It seems inconceivable that a head of state would say he aspires to kill his own people on the same scale as Hitler, but the Philippines’ new president did just that. Three months into his six-year presidency, Rodrigo Duterte said he would be “happy” to “slaughter” three million drug addicts. He has also called President Obama a “son of a bitch” and even joked that he should have been “first” in the gang rape and murder of an Australian missionary in Davao City (where he was mayor for 22 years) in 1989.
Worst of all, Duterte’s talk of mass slaughter is no joke; his words have already become real. Since he took office June 30th, police and vigilantes have killed almost 2,300 alleged drug users or dealers according to police statistics cited by Reuters. Duterte’s dangerous speech has normalized and perhaps inspired this violence.
In June, soon after he won election, Duterte encouraged a crowd of supporters to murder drug users and dealers, saying, “do it yourself if you have a gun, you have my support,” and, “Shoot him and I will give you a medal.” In his presidential inauguration speech he instructed the audience to murder addicts, with the appalling and bizarre justification that “getting their parents to do it would be too painful.” He has also bragged about personally killing criminals when he was mayor of Davao. Duterte legitimizes violence by painting drugs and people who use them as threats to the survival of the Philippines and to the safety of children and police. According to him, massacre is the only way to save the country. He has experience: human rights groups say that more than 1,000 people were killed by death squads in Davao during his long stint as mayor. In only 100 days as president, Duterte has already begun to use similar methods nationwide.
Most of the recent killings have been carried out not by the police, according to the Guardian newspaper, but by government-hired hitmen and an unknown number of lone actors of the type Duterte celebrates. He also seems to have made extrajudicial killings acceptable in the eyes of many Filipinos, who believe he alone can solve crime, addiction, and corruption. In June, one supporter told the New York Times, “He’s only going to go after the killers and the drug dealers. Don’t be afraid.” Even now, 80 percent of Filipinos approve of him according to recent polls.
The public is susceptible to his rhetoric, due to fear of crime, violence, and drug addiction. The Philippines has a serious problem of drug addiction, with 2.1% of adults using methamphetamines according to the United Nations, and national crime rates have increased in recent years. The country has also suffered from decades of fighting with an armed wing of the Communist Party and Muslim separatist groups in which 120,000 people have been killed. Duterte claims to have made progress on these issues in his short time in office. In August, Duterte reached a ceasefire agreement with the Communist Party, and the government claims crime rates are down.
Duterte’s government and supporters are quite sophisticated at deceiving Filipinos into seeing him and his violent tactics as the solution to their problems, and into being fanatically loyal to him. Fake social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter have been created to post in support of him, inflating his online support and spreading lies about rampant crime. Some of these accounts are even automated to overwhelm online critics of the president with messages supporting him. In this case as in many others, the Internet is an important medium for spreading false and harmful content, and making it more dangerous.