TikTok as poll battlefield: Lies spreading unchecked

MANILA, Philippines — When 24-year-old architecture student Jam created a TikTok account in 2020, she used it mainly to view general designs or videos of mothers making creative lunch boxes for their kids.ADVERTISEMENThttps://35df8685ee28708c4a90a685275746ba.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The content she sought was harmless, but the app became addictive and she found herself stuck on it for hours.

When the election season rolled in, political content started seeping into her app feeds. It was a hodgepodge of many things, but it was mostly about Vice President Leni Robredo and former Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the two main rivals in the 2022 presidential elections.

Jam said many of the videos tended to disparage the Vice President.

One that went viral quoted Robredo promising that she would lead a government “na hindi lang corrupt …” (that is not only corrupt). Her opponents pounced upon this incomplete remark which drew comments like “yare, di lang daw corrupt, ano pa kaya?” (we’re doomed, not only corrupt, what else?).

In fact, Robredo said that she and her running mate, Sen. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, promised a clean and transparent government, even if it had only a little money to work with.

“There are a lot of videos like that that create lies out of nowhere,” Jam said. “They try to make her appear dumb.”

Propaganda battleground

It’s illustrative of how TikTok has been transformed from a platform for anything from recipes for pies to dance moves, into a crucial battleground for political propaganda.

These days, three-minute TikTok videos, savvily edited and layered with catchy tunes, could make or break a candidate’s narrative and branding — or even invent new “truths.”

A monthlong analysis by the Inquirer of the top hashtags and most watched videos on TikTok for the six most prominent presidential candidates — Robredo, Marcos, Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, Manny Pacquiao, Panfilo Lacson and Leody de Guzman — bears this out.

The presidential aspirants and their supporters have been using TikTok heavily to package their platforms, personalities and idiosyncrasies into bite-sized, shareable videos, while also putting down their rivals.

Emotional effect

The most-watched TikTok videos of Marcos are those that dramatize his relationship with his late father, the ousted dictator. One video that raked in 14 million views as of April 26 showed the former senator touching a bust of his father held up by a supporter in the crowd during one of his motorcades.

Such TikToks, which make no explicit claims, aim to “dramatize or heighten emotional effect among the viewers,” according to Celine Samson, head of the online verification team of Vera files.

“It can be so compelling that it has the chance of making other disinformation more believable,” she said.

There were videos whitewashing the atrocities committed during the Marcos dictatorship. But most of the top viewed videos about the Marcoses paint them as a likable, relatable family, with good looks and enviable lifestyles.

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