French President Emmanuel Macron and Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo share some things in common: both were targets of “a campaign of digital disinformation on a scale and with a level of professionalism that is troubling.” However, in Macron’s case the disinformation failed, while it succeeded in Robredo’s case. Macron won over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen not just once but twice, in the 2017 and 2022 elections. Robredo lost the elections to an ousted dictator’s son, Bongbong Marcos, in May 2022. What lessons may be drawn from a comparison of both cases?
Many of the attacks and disinformation claims made against both Macron and Robredo are strangely similar. To illustrate:
- Rumors were spread about their sexuality. Macron was either gay or having an affair with his stepdaughter. His wife Brigitte was born male. Robredo had a secret boyfriend, a Quezon City congressman. She became pregnant and went to the United States for an abortion. President Duterte himself stoked the rumours by joking he would get Robredo’s boyfriend killed so he could pursue her.
- Both were portrayed as elitist. Macron was tagged as an aristocrat and rich banker who despises the common man, a stooge of wealthy Jewish financiers who will sell out the working class. He had secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. Robredo was depicted as having expensive taste, a candidate with an elitist vibe, and whose campaign team bullied other candidates. She owned the Lansbergh Place condominium. She was supported by oligarchic Filipino-American millionaires.
- Macron was a US agent, as alleged by a duo of far-right French MPs. Robredo is a puppet or a plotter, being groomed by the US to be the next Cory Aquino, as alleged by Mocha Uson. And yet, both were also portrayed as allies of the left and terrorists. A theme repeated many times in the French 2017 and 2022 elections was that a vote for Macron is a vote for the socialists. He will capitulate to Muslim terrorists. In the Philippines, the spokesperson of a government task force made repeated claims that Robredo was colluding with Filipino communists.
- Macron’s team was said to have been ordering illegal drugs, including cocaine, for the French Parliament. Robredo’s brother-in-law, Butch Robredo, was tagged as drug kingpin in the Bicol region (Butch Robredo is blind and is president of the Philippine Blind Union).
- A group that has since been banned from Reddit alleged that Macron and his team rigged the 2017 French elections. Groups that have since been banned on Facebook circulated the label “Fake VP” and alleged that Robredo rigged the 2016 vice presidential elections.
- Both were framed as being supported by a biased mainstream media. French journalists were reported by the Russian news agency Sputnik as having joined a rally of Macron’s party, En Marche! wearing its T-shirts. Bongbong Marcos himself said that mainstream media like Rappler and ABS-CBN never treated him fairly, hence he relied instead on social media.
To summarize, in what came to be known as #Macronleaks, Emmanuel Macron was all of the above. In what came to be known as #Nagaleaks, Robredo was the face of electoral fraud, a criminal protector, an economic saboteur, and a traitor.
The question that emerges is: why did the orchestrated disinformation campaign fail in Macron’s case and succeed in Robredo’s? There are a few possible answers:
- Time and timing. According to French analyst Dr. Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer, there was too little time for the poison of disinformation to work in Macron’s case, who became a target only a few months before the French elections of April-May 2017 (France has a two-round voting system). The frontrunner, François Fillon, became embroiled in a political-financial scandal, which paved the way for third-placer Macron to be in the lead only in January 2017. Robredo faced an altogether different set of circumstances. She was targeted by disinformation attacks only after she won the May 2016 elections. Thus, Robredo was subjected to six years of incessant demolitions that enabled the poison to spread across social media.
- Cambridge Analytica. Analyses of the 2017 French elections make no mention of the involvement of Cambridge Analytica and the tactics of microtargeting and the manipulation of public opinion on social media. The focus instead was on Russian and American alt-right interventions in the French elections. In the Philippines, Bongbong Marcos asked Cambridge Analytica to rebrand the Marcos family’s image in 2015. The tactics that were used for reputation laundering and political microtargeting were the same tools developed and perfected by Cambridge Analytica.
- Language and culture. It was more difficult to penetrate the French population, because overall the French are not known for having good foreign-language skills or mastery of English, unlike in the Philippines where English is a second and official language. Furthermore, spreading rumors in English created by the American alt-right would be counterproductive in France, where a significant part of the population is hostile to or skeptical of Americans. Culture also played a role, continues Vilmer. Spreading rumors that Macron is gay may have been scandalous for a Russian or American politician, but hardly for a French one. The French do not really care about the private lives of their leaders. In contrast, slut-shaming has been used effectively in the macho culture of Philippine politics, as seen in the vilification of Senator Leila de Lima.
- Trust in reputable sources of news. Vilmer cites an Oxford University study of more than 800,000 tweets, which found that French voters shared better quality information than American voters. In the US election, only 25.9% of links contained in tweets led to professional news content and 3.4% led to parties, government agencies, and other experts. In contrast, in the French election it was 46.7% and 15.7% respectively. Rationality, critical thinking, and healthy skepticism are parts of the French DNA. While similar studies are still to be made about tweets in the Philippines, it is not difficult to imagine what a tsismis culture will deliver in a population reliant on Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube for news.
An important lesson from the 2017 Macron campaign is how to anticipate the phishing or tabnabbing activities that hackers use to break into email accounts and servers. According to the head of Macron’s digital campaign, Mounir Mahjoubi, they not only regularly warned campaign staff but also planted decoy information that led hackers nowhere and wasted their time. Hence, while anticipatory announcements were made to drum up interest on “scandalous” and “explosive” #Macroleaks due to be released – the exposés turned out to be duds.
A lot still needs to be done for a full post-mortem analysis of the Philippine elections. Many parts of what transpired are still hazy, fragmented, or incomplete. What is definite though is that the May 22 elections is not democracy: it was the result of at least six years of disinformation and spreading the poison of lies, paid for with illegal cash supplied by elected leaders who could not be moral leaders. – Rappler.com
Eric Gutierrez is a researcher based in Germany. He obtained his PhD in Development Studies (cum laude) from the International Institute of Social Studies – Erasmus University Rotterdam. The views expressed here are his alone.