Chinese accounts pounce on Mindanao secession issue to warn of 'civil war' in Philippines   

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
Chinese accounts pounce on Mindanao secession issue to warn of 'civil war' in Philippines   
This photo shows former President Rodrigo Duterte and Davao del Norte 1st District Representative Pantaleon Alvarez.
Graphic design by Philstar.com / Anjilica Andaya
This report forms part of Philstar.com's coverage of influence operations, which involve the spread of false information and propaganda that can mislead, cause confusion and prevent informed understanding and discourse. Read our explainer on influence operations.


The call to secede Mindanao triggered not just a flurry of controversy among Filipinos. It also fed a coordinated campaign by Chinese social media users to spread rumors of a supposed civil war in the Philippines caused by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s “provocations.”

MANILA, Philippines — Several anonymous accounts on Chinese social media were quick to seize on a Filipino politician’s proposal to secede Mindanao from the Philippines to fuel speculation of a brewing “civil war” in the country, with several attributing the alleged unrest to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s “pro-United States” stance. 

The coordinated campaign to spread rumors of impending conflict in the Philippines took off days after Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez (Davao del Norte, 1st District) issued a statement in November 2023 calling to make Mindanao independent due to Marcos’ policies in the West Philippine Sea. Within days, over 60 posts and articles about the Mindanao independence campaign were published on Chinese platforms. 

Besides anonymous accounts, the campaign was also amplified by one prominent Chinese media entity that is known to be an active distributor of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda.

Monitoring by Philstar.com in collaboration with the Taiwan-based Doublethink Lab from November 2023 to February 2024 showed that Chinese social media users already actively produced content alleging an imminent conflict in the Philippines even before former President Rodrigo Duterte publicly called to secede Mindanao in January 2024.

Several articles that reported Alvarez’s remarks implied through their headlines and text that Beijing was important enough to compel Mindanao to protest the government’s, and hence, Marcos’ handling of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea, which they claimed to be “provocative” and “dangerous.” 


Screengrab taken on May 30, 2024 shows some of the search results in Chinese websites and social media platforms that focused on the Mindanao independence campaign.

These posts echo another similar months-long campaign to paint the Philippines as an unlawful and aggressive country in the tense waterways.

RELATEDChinese media pushes 'Philippines as aggressor’ narrative before viral Marcos deepfake 

The coordinated spread of this narrative, among others, has some of the markings of an influence operation that Philstar.com is tracking across all social media platforms, groups and spaces on the internet.

Whether the posts were about Alvarez’s remarks or of Duterte’s, most used the same keywords and were also often authored by accounts that do not use their real name. The keywords for Marcos alleged he was “being hostile to China'' and “moving in a dangerous direction,” while the Mindanao independence campaign was described as a “trigger for political in-fighting” or “possible civil war.” 

Chinese social media paints Mindanao as a ‘protesting’ island

Alvarez has advocated for Mindanao’s independence as early as 2005, according to a July 9, 2005 report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer that detailed then-Davao City mayor Duterte’s calls to secede Mindanao in the context of the country’s rising discontent against then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. 

The former House speaker revived this call in 2023 as an apparent reaction to Marcos’ “bickering” with China that he said could trigger a war. 

An excerpt of the statement that his office sent to reporters on November 20, 2023 reads:

“A few days ago, I read somewhere about the statement of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, he cautioned us about the rising tensions in that part of the sea. And I agree with him. We cannot afford to go to war with China and be a battleground for what is to come. I can only imagine a lopsided battle where after all these tensions – the Philippines is in the losing end, wala tayong panalo dito (we cannot win this).”

The veteran lawmaker, who is a true-blooded Mindanawon, even suggested that it is better that Mindanao separates itself from the Philippines if Imperial Manila insists on dragging the entire nation towards the prospect of war.

At least 60 posts and or articles based on Alvarez’s remarks were uploaded on Chinese platforms from Nov. 21 to 30, 2023, based on Doublethink Lab’s monitoring. Most articles and posts were uploaded on Chinese social media platforms Weibo, Baijahao and NetEase. The latter is a Chinese website where users can “self-publish” news articles. 

The majority of Chinese users’ articles about the Mindanao secession campaign shared the same argument that Marcos’ favorable policies toward the United States were causing Mindanao to consider separating from the country. This, some alleged, was an indication of a brewing civil war. 

A month later on Dec. 27, 2023, online media portal Guancha released a video that combines the contents of four different articles published in November 2023. The video, which used a computer-generated voiceover, alleged that Marcos has been “stirring up anti-China sentiment at home” upon the orders of the US government. 

The Guancha video said that “some regions … have stood up in resistance to prevent the entire country from being dragged down by Marcos.” It also said that Alvarez’s call to secede Mindanao came after Marcos attempted to draw Vietnam and Malaysia “into confrontation with China.” 

Guancha has been flagged by Doublethink Lab for its role in spreading disinformation and messages that echo China’s “new nationalist” and anti-Western sentiment under the guise of independent commentary.

This conclusion was drawn from tracing Guancha’s historical evolution, close ties with Chinese state institutions and state-connected influencers, and its involvement in information operations, such as the false claims during Typhoon Jebi in Japan, which misled Taiwanese media and thus fueled protests against then-Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Duterte fans the flames of Mindanao independence campaign

Months later, on January 30, Duterte made the same call as Alvarez, saying in a press conference that Mindanao should consider seceding from the Philippines through a process based on gathering signatures.

This time, the Philippine government responded directly to the proposal, with National Security Adviser Eduardo Año saying on February 4 that any attempt to secede any part of the Philippines “will be met by the government with resolute force.” He added that the government “will not hesitate to use its authority and forces to quell and stop any and all attempts to dismember the Republic." 

At least 11 posts or articles were published the week after Duterte’s statement. One of the articles, translated with an open-source translation tool, said that the Philippine government would “attack with force.” Meanwhile, the post of one anonymous account outright claims that the Philippines “is on the brink of civil war.”  

Screengrab taken on June 10, 2024
Screengrab taken on June 10, 2024

Meanwhile on Facebook, the page "PH News" on February 5 posted: "Is there a civil war in the Philippines? Philippines ready to use 'forces' to quell any secession attempt, [an] official says.”

“PH News,” which mostly posts content supportive of Duterte and critical of the United States, shared its post about the “civil war” to at least five pro-Duterte public Facebook groups, two groups supportive of Vice President Sara Duterte, two groups about the South China Sea and one group about modernizing the Philippine military, among others. 

Its post gained 16 reactions and 58 shares.

Local spread 

While the “civil war” narrative did not gain traction among Filipino social media users, there are at least two personalities who made public statements blaming Marcos for escalating tensions at home and between the Philippines and China.

Vlogger Byron Cristobal, also known as Banat By, said in a February 11 video that Marcos had overreacted to Duterte’s proposal to secede Mindanao “legally,” saying that the president appeared to prefer using force. He compared Marcos to Duterte and claimed that the latter’s alignment with China led to a peaceful period where Filipino fishermen did not face conflict at sea.

Meanwhile, commentator Rigoberto Tiglao similarly criticized Marcos and his Cabinet members for having “knee-jerk” reactions, saying that his government’s “threat” of using force against secession movements inadvertently confirmed that “there is already an ongoing armed secession movement.”

— with reports by Doublethink Lab


This alert/analysis/series was produced with support from an Internews initiative aiming to build the capacity of news organizations to understand and monitor disinformation and influence operations in the Philippines.

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