Will our God of History put an end
to the Game of Trolls?

The 2016 electoral process could have been gamed.
It is very likely that this technology-based
mind-conditioning weapon continues to be used today

“It is destiny…I will be the last card of the Filipino people. And if God wants me there I will be there!– Rodrigo Duterte, April 2016

This was the pronouncement of then presidential candidate Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte at the start of his campaign for the presidency. He was the last to formally throw his hat into the ring for the 2016 elections. Considering that it appeared to be an 11th hour decision, one may conclude that it could have really been God’s will.

However, as the years passed, it was revealed that his rise to power may have not been as Divine as it was made to appear. Granted that there was still a big risk that his late entry would not be enough to make him win, what analysts recently uncovered was the elaborate game-changing social media strategy employed by his handlers, which transformed local and global politics in a very significant way.

Credit: The Guardian/YouTube

In her Rappler article entitled “Did Cambridge Analytica use Filipinos’ data to help Duterte win?”, Natashya Gutierrez wrote:

“It appears that 6 months before the United States presidential elections in 2016, Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, also had a hand in the Philippine presidential race.

Cambridge Analytica is the communications firm at the center of a global scandal, amid allegations it harvested data of millions of Facebook users for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The end goal was to create software to predict and influence voters’ choices at the ballot box.

The company used data collected online via Facebook to segment voters by their personalities and behavior. The information was then used to target Facebook users on content specifically tailored for them.

“If you know the personality of the people you’re targeting, you can nuance your messaging to resonate more effectively with those key groups,” Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix said in a 2016 speech.

It turns out that this technique was used in the Philippine elections, too.”

In the same article, Ms. Gutierrez said that former journalist and then president of the National Press Club Joel Egco (who was later appointed Presidential Communications Undersecretary of the Duterte administration) covered the visit of Nix in the Philippines a year before the presidential polls, and said Mr. Nix was in the country “for research.”

In his article for the Manila Times, “Text, emails to decide future polls”, Mr. Egco shared some interesting quotes attributed to Mr. Nix that appear to bolster claims that the election of President Duterte may not have been entirely a case of destiny. Egco quotes Nix as saying:

“As the world changes with the advent of technology, so will the method in which leaders will be elected…In the future, government leaders will be chosen through text messaging, emails and even social media…dependence on traditional media such as television and radio is already undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ to the digital world, where campaign strategists can target each electorate personally…[through] new strategies and tactics that are products of behavioral microtargeting, psychographic profiling, predictive analytics and many other modern tools…

This is especially true in the Philippines, he noted, because the country has been touted as the “text capital” of the world in the past. Millions of text messages are exchanged every day by millions of cellular phone owners around the country. Since most Filipinos spend more time on their computer or android cellphones, he said candidates must find a way to reach them personally through these gadgets.”

The weaponization of social media has created virtual realities that have made it very difficult for people to make discerned choices

Based on these first-hand accounts, one could be led to the conclusion that the country’s 2016 electoral process could have really been gamed. It is also very likely that this technology-based mind-conditioning weapon continues to be used today, and may have also affected the 2019 national elections that saw none of the opposition senatorial candidates winning a seat.

Since then, politics has taken on a new dimension. The weaponization of social media has created virtual realities that have made it very difficult for people to make honest-to-goodness discerned choices on what is good and what is bad. To be sure, individual decisions are only as good as the information people are able to access. And this is where the new political battle lines are drawn.

Winning the hearts and minds of the public today is best achieved by those who are able to invest and use technology in a manner that reaches their targeted audiences at a speed and magnitude that outpace and drown their opponents. Some experts posit the possibility that this strategy is what also shapes the periodic public opinion surveys and the more recent pre-election probes.
In his article, “The Trolls have it”, Boo Chanco describes this political reality very well, and I quote:

“The DDS or the Duterte Diehard Supporters (DDS) is a formidable social media army. And they keep the lights burning for Rodrigo Duterte…That explains why Duterte’s ratings remain high even when the performance of his administration tumbles. The DDS shields him from any fallout. They are focused on protecting the Duterte brand.

The DDS messaging is kept simple. They attack the opposition through smear campaigns; distract or divert criticism away from important public issues; and suppress commentaries through personal attacks or harassment.

The result is a Teflon-coated Duterte.”

Critiques of the country’s top polling firms would point their fingers at the people behind the said firms as rigging the results of the survey. I personally know the people behind Pulse Asia and Social Weather Station, and I have no reason to doubt the integrity and the competence of these people and the rigor they bring to their work. Give or take some error margins which said firms disclose each time they release their findings, the fact remains that their findings closely reflect the actual results of recent electoral exercises.

If the surveys are really capturing the people’s sentiments, maybe the question worth asking is how these perceptions were shaped

So if the surveys are really capturing the people’s sentiments, maybe the question worth asking is how these perceptions were shaped. Again I refer to other quotes cited by Mr. Egco from the NPC speech of Mr. Alexander Nix in 2015:

“While TV continues to dominate the campaign landscape, the most powerful way to win elections is to have the people themselves campaign for you. Instead of relying heavily on political surveys, campaign strategists must use those data to influence the behavior of the person…While opinion polls are ‘good’ in showing the current standing of candidates in the eyes of voters for being ‘snapshots’ of the ‘status quo,’ influencing voters’ ‘behavior’ and ‘attitude’ should be given more emphasis, Nix added.

He further explained that while there are ‘fundamentally flawed’ candidates who will never win any seat no matter how good the strategy is, these bets should maximize their ‘likeable traits’ to make them more palatable to voters. ‘Even if you have just one staggering likable trait, given the right combination of strategies, you could win an election against a very formidable opponent,’ said Nix.”

This last quote, in particular, is a very familiar refrain in surveys and focus group discussions (FGDs) I have recently participated in. Time and again, a large majority of our people say that they are so busy surviving day by day that they no longer have the time nor the interest to further understand the complexity of many governance issues.

This might explain why, despite the President admitting on several occasions that he can no longer fully solve corruption in government, the traffic problem in the metropolis, the country’s dispute vs. China over the West Philippines Sea, and of course, the fight against the COVID19 pandemic, a large majority of people would cite the “single issue” of the drug war as their basis for their trust in him and their approval of his performance. They would say that the President has concretely made their communities safer through his strong and determined anti-illegal drug war. Despite the taint of alleged extrajudicial killings, the consistent push of President Duterte both in words and in action gave a large majority of our people a reason to believe that at least in one important aspect of their life, the President delivered when others did not.

Another significant player in the trolling game is the Marcos family. In her extensively researched piece, “Networked Propaganda: How the Marcoses are using social media to reclaim Malacanang” , Gemma B. Mendoza describes the sophisticated and well calculated historical social media-driven revisionism strategy of the late dictator’s family in their effort to regain political power

According to Ms. Mendoza, as far back as 2014, “The campaign ramp-up included the creation of hundreds of fan groups and pages supporting the Marcos family. As of September 5, 2019, the Sharktank, a Rappler database, has tracked over 360 pages and over 280 groups supporting the family—whether it’s now-senator Imee Marcos, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, their late father, or family matriarch Imelda Marcos.

As of September 5, 2019, a database has tracked over 360 pages and over 280 groups supporting the Marcos family

She expounds that this social media army operating through a network of websites, Facebook, YouTube pages, groups, and influencers was designed to systematically circulate a huge volume of disinformation propaganda that “sought to alter public perception of the Marcoses by downplaying or outrightly denying kleptocracy and human rights violations during the Martial Law years, exaggerating Marcos achievements, and vilifying critics, rivals, and mainstream media.”

If all of these accounts are accurate, then this probably explains why the two leading candidates in the recent pre-election surveys are heirs of the Duterte and Marcos families.

Moreover, if public opinion is indeed shaped by these more sophisticated propaganda weapons, maybe what surveys are telling us is the reality of how the social media weapon has successfully shaped the prevailing mood and mindset of the majority of our population.

As we approach the 2022 national elections, it is, therefore, important to be mindful of the current attitude and sentiments of the electorate. The surveys and the FGDs seem to suggest that we have an electorate that has grown very weary of unmet promises and become very cynical, and may have been conditioned to believe that the only way out of their dire situation is to choose a strong, authoritarian leader who will save them.

This story of a disempowered citizenry is clearly ripe for the perpetuation of patronage politics by populist leaders who manage to deceive, manipulate, if not threaten the citizenry into submission and helplessness while they plunder the country dry and persecute (if not execute) those who oppose them. We’ve seen this narrative play out over the two-decade rule of the Marcos dictatorship and we are amid its resurgence today. And this time, they even have new high-tech propaganda weapons of deception.

We have an electorate that has grown weary of unmet promises, conditioned to believe that the only way out is to choose an authoritarian leader who will save them

A few weeks ago, we commemorated the heroism of the late Senator Ninoy Aquino. I could not help but look back on the events of that day and the many years of struggle of other unsung Filipino heroes before and after that. The fight to bring back freedom and democracy was truly not easy. And what has become clear to me these days is that strengthening it and making it really more meaningful to the life of all Filipinos, especially the poor and most marginalized, is much harder.

If indeed history has already repeated itself, the questions I ask are: How much longer will this go on? Will the Filipino people allow this unfortunate state of affairs to continue? The Marcos dictatorship lasted two decades; will the current strong man or woman rule follow suit? Will there even be a return of the Marcos family who has yet to own up to misrule and abuse. Will the Filipinos again surrender to the overwhelming odds and disengage?

So many questions, yet answers are few and far between. The uncertainty brought about by the pandemic just heightens the unpredictability of the country’s future, and of the future of millions of Filipinos who are living in very distressing conditions.

As I said earlier, the battle will not be easy. The odds are not even. Those that hold power and wealth not only have more superior weapons, but they are also firmly resolved, with no hint of conscience, to pursue their propaganda of lies and deception if that is what it takes to perpetuate their unquenchable desire to rule with impunity. But it is in times like these that we need to discern where we stand. It is in times like these that each one of us is called to find the roles we need to take, and unite towards a cause much larger than ourselves, even if our aspired outcomes appear hopeless.

In one of my conversations with the late Tourism Secretary Mon Jimenez, he said that if our country’s rulers think they are all-powerful, they must remember that our God of History always makes it a point to intervene when men and women need to be humbled and saved from themselves.

If we look back on our not-so-distant history, the sacrifices of many Filipinos during the long dark days of the Marcos authoritarian regime give us proof of the moving spirit of our God of History that Mon was referring to. It is a spirit that moved the hearts of people who chose heroic lives and took leadership for the sake of others. It is the same spirit that brought the collective heroism that led to the People Power Revolution that restored democracy and our freedom.

May we all be touched by the same spirit as we commemorate National Heroes Day.

Credit: Channel 4 News/YouTube

About author


He is the author of “To Love Another Day,” the memoirs of democracy icon Corazon Aquino. He continues to work with NGOs—evidently one of the Filipinos who continue to believe in the Filipino.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Sign up for’s Weekly Digest and get the best of, tailored for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *