#FactsFirstPH research

[ANALYSIS] Building Narratives: stories of greatness and windmills in Marcos Jr.’s campaign video

Daphne-Tatiana Canlas, Ma. Ivy Claudio
[ANALYSIS] Building Narratives: stories of greatness and windmills in Marcos Jr.’s campaign video
The Marcos campaign is built on grand narratives and lies, a #FactsFirstPH study finds

“Building Narratives: Stories of greatness and windmills in Marcos Jr.’s campaign video” is a study presented in a #FactsFirstPH research briefing held on May 6, 2022. The full copy of the research is reposted with permission.

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“All architecture is an attempt to narrate a story, and architects are storytellers with varying plots and characters.” – Gerard Lico, 2003

On April 9, 2022, the IBON Foundation released a series of infographics summarizing their analysis of the “political sinfulness” of the May 2022 presidential candidates. Former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. tops the list in the category of disinformation, as the research notes a machinery among paid trolls and followers who are helping perpetuate false claims about his family’s history, his critics and rivals, and his achievements.

One of the most discussed claims involves a post from a Bongbong Marcos page on November 9, 2015, that claimed that the Bangui Windmills were a project of Marcos Jr. when he was a governor in Ilocos Norte.

Fact-checked content from Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok show how Marcos Jr. supporters claim that he conceptualized and implemented projects such as the Bangui windmills, which allegedly lowered electricity costs in Ilocos Norte.

Information from Rappler and OneNews.ph confirm the project was built by NorthWind Power Development Corporation (NPDC), a company belonging to the Ayala Corporation. The parent company is in fact owned by the Ayala family, known for their close association with Ninoy and Cory Aquino, the Marcos families’ primary political rivals. 

Despite the controversies, Marcos Jr.’s supporters and his campaign strategists continue to deploy the image of the windmills as a key symbol in his campaign materials. The appeals the images make resonate with the edifice complex of the Marcos family, their “golden age” grand narratives.

Through a textual analysis of one of Marcos Jr.’s main campaign videos, this article wishes to underscore how narratives are built over time with the deft use of story, accessible platforms, and the emphasis placed on images and symbols in media content to cement these narratives.

Monuments in history

The windmills have created an experience through the journey and pilgrimage people make to this previously little known spot in northern Philippines. As an icon, the windmill is capable of conveying meaning on several layers. The grandeur and the looming presence of these engineering marvels exude a sense of power, and like other architectural and engineering feats in history, they potentially occupy space in our memory that contribute to our knowledge of the world. It commands respect for its ability to harness the natural elements and transform these into life-changing and sustainable electricity. 

We recall monuments such as the Parthenon in Greece, for instance, or the churches in Rome, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal at Agra, and we call up the stories that have helped shape our understanding of their existence and why they exist. We are first made aware of their dominating presence historically and geographically, and the persons whose will and power made these structures possible. 

Many of these architectural wonders have become monuments which function as memorials, and have crossed over to the category of works of art. Some stand out through time as landmarks that commemorate events, places, persons in history, and the values and ideals of a nation. Jose Rizal’s monument in Luneta reminds us of his contributions to our identity as a nation, as does Andres Bonifacio’s monument in Quezon City of his sacrifice for our freedom from Spain. Monuments can dominate landscapes, making a statement about its culture and people. “People can invest meanings to their physical environments, and then act upon those meanings,” writes the scholar Gerard Lico in 2003.

This is the power of architecture: it has an ability to organize meaning. For instance, a tourist’s stories about Intramuros will differ from the stories of a historian or of a chicharon vendor, who peddles their wares within the colonial fort. All these stories infuse place with meaning, rooted in our encounters with and memories of it. Meanings emerge in our recognition of these edifices, where they are, how we came to know of them, and ultimately what our relationships are to them. At some point, we are hard put to imagine what that place would look like without them. What stories would be erased if these monuments were removed or replaced? 

“The meaning-making of monuments combines: historical and fictive stories (texts or pictures, etc.), which have been told about a remembered person or event, stories that comment or interpret these historical or fictive stories, memories of people who experienced the event themselves or met the deceased personally, and memories which have been formed from the bases of all of these written or oral stories,” writes T. Lähdesmäki, a researcher of monuments and memory. “Reading” edifices through our memory feeds the stories that we circulate in our conversations, in our images, and in our media. What is told and how it is told to whom belies an exercise of power. Who has access to that power controls the narrative. 

Reading edifices as metaphor is reading them as texts. “Texts” in this instance doesn’t mean words on your phone, or the printed word, but the discourse of meaning, or how artifacts become intricate meaning networks. They become symbols. Sound, images, and in this case, surfaces and built environments, are texts that we live with and use to organize our knowledge of the world, communicate, and represent complex ideas, feelings, and histories.

In his 2005 book The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World, Deyan Sudjic wrote that structures were also a form of mass communication. Buildings as metaphors for accomplishments, presence, and power have been deployed throughout history. When one thinks about the Eiffel Tower in France, or the Great Wall of China, identities, histories, and stories of the nations and people who built them find a platform here. They lend a “concreteness” and truth to the stories told about them. That concreteness and “thickness” of the truth lies in the verifiable facts, the contexts in which they reside, and the histories that enabled their construction. When these are effaced, a shell of a story remains and it ceases to be a monument to a population’s identity and history. Instead, it becomes an easily reproduced symbol used for politics and propaganda.

Building (of) Disinformation: Organizing powers of story on social media 

Over the years, supporters have claimed the Marcos family were conceptualizers and implementers of infrastructure projects and architectural marvels that uplifted the Filipino culture and improved the quality of Filipino lives. From the early 2000s, supporters of the Marcos dynasty have spread false claims, such as Marcos Sr. being the proponent of an inter-island highway masterplan linking Metro Manila with nearby provinces, the Manila International Airport, and the Malacanang Palace, to name a few. These claims to great structures are offered as proof of a Marcos “golden age” when Filipinos were said to have a better quality of life, were more disciplined, respected each other, and were respected globally in turn. Today, the Bangui windmills are the subject in images and videos in conversations with Marcos Jr. His supporters claim that he initiated the project and helped reduce energy costs in Ilocos Norte. 

Writing in 2003, Lico used the term “edifice complex” to describe the Marcoses’ use of government projects as political propaganda. In his book Edifice Complex: Power, Myth, and Marcos State Architecture, Imelda Marcos is singled out as the main proponent of this strategy, investing as much as $19 billion and loaning more from abroad. The list is long: CCP Main Building, Folk Arts Theater, Manila Film Center, Tahanang Filipino or the Coconut Palace, the Philippine Heart Center, the San Juanico Bridge, among others. 

According to Lico, the Marcoses’ monumentalism or use of state architecture was a way for them to compensate for a perceived lack in our history and culture, owing to the loss of our own architectural language since colonization, and the “lowliness” of folk expressions of art. That a lack exists at all and the assumption that the Marcoses rightfully fill that lack is an assertion of the idea that they were the saviors of Filipino culture and identity. Their version of the Maharlikan and a homogenous, single identity was the one true way to recognize the Filipino and unite the regions unquestioningly. 

The “golden age” narrative is an example of how stories told without context and skepticism can devolve into propaganda. The buildings and the facades they present are taken at face value. It would be easy to believe the “greatness” being projected by these buildings. “Space in itself is not inherently powerful. It is the politics of spatial utilization that can be summoned in the service of power and ideology.”

That the Marcoses amassed millions of dollars in debt and diverted tax payers’ money to build state-sponsored structures is an exercise in power and the deployment of art as propaganda. Doing so occupies a space in the population’s collective consciousness to build and memorialize their contribution and aspirations for the country. Appropriating the space while claiming to fill the spaces of alleged cultural lack are narratives that continue to endure about the Marcoses, this time in spaces on social media. 

Windmills as propaganda in the age of digital reproduction

How the spaces and structures figure in our memories bear on the stories we tell about our history. One of the most effective and efficient ways of transmitting stories in our time is through the media. Writing about the use of film and photography for propaganda during World War II, the philosopher Walter Benjamin critiqued how these then-new technologies reduced artifacts that existed in time and space to mere copies of the original. These copies were no longer meaningful but were instead hollowed-out replicas that could be reshaped for use by those in power to harness a sense of wonder, grandeur, and sublime existence in narratives about them. These were characteristics accorded works of art that were considered aesthetic objects existing to evoke an aesthetic experience.

To Benjamin, it is a phenomenon that restores a magical or mystifying character to art and artifacts for the sole purpose of being seen. In his influential essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin argued that deploying images in film and photography as mere symbols, removed from their contexts, can sweep audiences away from actuality and replace history with aesthetics. While it’s true that the image in a film brings the artifact closer to its audiences by collapsing space and time, it also distances one from the mechanisms behind the film’s construction. The focus placed on the object encourages audiences to build their own meaning, repeated and re-lived over time and inspired by the escape provided by the magical experience of consuming the content.  

Today, electronic and digital reproduction allow the regular person unprecedented accessibility and opportunity to access and consume media, create, and disseminate. Without traditional media as gatekeepers, a sense of magic and power in the ability to assemble and distribute information, create new forms of content, and engage in dialogue about the things that matter to them resonates in digital reproductions of material.

It’s true that digital media has democratized and dispersed information. It’s also true that it has democratized the ability to reshape, revise, and replicate information on an exponential scale. Online communities can devolve into echo chambers on social media, making it easier to build a story and cement disinformation and misinformation.

Studies have shown how echo chambers thrive on emotion. Sometimes emotions are triggered by the simplest things: a comment, a color, a gesture. Reducing people, places, events, and ideas effaces the complexity of history and creates a vacuum. Removed from context and reduced to the most obvious and accessible attributes, the granular event or artifact then becomes the kernel for a new story, built and rebuilt over time with new layers. Such stories can be spun into a vortex of unexamined feelings supported by unchecked facts, and grows into a narrative.   

Disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation can fill the spaces where complexity is reduced. The insidious replication of unverified stories is one of the goals of disinformation culture, and it aims to confuse and bury one in details that evoke strong emotions. On social media, narratives become easy to transmit with navigable platforms and simplified symbols on which people anchor their reactions and opinions. 

Winds of the past 

In the case of Marcos Jr., the symbols of choice are the Bangui windmills which for him served as visual and narrative anchor as early as 2015. In one of his official campaign videos, Marcos Jr. is shown with the line of windmills superimposed in the background.

Using the strategy of foregrounding, he is shown towering over the windmills. He then turns and plucks one of the windmills from the ground and it transforms into a toy – a spinning pinwheel. He reaches outside the frame and shots cut to different people receiving the pinwheel and passing it on, as voice overs of the lines, “May kabuhayan…may kinabukasan…dahil sabay-sabay tayong lahat babangon” are heard (Livelihood…a future…we will all rise together). The pinwheel eventually returns to Marcos Jr., then disappears in a flash of light. Marcos Jr. returns on cam, this time superimposed on a hazy backdrop of a city, and his slogan appears beside him. The ad ends with him saying his name, and his campaign slogan, “Bangon, bayan, muli” (Rise again, my country) appearing in graphics across the frame.

The use of windmills as an icon by Marcos Jr. is a metaphor for development. Marcos Jr. wishes to replicate that idea of development among various sectors in society.

Just as the sight of the windmills are irrefutable proof of their existence, supporters of Marcos Jr. use the same image to refer to his greatness. His image is larger than life as he appears to tower above the windmills, despite his own admission that he ignored the initial proposal to erect them as early as 1998 because of the slim chance of earning from the project, and considering a golf course for the site. He said in an interview that the project was a private commercial project, and not a government project.

In his own words, Marcos Jr. said the windmills were “a practical solution to a practical problem.” While the government of Ilocos Norte did not have the funds or infrastructure to support such a project, as governor, it was his task to facilitate the paperwork and ensure the enactment of laws and policies of his province to allow the private construction and funding companies to implement such an undertaking.

It is this detail that his campaign and supporters use as support to claims being made for his foresight and greatness. The windmill farm is a project he chose to claim because every other “great accomplishment” is attributed to his father’s rule. What is telling is the apparent disavowal of the fact-checked claims about his involvement in their inception and implementation. The use of their figure to represent his contributions despite the numerous articles online are further compounded by the actions of his supporters to fact-check the fact checkers.

With more content created to refute the fact-checkers, emotions and counterclaims are layered on to reclaim the narrative of greatness attributed to him and the Marcos family. Instead of investigating how he proposes to enact his idea of development, supporters and their messaging emphasize that he presents the various sectors with a promise of a new day.

Attempts to challenge his strategies are put to rest with visuals of smiling neighbors singing one tune wherever they may be: Trust in his greatness, we will see a new society rise, together. Repeated, relayered, remediated, everyday realities of recovering from the pandemic, the economic crisis, and climate emergencies are muddled in the face of a promised, effortless, and polished tomorrow. 

Deployed in the exigency of this year’s presidential elections, the use of the figure of the windmill as a metaphor in media content memorializes Marcos Jr. The fantasy that Marcos supporters and Marcos Jr. himself offer the country is a return to a Marcosian “golden age.” His campaign slogan, “Babangon Muli,” echoes his father’s December 1965 inaugural speech, where the older Marcos proclaimed, “This nation can be great again.”

Assuming a time existed prior to the present as better and greater than the one we live in now is a nostalgic trope of authoritarian regimes. The insistence on a nostalgic past reinforces what scholars call “grand narratives.”

Grand narratives are those stories that are seldom, if ever, challenged and are a blanket tale that claim a universal truth. Grand narratives are concerned with maintaining one unified story and deny a diversity of views in order to maintain the status quo. They organize our knowledge of history, our experiences, and impose a “totalizing” schema in our minds that informs an ideology of sameness (homogeneity) and absolutes.

Most of all, grand narratives imbue stories with a glittering and shiny possibility that recuperates an idea of a “better time” usually located in the past. In the Marcosian grand narrative, the glory days of the country are defined by their family’s alleged accomplishments and service, embodied in the edifices the dictatorship implemented – a narrative that plasters over the controversies and true cost of maintaining their image as saviors of Filipino culture and the great initiators of a supposed golden age.

The Marcosian grand narrative also proclaims as truth that one man can do it all – provide everyone with what he thinks they need without a clear strategy of how this will be accomplished. What is clear is the mission to restore those glory days under their reign. It begins with erecting a narrative of greatness that reconstructs the past while occluding the social, economic, and cultural impacts their actions caused or may continue to cost the country. 

The effective and efficient use of subtle media imaging and conversations help reinforce the narrative over time. Without the contextual evidence, the reiteration of their visual dominance in the physical landscape and the visual/discursive landscape online becomes the easiest way to link Marcos Jr.’s accomplishment, turning it into an everyday conversation. He becomes a household name that easily plugs into the grand narrative his family perpetuated. 

So why bring this up now, a few days before the election? Because it’s important to show how, for some of our kababayans, the Marcoses succeeded in occupying the spaces with their story and changed the landscape of their memory, how powerful disinformation is in constructing a worldview that guides how the world and the relationships to everything are considered.

When stories are unchallenged, a grand narrative is erected. Why are narratives of grandness and sweeping change easier to accept? It’s easier to hold on to a single narrative and view, instead of many, often contradicting views. To question grand narratives means having to question the beliefs that have guided one throughout their lives, and anything that was once taken for granted must now feel alien. 

The truth is, multiple views exist. It is in the collision of views and the work of vetting and research that will always reveal the truth. The changes that emerge from challenging grand narratives usually reveal the complexities of everyday life. That complexity is what reality is. This is the challenge to all of us: to reclaim and tell the contextual and localized stories based on facts that challenge the prevailing narrative. It is our job now to sustain this national conversation to help us re-establish a shared reality. It is tedious and messy work, uncomfortable, and at times painful. 

Truth is a process of uncovering, and it is work done in the present. It is a process of change, and we know that change makes us vulnerable. Any image of the future is just that – an image that is neither complete nor abiding, but the work to achieve it in real life is certainly backbreaking.

The effort to spin untruths and build a wall of disinformation is meant to protect the image of the past, to set in stone the belief that it is possible to recuperate what was. That work is ceaseless, but the labor needed to break it down is just as unrelenting. The difference is that sound and vetted evidence make it easier to illuminate the truth, revealing the cracks in the edifice where one can keep chipping away. – Rappler.com

Daphne-Tatiana Canlas teaches at the Department of Broadcast Communication, University of the Philippines Diliman. Her research interests include the rhetorics and phenomenology of everyday life and the politics of media representation, identity and postcoloniality, cultural studies, children’s media, and audio-visual production. Her latest publication is titled, “You know you’re Filipino when: Nostalgic tropes of Filipinoness in YouTube videos by second-generation Filipino Americans,” published in the Routledge Handbook of Comparative World Rhetorics. 

Ma. Ivy Claudio teaches at the Department of Broadcast Communication, University of the Philippines Diliman. She teaches courses in radio production, broadcast journalism, media studies. Her research interests revolve around questions concerning the media, international policy, and disasters. She was DZUP station manager from 2015 to 2017. Her latest publication is titled, “The Role of Local NGO in International Disaster Risk Reduction Regime,” published in the Filipinas Journal of the Philippine Studies Association, Inc. Ivy is the current college secretary of the College of Mass Communication.