COMMENTARY: “Let Them Eat Fake”: Power-Knowledge and the Making of the Marcos Myth

by Tony Esguerra

While it was Ernie Baron who popularized the phrase “kung walang knowledge, walang power”, it was the philosopher Michel Foucault who excavated the relationship between the two and their functions in shaping and maintaining social order.

This power-knowledge dialectics is continuously proving its relevance in our rapidly digitizing world. In September, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree that temporarily bans social media platforms from removing content even if these are reported to contain disinformation. Although immediately nullified by their Senate and Supreme Court, Bolsonaro’s action exhibited the increasing politicization of social media platforms and their role in democratic processes and institutions.

But there is a sort of irony here. Bolsonaro used the same social media platforms he is now castigating as a megaphone during his 2018 presidential campaign.

Our generation’s migration towards the digital world is a natural by-product of modernity and innovation. The prevalence of social media has not only made communication easier but has also made information and other knowledge products accessible for most of us. The pandemic and the series of community quarantines has also made our migration more of a social and economic requirement under the guise of the new normal. With limited mobility due to the quarantine restrictions, it has been essential for us to be glued to our screens in one way or another – whether for work, school, entertainment, socialization, or for commerce and consumption.

However, the digital world has also introduced new hazards especially for our patterns of knowledge production and consumption. In 2018, Cambridge Analytica was exposed for using Facebook to harvest data from users and use it to build psychological profiles for the targeting of political advertisements. Furthermore, the proliferation of fake news and the subsequent rise to power of populists who benefited from this disinformation has revealed the extent of social media’s power over public opinion and discourse. We have witnessed this phenomenon in our own backyard, with a multitude of social media lieutenants contributing greatly towards Duterte’s victory in 2016.

The same pattern is utilized in the whitewashing and rehabilitation of the Marcos narrative. As early as 2011, a series of YouTube videos that trended claimed an expose on what its creators deemed as the true history of Martial Law and the conflict between the Aquinos and the Marcoses. The videos were professionally made. The narratives provided were calibrated in accordance with a bigger communications strategy. The incredulity towards institutional knowledge was almost conspiratorial in nature with most videos echoing a single claim: “these are facts they don’t want you to know.”

Fast forward to the present and social media platforms from Facebook to Tiktok are teeming with a rich body of Marcos mythologies: Marcos being a decorated war veteran, acquiring the Yamashita loot, lawyering for the Tallanos, Rizal being alive after Bagumbayan, Martial Law as the golden age of the Philippines. The list goes on and on, with one narrative not necessarily canonical with the rest. These created a pastiche of disinformation that is only focused on one thing: saturate knowledge channels until any semblance to truth and reality becomes effectively neutralized.

The proliferation of these social phenomena prompts a redefinition of the relationship between power-knowledge with democratic processes and institutions in the digital sphere. Under these new platforms, social media influencers debase historians, journalists, and social scientists as the new source of knowledge. It even came to a point when Malacanang started accrediting bloggers to cover palace activities. Veracity and truthfulness then cease to be refereed by primary sources and material bases. The more likes, shares, retweets, and reposts a narrative receives, the more traction and mileage it gains, the more it is perceived to approximate the truth.

Without available institutional checks and balances, disinformation proliferates in various social media platforms, maximizing communication plans, paid advertisements, and troll farms in the process. Digital spaces then, provide a modern twist to an aphorism attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels: if you retweet a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as truth.

Plato’s rejection of democracy is based on his scepticism towards the role of the citizenry as political actors. This criticism holds more water in postcolonial contexts such as in the Philippines where the concept of nationhood is imagined and is based on the acceptance of more dominant narratives. This mythmaking was first utilized by the older Marcos with the film Iginuhit ng Tadhana. By the Martial Law years, Bagong Lipunan and a mythified version of the Philippines named Maharlika were introduced. At the focal point of these imageries were the first couple, personifying the figureheads malakas at maganda. The imagination of the common man was successfully caught by the engineering of these narratives – a reminiscing of a mythical past anchored towards a promise of prosperity for the future. This is where both populists and proto-fascists earn their keep, by coopting the national imagination through mythmaking to catapult themselves into power. It is then no wonder why BBM’s Sama-sama Tayong Babangon Muli sounds like a ripoff of Trump’s Make America Great Again.

This rejection also echoes an elitist notion of democracy and governance. The Greek philosopher was short of saying that the masses could not be trusted of stewarding nation states because they are governed by impulses and are not concerned with the pursuit of the common good. This elitist notion has also been coopted as supporting narratives in the mythmaking process. There is an underlying need to harbor distrust not only against traditional institutions but also against the mainstream media and scholastic bodies. Netizens are recruited in a makeshift class war against dominant interests but almost always, it’s one faction of the ruling clique versus another.

With the ever-increasing role of social media spaces as extensions and alternatives of our realities, there is then an urgent need to elucidate the role of these quasi-democratic spaces in the shaping of public discourse.

Social media platforms focus on the individual’s need to be consciously and constantly connected to the rest of the world. Facebook rebranding its name to Meta speaks volume on the demand for inclusion and constancy. This dependency is particularly true for the younger demographic who are born as digital natives. The expansion of information superhighways has spelled miracles for emerging economies: streamlining processes, developing new industries, and contributing to national wealth in the process. However, this comes at the expense of being dependent on structures built at the mercy of capital. Anchored on capital, it is only given that preference and advantage be given to the highest bidder – no matter what their interests might be.

Decades ago, stateless philosopher Hannah Arendt forebode a warning on how products of modernity coopt individuality for the benefit of dominant powers. For social media, capital has provided spaces where borders between the different aspects of our lives are blurred. The personal becomes political. It has also become economic, intellectual, cultural, and social, with no division and compartmentalization in sight. All of these under the auspices and control of quasi-democratic platforms architectured by capital.

Under these complexities, how then can we reclaim these spaces from the profit-oriented hand of capital and political scions engaged in the practice of mythmaking?

Perhaps there is something to learn from Bolsonaro’s frictions and fixation with social media platforms. No amount of communications strategy, public relations spins, and retweets can alter the truth. Murderers will be murderers. Plunderers will be plunderers. Dictators will be dictators. Mythologies – no matter how beautifully painted – are dispelled by reality.

There is simply no alternative to the truth.

(Tony Esguerra is a development advocate, community volunteer, and NGO worker. He likes cats.)