Fake sexual material targets the only woman running for president in the Philippines
Updated April 17, 2022 at 8:34 AM ET
Fake news purporting to connect sexually explicit material to the daughter of the only female presidential candidate in the Philippines' upcoming national election has jolted the race. The intended target appears to be Leni Robredo, the current vice president, who is now running for president and is the chief rival of frontrunner Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.
The fabricated news posted on a porn site is no longer accessible. Only a headline alludes to a salacious video of Robredo's 34-year-old daughter, Aika.
Ronnie Holmes, president of the polling firm Pulse Asia, says that in an election campaign swimming in disinformation, the attempt to smear the Robredo family is "a new low."
"This is gutter politics at its lowest. And the most debased act any partisan can engage in," he says. "However, this is the social media ecology that has developed over the last almost six years."
In that time, the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte has provided a sort of petri dish in which contempt for women has proliferated, says the University of the Philippines' Rachel Khan. Noted for his foul mouth, Duterte often humiliated women with sexist remarks, creating a climate that critics say is shorn of decency and where anything goes.
Khan, a journalism professor, says the bid to taint Robredo's daughter with a false story weeks before voters render their verdict on her mother is shocking, but not surprising.
"We've have a very misogynist administration, a very misogynist president, who has encouraged this sort of demeaning-women behavior."
Khan works on a university project that tracks disinformation, and says Robredo has been disproportionately targeted, beginning from the time she became vice president in 2016. She beat out Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for the job, in a stunning come-from-behind-victory. He's accused her of cheating ever since, and for years fought the results.
As they prepare to face off again, this past week the 56-year-old vice president squarely blamed Marcos for disparaging her eldest daughter.
"I'm not surprised ... this is how the opposition operates," she said. "How they fight right now — this is what they'll be like in power. Full of lies. Full of dirt. They should highlight the good and the good they can do," Robredo said.
The Marcos campaign denies any involvement and accused Robredo of "black propaganda."
The use of disinformation in the Philippine presidential race is lopsided
Khan's fact-checking project reports that almost all the disinformation about Robredo is negative, while disinformation regarding the scion of the Marcos family overwhelmingly puts him in a positive light, embellishing his credentials, and often exaggerating his achievements, and those of his father, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The younger Marcos has used social media to rewrite the history of his once-disgraced family, portraying his parents, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, as philanthropists, and his father's administration, historically tied to human rights abuses and multibillion dollar graft, as visionary.
Marcos Jr.'s sister, Imee Marcos, is herself a prominent politician who has been an exuberant critic of Robredo, who is her brother's biggest threat in the race that includes 10 candidates.
The sister's latest invective is a video, displayed on her Facebook page. Borrowing from the genre of horror films, it portrays Leni Robredo as possessed by the devil. A puppet depicting the vice president is tied on a bed, while a cast of three women — Imee Marcos starring as one of them — performs an exorcism.
In this make-believe production, Imee screams at the flopping doll meant to be Leni, "Don't play the victim card," and channeling her brother, shouts "Cheater, cheater!" A second woman picks up the political theme, yelling — "Stop playing the gender card. Stop using the fact you're a woman to find allies."
The short film ends with voices of people in cities around the world, jeering — "Len-Len Loser!" while flashing their index finger and thumb in the form of an "L."
Such vitriol suggests the Marcos camp is getting nervous about Robredo repeating her performance of 2016, and scoring another upset victory.
Robredo's campaign, meanwhile, has tended to cultivate an image of the candidate as someone who is tough, but prefers spreading "love" as she calls it, rather than fake news.
Supporters of each candidate trade hashtags meant to support or degrade the other side.
But when it comes to influence on social media, the Marcos camp is in a league of its own: The family is said to have cottoned on to the power of social media a decade ago and has reaped the benefits of getting there before most other politicians.
Could Robredo repeat an upset?
Robredo's numbers have surged in the most recent polling and she attracts masses of supporters to her rallies. Pollster Ronnie Holmes says the stunt maligning her daughter was definitely a mistake and could sway some voters inclined to sympathize with her over the attack on her family.
But Holmes also notes Robredo has a long distance to cover to close what is estimated to be a 30-point gap.
The question he says, is whether there is enough time to catch Marcos between now and election day on May 9.
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