On a rainy day in April, the man favoured to become the next president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, stood before thousands of adoring fans in Tacloban and invoked a name once considered political poison.
It was the name of his own mother.
“You know I am quite sure that my mother is watching the live stream,” he told the crowd, as a legion of vloggers beamed the rally to their Facebook followers.
“Let’s say hello Imelda. Hello Imelda!”
The mention of the Philippines’ notorious former first lady, Imelda Marcos, drew rapturous cheers from the audience, as they relayed their greeting to the 92-year-old watching at home.
During the reign of her late husband Ferdinand Marcos Sr, Imelda became a global pariah for raiding the public purse to fund her extravagant lifestyle, enduringly symbolised by her vast collection of shoes.
In 1986, a popular uprising forced the Marcoses into exile in Hawaii, but not before they looted up to $US10 billion from state coffers over two decades in power, much of which has never been recovered.
For some in the Philippines, the Marcos name is a byword for brutality, corruption and theft, while others remain fiercely loyal to the family.
But as the country’s presidential election campaign enters its final days, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the only son of Imelda and Ferdinand Sr, is poised to complete an extraordinary rehabilitation of the family’s political brand.
The 64-year-old is the clear front-runner in the race to succeed strongman president Rodrigo Duterte when the country votes on May 9.
Marcos Jr and his running mate Sara Duterte, the outgoing president’s daughter who is standing for vice president, are campaigning on a message of national “unity”.
A recent poll predicted Marcos Jr could win 56 per cent of the vote, well clear of his nearest rival, vice president Leni Robredo.
If successful, he will cap off a political comeback that’s been in progress since the family returned to the Philippines in 1991, after the death of Ferdinand Sr.
“Success is not only winning in the coming election,” Marcos Jr told his fans at the rally in Tacloban.
Driving the resurrection of the country’s most divisive political dynasty is a calculated recasting of the ruthless Marcos dictatorship as a “golden age” of the Philippines.
“How can history have been changed so drastically?” journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa asked.
“With the help of social media platforms.”
A torrent of disinformation
Last year on September 11 – the 104th birthday of the late Ferdinand Marcos Sr – a video began circulating on Facebook, which has since been viewed over 4.7 million times.
A montage of smiling well-wishers hold handmade signs reading “Happy Marcos Day” and “#Marcos Real Hero”, before the video cuts to Marcos Jr making a lengthy tribute to his father’s vision for the Philippines.
Set to upbeat music, the eight-minute clip is peppered with photos of the bridges, power lines, specialist hospitals – even a nuclear power plant – built under Marcos Sr’s rule.
For Marcos Jr’s 10 million social media followers, videos like this feed the narrative of a lost era of economic greatness.
It is this revisionist history that Marcos Jr has put at the centre of his campaign, which experts say is key to his rising popularity.
The true legacy of Marcos Sr’s infrastructure binge was a mountain of debt that ballooned from $843 million when he took office in 1965 to over $39 billion by the time he was deposed.
For decades after Marcos Sr was driven into exile by the “People Power Revolution”, the Philippines was known as “the sick man of Asia” due to its struggling economy.
The nuclear power plant – also funded by foreign loans – has never become operational.
Pro-Marcos propaganda dominating platforms like Facebook, YouTube and TikTok is helping to rewrite the past for many who did not live through the dark reality of that era.
Around half the country’s 67.5 million eligible voters are aged between 18 and 42.
Many don’t know the brutal years of martial law that began in 1972, when thousands were killed and tortured, or how the Marcoses accumulated billions in ill-gotten riches at their citizens’ expense.
Indeed, on social media, the Marcos era is basking in a moment of sunny nostalgia.
In one viral TikTok trend, users took up a challenge to film their older family members’ reactions as they played March Of The New Society, an anthem associated with the period of martial law.
“Based on the stories of my grandmother … it was good in those days,” Chemmy Rivas, a young Marcos supporter from Tacloban, told Foreign Correspondent on the day Marcos Jr visited town.
One falsehood gaining traction online claims no arrests were made during martial law, despite Marcos Snr himself admitting to Amnesty International in 1975 that 50,000 people were arrested.
It is deeply concerning for Tina Bawagan, who was tortured during martial law after joining the underground resistance to the Marcoses.
“The young ones, they don’t know that this happened, and they believe that the Marcoses had a good government,” she said.
“It’s essential that we continue to tell the story so that it doesn’t happen again.”
But telling the story is increasingly challenging in the Philippines, where social media networks have come to dominate the information landscape.
Sidelining the mainstream media
Throughout the election campaign, Marcos Jr has mostly avoided journalists.
He rarely gives interviews and last month refused a public debate with his top rival, claiming he wanted to stay out of the mudslinging and focus on running a “positive campaign”.
According to Aries Arugay, a political scientist from the University of the Philippines Diliman, the strategy has not hampered his ability to get his message out.
“Their disinformation game is top notch,” Arugay said of the Marcos Jr campaign.
“They’re resting comfortably in that disinformation infrastructure that has been quite important in their campaign.”
A recent study found Facebook was the number one driver of disinformation in this election campaign and most of it was benefiting Marcos Jr.
“Facebook is our internet,” said Ressa, co-founder of the independent Filipino news website Rappler.
“One hundred per cent of Filipinos on the internet are on Facebook.”
According to Ressa, social media is likely to prove the decisive factor in the election.
Her team has been investigating the growing influence of disinformation networks on social media like those used to amplify President Rodrigo Duterte’s message, with devastating effect, during the 2016 election campaign.
The team found that, since 2016, social media has come to dominate the centre of the Philippines’ “information ecosystem”, while news organisations that “thought they had tremendous power were essentially pushed to the side,” Ressa said.
For some Filipinos, Facebook is their only source of news. Residents of Manila’s poorer neighbourhoods may not have electricity, TV or radio, but most have a mobile phone.
Those who run out of phone credit are still able to browse the Facebook newsfeed, which means they get the headlines but are unable to dive deeper.
Most people in the community where she works get their history lessons from TikTok and YouTube, she said.
Some social media content originates from the Marcos campaign, but a large portion is produced by an army of online acolytes, who can generate revenue from popular posts.
Video bloggers Ruben Gelio and Jay Cho don’t work for the Marcos campaign but they make a living live streaming campaign events on Facebook and posting positive content about Marcos Jr.
Gelio, 24, believes vloggers like him have become more powerful than the mainstream media.
“Some of the media is so biased about Marcos and they never show anything that Bongbong Marcos does a good deed,” he said.
“As vloggers, we show the other side of the coin to the people. This is the real Marcos, not the one that mainstream said.”
‘Lies spread faster than facts’
In an effort to push back the tide of disinformation, mainstream media organisations have teamed up with tech companies to create fact-checking collectives like tsek.ph.
Rappler has launched its own fact-checking operation, debunking claims including that the Philippines was “the richest country next to Japan during Marcos’ term”.
Social media networks are also cracking down on the disinformation flooding their platforms.
In January, Twitter suspended more than 300 accounts and hashtags promoting Marcos Jr, for violating its policies against spam and manipulation.
Then in April, Facebook suspended a network of over 400 accounts, pages and groups in a move designed to crack down on hate speech and misinformation.
But while some pro-Marcos disinformation networks have been taken down, many have regenerated and stand poised to “help pave the way for a [Marcos] win”, according to Ressa.
“You cannot have integrity of elections if you don’t have integrity of facts,” she said.
“And what social media has done is not only make facts debatable, but to actually spread lies faster than facts.”
Of all the contested facts about the Marcoses, perhaps the most astonishing is that some now doubt whether they stole money at all.
The Marcoses’ extravagant theft of state riches has been well documented, not least by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), a body set up by former president Corazon Aquino as one of her first orders of business in 1986 to recoup the family’s hidden loot.
The PCGG estimated the Marcoses amassed somewhere between $US5 billion and $US10 billion of assets, including jewels, gold, real estate, famous artworks and cash stuffed in Swiss bank accounts.
The commission has recovered about $US3.3 billion and another $2.4 billion is under litigation.
In 2018, Imelda Marcos was sentenced for graft, but has never spent a day in prison and is currently free on bail appealing the decision.
Her seeming impunity has helped fuel perceptions that the Marcoses are innocent, a claim that finds a willing audience on social media.
Many, like Chemmy Rivas, the Marcos supporter in Tacloban, believe the social media posts that claim the Marcoses never stole anything.
A myth claiming Ferdinand Marcos Sr inherited an enormous amount of gold during his time as a lawyer has been doing the rounds for over a decade.
“About corruption, how can they say that?” Chemmy said.
“They say, and I’ve read, that the Marcoses are really rich, even before he became president.”
Disillusioned by the failure of successive governments to tackle the poverty and corruption that continue to dog daily life, many Filipinos appear willing to overlook not only the late dictator’s theft and human rights violations, but Marcos Jr’s own 1997 conviction for failing to file tax returns, which some opponents have argued should disqualify him from the presidency.
The perils of a dynasty reborn
In The Kingmaker, a 2019 film about the life of Imelda Marcos, she admitted to “missing the clout of being first lady” and said she had always wanted her son to follow in his father’s footsteps.
The younger Marcos served as a governor in Ilocos Norte, the family’s home province, and as a senator from 2010 to 2016, before a failed bid for the vice-presidency in 2016.
Some fear a Marcos Jr presidency would spell the end of any further investigation into the family’s corruption.
Aries Arugay said a Marcos in the presidential palace would also ensure Imelda Marcos continues to enjoy impunity for her part in fleecing the country for her own personal gain.
“The power and the role of dynasties loom large in Philippine politics,” he said.
“The conventional wisdom is the dynasties are good for dynasties, but they’re really bad for governance and the people.”
Watch Foreign Correspondent’s Marcos Makeover tonight at 8pm on ABC TV and iview, and streaming live on Facebook and YouTube.