The months leading up to the start of the Philippine presidential campaign in February were marked by a flurry of activity on social media, including TikTok, where a challenge circulated of young people recording their elders’ reaction as they played “March to a New Society” — an anthem associated with martial law under ousted Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
It was a period that drove the country into debt, saw thousands of political enemies rounded up and tortured and prompted a mass “People Power” uprising in 1986 against the excesses and corruption of the Marcos family.
But the elderly Filipinos did not shudder or recoil. Instead, they bobbed their heads, sang and marched along as those behind the camera giggled. Some even saluted.
“I tried this trend on my Papa and it’s legit,” wrote one girl on a video of her father marching.
Over three decades since a people’s revolution toppled the elder Marcos, his son, 64-year-old Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., is within reach of the presidency, leading polls for the May election. His popularity has benefited from a years-long, carefully crafted campaign to rewrite history, harnessing the power of social media to blur the lines between fact and fiction.
The old dictatorship is now being upgraded and modernized, peppered with songs and emoji. Through the power of social media, one of the Philippines’ most despised families is being rehabilitated into one of its most revered.
“Bongbong Marcos is as if Marcos Sr. rose from the dead,” said historian Alfred McCoy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who documented the Marcos dictatorship. “He is a surrogate for his father.”
A spokesman for Marcos Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.
The Marcoses’ online revisionism project dates back to the 2000s through the family’s presence on Friendster, Flickr and other now defunct websites, researchers found. Key to the messaging is that the family has been unfairly maligned, that President Ferdinand Marcos was not a corrupt kleptocrat but one that brought his country glory, wealth and infrastructure in the course of his two decade reign, playing down the human rights abuses during that period.
The effort to rewrite history ranges from the serious to the absurd. On Wikipedia, members of the Wiki Society of the Philippines — a group of volunteer editors monitoring pages related to the country — find themselves at the forefront of the information battle, routinely scrubbing efforts to change content on the Marcoses’ pages. A key focus over the year has been the words “dictator” and “kleptocrat,” which users have tried to delete dozens of times.
Wikipedia volunteers find themselves sometimes in “edit wars,” going back and forth with Marcos defenders for hours in the hopes of restoring the truth.
“Wikipedia has rules, and because [it] has rules, it’s sort of the last safe space on the Internet where you can’t just push your narrative,” one volunteer editor, Remi De Leon, said.
Administrators have also marked Marcos Sr.'s and Jr.’s pages as “semi-protected,” meaning anonymous and new users cannot edit them without approval.