the rebirth of marcos new society a cautionary tale 36 years in the making - The Rebirth of Marcos’ ‘New Society:’ A Cautionary Tale 36 Years in the Making

About 31 million Filipinos voted for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., catapulting him into office as the first majority president in the post-1987 Philippines. He won over Filipinos across the socioeconomic spectrum and age range. Many international observers wonder how Filipinos elected a Marcos to the highest office in the land after driving the family out of the country just 36 years ago. On their decades-long road back to Malacañang, the Marcoses worked tirelessly to rehabilitate their image. Most recently, social media emerged as a critical platform for fostering nostalgia for the martial law period, glamorizing the Marcos family, and whitewashing the history of the Marcos regime.

Social media disinformation in the Philippines overwhelmingly favors the Marcos family. Some of the most sinister aspects of the elder Marcos’ regime, such as the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement) under martial law, are now innocuous viral TikTok background music clips. TikTokers around the Philippines played “Bagong Lipunan,” a martial law era march, to their older relatives to gauge their reactions. Some of them happily saluted and marched in pace to the music. Meanwhile, thousands sang along to a new, pop-rock version of the song at Bongbong’s campaign rallies.

Under the cheery tune is a dark truth – under the “New Society” extolled in the song, the Marcos administration heavily curtailed freedom of speech, press, and assembly. The administration victimized over 100,000 people – killed, tortured, imprisoned, or disappeared. From 1965 to 1986, the Marcoses stole between $5 and $10 billion from the country, setting back Philippine development by decades.

Given a new life on TikTok, “Bagong Lipunan” embodies nostalgia for a Philippine golden age of order, obedience, and discipline, supposedly last experienced in the heyday of the Marcoses. Who needs history books and facts when one can experience the magic of a never-experienced nostalgia? Many young Filipinos claim that they do not believe their history books, which gloss over the martial law era or present incorrect information. Social media, often incorrectly, filled in the gap. Why memorize bullet points about each Philippine president when one can enjoy clips of the past on TikTok? This nostalgia is a key component of the Marcos family’s extensive social media disinformation campaign.

Through viral “Bagong Lipunan” videos, montage shots of Imelda Marcos’ extravagance set to Korean pop music, Sandro Marcos heartthrob shoots, and seemingly heartwarming videos of the Marcos family past and present, TikTok and other platforms greatly shaped the dialogue and momentum behind Bongbong’s UniTeam tandem. Social media proved to be one of many kingmakers in the May 2022 Philippine elections, but disinformation is most effective when its victims are receptive to it. Social media disinformation is only a piece of a deeper problem in Philippine society that goes back centuries. The power of dynasties, stymied bureaucracy, corruption, and a deep sense of societal jadedness paved the way for social media to wreak havoc.

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The ousting of the Marcos family in 1986 was not entirely due to human rights abuses under martial law, but due to the deteriorating financial situation in the Philippines. Though many supported the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution to oust the Marcoses and restore Philippine democracy, others saw it as a vehicle to improve their quality of life. The post-revolution Fifth Philippine Republic is often criticized for not offering enough to improve the average Filipino’s quality of life. Under President Cory Aquino, Marcos’ cronies gave way to the landed-elite ilustrado class, the same influential economic and political elites that ruled over the Philippines since the days of Spanish colonization. Though the Marcoses left, dynasties, inequality, and corruption remained.

The Fifth Republic’s reforms could not adequately strengthen education, improve bureaucracy, and create the change needed by everyday Filipinos to live better lives. Its insufficiencies set the stage for the return of the Marcoses. With an anemic education system, many Filipinos do not have a sense of the brutality of martial law. The corruptible bureaucracy and a patronage-based political system offer no incentive for being matuwid, or righteous: political turncoatism is rampant, parties dissolve or change character quickly, nuisance candidates flourish, and privileged members of society continue to operate above the law. Infrastructure remains shaky and economic booms do not always bring benefits to the working class. This contributes to a sense of jadedness and a longing for a better life among the people, leaving the door open to candidates who promise the most radical change and the most improvement to their quality of life.

Bongbong Marcos joins many former Philippine presidents who took advantage of this longing. Former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada made his name in the movie industry and presented himself as a man of the people. His nickname, “Erap,” is just pare, which translates roughly to “buddy” or “pal,” backward. Two years after being elected, he was impeached and imprisoned on graft and corruption charges. He was succeeded by his vice president, Gloria Arroyo. Once styled as an excellent “troubleshooter” of good character, she became the second Philippine ex-president to face trial for corruption, alleged kickbacks, and supposed electoral fraud. Her successor as president, Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III, drastically improved government transparency, pursued financial reform, and presented sweeping anti-poverty measures; however, improvements generated under his administration were not perceived by the working class as being adequate. Over time, the liberal policies of Noynoy and his mother Cory became associated with out-of-touch elitism. Supporters and politicians of the Liberal Party became disparagingly known as the dilawans (the yellows), after the party color.

Jaded by dysfunctional politicians and corrupt bureaucrats, Filipinos grew tired of corrupt officials, slow progress, and broken promises. Liberal Party politicians who came after the Aquinos, such as Mar Roxas and Leni Robredo, became dilawans and pinklawans (pink + dilawan), anathema to Filipinos who believed that the Aquinos’ promises of radical change and reform were ineffective and elitist. Many yearned for a time when life was better, where “may disiplina pa ang taong bayan” (the people still had discipline). This dissatisfaction led to the rise of Rodrigo Duterte, who promised to end corruption and bring discipline and order to the country at any cost – reflected in the 8,000-30,000 killed in his bloody drug war.

This is where the Marcos family’s disinformation campaign came into play. Keenly aware of the people’s want for a better life, stability, and order, the Marcoses worked to reflect glamor, stability, continuity, and progress. The strongman image of outgoing president Duterte put ruthless law and order “disiplina” back in vogue, calling back to the time of the elder Marcos’ administration. This call to discipline at any cost beckoned Filipinos across the socioeconomic spectrum who were frustrated with government corruption and dysfunctionality. The Marcoses’ decades of image rehabilitation, combined with the popularity and legacy of the Dutertes’ no-nonsense, illiberal “discipline” manifested in incoming vice president Sara Duterte, created an unstoppable force. Social media was only one piece of the puzzle.

This article was originally published on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission.