of historical distortion and disinformation is too big for a single fact-checking organization to address alone. Fact-checkers do their best, but it isn’t enough,” Berdos elaborates.
As a new age of a Marcos leadership begins, claims of disinformation, historical revisionism, and the political perceptions of Filipinos will continue to be put to the test.
with interviews from Kim Balasabas