Sarah Elago: Lawmaker under attack

This story is part of Faces of 2020, a series of profiles about people whose stories of loss and survival embody the year 2020.

In 2020, Kabataan Representative Sarah Elago became anxious to take pictures.

Calling it “guilt by picture-taking,” the 31-year-old Elago explained that this was caused by the disinformation on social media that targeted her this year, which ranged from manipulated images to fake quotes.

Elago became one of the individuals most targeted by propaganda networks this year, and the second woman after Vice President Leni Robredo, based on Rappler’s Fact Check series. In 2020 alone, Rappler debunked at least 10 false claims about Elago.

She and other progressive lawmakers have been subjected to red-tagging, or being labeled as communists or terrorists. This became especially alarming in 2020, the year President Rodrigo Duterte signed the controversial Anti-Terrorism Law while police and military shared dubious posts.

For instance, a claim back in June used a photo of her and alleged it showed her with new recruits of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army. But the photo was taken during a hike-for-a-cause event, and the girls in the photo were those affected by the Taal Volcano eruption.

“I was really marred with constant anxiety whenever someone approaches me to have a photo taken. It’s really not easy to see your own face being manipulated, photoshopped, and spread online,” Elago said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Fighting false information

Elago has been facing disinformation since she entered Congress in 2016. Through the years, she said the campaigns worsened as her party-list group became more vocal in criticizing the administration.

The disinformation campaign intensified in 2020, both in number and scale – going as far as some users posting uncensored photos of her family, including her siblings who are still minors.

“In our family, we were raised to respect everyone’s beliefs and principles as long as they don’t hurt or infringe on the rights of others. And my parents are the type of people who are so kind, so loving, and so understanding,” she said in Filipino.

Elago finds it deeply troubling that protectors of the law themselves are partaking in disinformation campaigns.

In Congress, Elago has filed several resolutions aiming to reduce disinformation. She has also been filing complaints since 2018 with the National Bureau of Investigation, Commission on Human Rights, and recently the Ombudsman against those who spread false information against her. However, none of these have been resolved so far.

Still, the congresswoman said she will continue to call for accountability especially from public officials who peddle false information not only targeting her, but also other minority sectors such as the youth and women. After all, she says the people in power won’t hesitate to act with impunity if they are not held accountable.

“Since disinformation clearly fits within a broader attempt to silence critical voices and political dissent, it is imperative that we forge broader solidarity among young people, students, and other sectors in combating disinformation that undermines our democracy,” she said.

Spread of sexism

A new trend of threats also targeted Elago – when disinformation became gendered. Elago still finds it hard to wrap her head around the constant attacks against her, especially when they contain misogynistic and sexist remarks. She said that this behavior could affect the capacity of young women to engage more in public service.

“I'm taking time. I'm allowing myself to process this at my own pace. But that does not mean that I'm not dedicated to really push back on misogyny, sexism, especially against vocal parliamentarians,” said Elago.

“Hopefully we'll see better days, pero conscious din kami na nakadepende sa atin ‘yun. Kung magiging mas malakas iyong demokrasya sa bansa, nakadepende rin sa lakas din ng boses at pagkakaisa ng mga kabataan (but we are aware that depends on us. If democracy becomes stronger in our country, it would also depend on the strength of the voice and unity of the youth).” – Rappler.com

Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women's issues in Newsbreak, Rappler's investigative arm.

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Pauline Macaraeg

Pauline Macaraeg is part of the Rappler Research Team’s fact-checking unit. Aside from debunking dubious claims, she also enjoys crunching data and writing stories about the economy, environment, and media democracy.

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