MANILA — Disinformation scholar Jonathan Corpus Ong was in the middle of his winter break in Virginia last year when he received an email from the office of Sen. Imee Marcos.
Ong, a Cambridge-educated sociologist teaching at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, was being invited to attend the Senate committee on electoral reforms’ hearing on “detection of foreign interference in elections via social media platforms.”
It was January 2021, 16 months away from the May 2022 elections.
Ong initially thought the invitation was “funny” but immediately realized it was the perfect opportunity to inform Philippine policymakers on the complexity of disinformation.
“We’ve been trying to advance for proper and comprehensive, rather than tokenistic or surface level reforms when it comes to disinformation,” Ong told ABS-CBN News online.
But Ong had hesitations to show up because of one “striking irony.”
“We did find it ironic that a family which had previously been cited by academic research and journalistic investigations as having a hand in social media [disinformation] campaigns was presiding over potential attempts to regulate it,” Ong said, referencing his 2018 research “Architects of Networked Disinformation.”
He consulted Ona Caritos of election watchdog LENTE, a frequent resource person in the Marcos-led panel.
“Sabi ko should I be worried? Sabi lang niya just make sure na you answer directly… Magaling 'yan, so maghanda ka.”
Political science professor Jean Franco described Imee as the perfect mix of her parents, the late President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and former First Lady Imelda Marcos.
“Siya yung politiko sa family talaga. Imee really came of age during the dictatorship of their father, so she really saw it all and witnessed it all and particularly given her role in the Kabataang Barangay. So I guess that helped her hone her political skills,” Franco said in an interview with ABS-CBN News online.
Despite the human rights abuses under martial law, Imee embraced their family’s legacy with pride, often glorifying her father’s projects, in contrast to what critics say about them.
Producing narratives is something that the Marcos family does systematically, and they stick to it with astonishing discipline, as noted by academics and journalists.
“I’m still dreadfully in awe of the thoroughness of the brainwashing operations that the Marcos family undertook to achieve their rehabilitation in less than four decades,” veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas wrote in her op-ed after Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.’s landslide victory last May.
Ong ended up attending the hearing on January 20, 2021.
There, he witnessed the “intellectual chops” of Imee to navigate the highly-complex and technical issue of disinformation and its potential implications in the upcoming elections.
“It was apparent during the hearing that Sen. Marcos did the work, did the research, she knows the parameters,” he said.
But Ong was on his toes during the nearly 2-hour hearing, highly aware that it was more than a meeting “in aid of legislation.”
With Imee’s position as the crucial panel’s chair, “she was able to control and set the debates and agenda [on disinformation],” Ong noted.
Ong said they were floored by Imee’s “assertion of power” by using their own research to advance her arguments, mostly against overregulation.
“She was able to surprise experts, academics by reframing and recontextualizing academic findings in order to ascertain control of the situation… She quoted and referenced academic studies but in a way that is framed with her own argument. So I thought that was interesting.”
During the course of the hearing, Imee displayed a “real talk tita na medyo maldita persona,” according to Ong.
“Ang galing niya in that hearing. I was both destabilized by her and charmed by her,” Ong admitted.
Indeed, Imee has always been characterized to be the “more relatable” among the children of Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
“She speaks in the vernacular, minsan she engages in gay lingo, mas masa, so to speak,” Franco said.
Ong, who does digital ethnography, also observed the same thing as early as 2019.
“I would emphasize her own YouTube channel is a powerful innovation. We saw this being built up in 2019. Yung 2019 study namin really tracked the consistency of #ImeeSolusyon. It definitely was leaning into her babaeng bakla, real talk, charming maldita persona. That was slowly built up and continued on,” Ong said.
Ong explained why such kind character appealed to Filipinos.
“We love the bitchy female leader persona. Wasn’t GMA (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) at her most popular pag may pinapagalitan siya? Yung mga off-the-cuff moments ni GMA na pinapagalitan yung staff nya, that’s when people look up to her. That’s an assertion of strength and determination to get things done. So kumbaga the female equivalent of the strongman persona… She’s just embodying the female archetype of that,” Ong said.
He also argued that Imee played one of the most crucial roles in her brother’s campaign anchored on “unity.”
“Imee had an important strategic role in a campaign where BBM played safe, good guy persona; she had to carry out direct attacks,” he said, pertaining to the “Len-Len” series that made fun of Leni Robredo.
Imee herself acknowledged this “role” after the victory of her brother.
“The Len-Len series, that was my way of answering issues. I just couldn’t let it go… Mabait ang kapatid ko. But to me, it’s very, very important to answer issues head on. It’s also Filipino political tradition that we have satire, you make fun, you take it in jest, but at the same time it’s important that issues are ventilated and are known and 80.7 million agreed, andami-daming nanood. So that was great fun,” Imee said on ANC Headstart.
‘LONG TERM PROJECT’
While the Marcos rehabilitation was regarded as a “long term project,” Ong said there was “an element of things coming together right now” that made their return ultimately possible.
“The Duterte administration and the ways in which mainstream media have been marginalized, the ways in which social media influencer culture has been turbocharged, our distrust with liberal elite politicians, which I think is a Duterte legacy. That way of thinking of politics in terms of camps, Duterte really reinforced that. So that really paves the way for the Marcoses to return. Parang all of these factors contributed,” he said.
Meantime, Imee is expected to play a key role in the Senate under her brother's administration, while first cousin and incoming House Speaker Martin Romualdez will do the bidding in the lower house.