Trolls, memes and bloggers: #LeniLeaks paints a sad picture of Filipino politics

Leni Robredo. Photo: Supergabbyshoe/ Wikimedia Commons

A social media war is raging in the Philippines. Powerful figures try to manipulate the conversation to fit their needs – ousting a president if they can, while the mainstream media sits on the sidelines. 

By Holly Reeves

Filipino netizens claim to have uncovered emails from an influential group of supporters of Vice President Leni Robredo plotting to use social media and online warfare to manipulate President Duterte out of office. What is more, the Philippine press conspires with them to “black out” the explosive allegations, they say.

The supposed plot, uncovered by outspoken activists Sass Rogando Sasot and her friend behind the ThinkingPinoy blog, is rooted in America but has links around the world. Their discovery shows a group of high-profile individuals planning ways to use the media, online communities and key social influencers to promote the Vice President and force Duterte to resign.

High-profile people are involved and the mainstream media is under fire for a lack of reporting

Influential members caught in the headlights of this public relations disaster include the billionaire lobbyist Loida Nicolas-Lewis, Loida’s sister and Commission on Filipinos Overseas Chairman Imelda Nicolas and prominent human rights lawyer Ted Laguatan. Other bureaucrats, journalists and senior civil society organisers are also on the distribution lists.

But for many the issue is bigger than a strategic communications push to defend a politician. Instead, it is the initial reluctance of the mainstream media to touch the story that has brought howls of disgust. One national network even stands accused of deleting related comments from its social media page. By Sunday the #lenileaks scandal did finally reach the front pages of national papers, but the social media fire had already been burning for days.

The story began several days ago when a sympathetic person alerted Sasot to the Global Filipino Diaspora Council Yahoo! Group. Although set to restricted, the group’s conversations were not made private – making them publicly viewable and easily shared around the world.

The group’s Robredo supporters want Duterte to resign 

One from Loida Nicolas Lewis, read, “The only way to fight this evil plot to unseat Vice President Leni Robredo is to ask Duterte to resign. After all, he promised to resign in six months if he has not solved the drug epidemic in the Philippines.” She adds, “He asked for an extension of another six months. Extension denied!”

The numerous exchanges, now hidden but available on archived links, lay out a clear social media strategy to defend the Vice President through placed media stories and attacks on bloggers. The most recent issues for the group seem to be the criticism of Robredo over her remarks about rehabilitation efforts in typhoon-hit areas, and her time spent in the US after the disaster hit.

The messages lay out a digital strategy for defending the Vice President

The leaks are a fascinating insight into the murky world of modern political communications. “The dissatisfaction with [Vice President] Leni does not come from Bikolanos,” it says. Instead, “It comes from troll influencers (Mocha, Sass, Thinking Pinoy) who never organised or mobilised efforts to help out the typhoon victims.”

But if the response from the group is to send out waves of memes, comments, postings and carefully collected photos that undermine the President, then surely they have become trolls themselves. Sitting silently on the edges of the edges of everyday politics they push and tweak what is publicly seen to get the reaction they want? And how much of Philippine politics was influenced by these murky groups before their methods could so easily be laid out for all to see online?

Robredo says she is not involved

The Vice-President herself has distanced herself from the growing hubbub, saying, “I am sure that I did not take part on any plot to oust Duterte, if there is indeed such a plot. First of all, I am being accused of joining rallies against him. That is not true. The president was misinformed on that.”

She adds, “For me, I criticise the president so he can hear us out on issues we feel strongly about, like extrajudicial killings. But my criticisms are not tantamount to calling for his ouster.” But is that true, is the Liberal Party, and its rich friends overseas, plotting to remove the President?

Senator and Liberal Party President Francis Pangilinan denies such an allegation saying support for the so-called yellows is weakening, “The alleged plot is untrue. There is no such plot. In fact, the bulk of the so-called ‘yellows’ have abandoned the [Liberal Party] ship and are now card-carrying members of other parties and aligned with Malacañang [the presidential office].”

“Campaigns” like this are highly damaging for public trust and support

However, whether the plans by the group were “official” or not the scandal shines a light on the dark face of modern politics. Where conspirators may once have met in dark rooms, they now huddle in dark corners of the web. And the interests of the people can no longer be considered safe in the fourth estate of the press, now bloggers and netizens are those with the determination to speak out.

Robredo’s reputation has to be damaged by this. But so is the reputation of the political system as a whole. And perhaps the media more than most. One influential national columnist has defended his name being on the distribution list for the group’s messages by saying, yes, he received them, but he never read them. So is the mainstream media silent? Or just absent? In our digital world, nothing can be hidden for long. The truth finds a way.