The 'Satanists of Misamis': Anatomy of an Online Cult Conspiracy Theory
When curfew begins at nine in my province, there’s not much work left for the barangay tanods to do. Streets are shut as soon as the sun bids goodbye. That’s about normal for a world in lockdown, but here in Misamis Occidental, it isn't the pandemic that's keeping us indoors at night.
I first heard about the Satan-worshipping murderous cult called Tuktok (Cebuano for knock) from a Facebook friend's post in 2019. Supposedly a gang of machete-wielding men, they’re said to roam during the evening hours, perform Latin incantations, and knock on the door of unsuspecting houses. Their sole motive? To kill.
Into mainstream consciousness
The stories were fringe at that time, mostly contained as village rumors, until they gained widespread attention in early April this year. Two men were arrested in the province for illegally possessing firearms and breaking curfew protocols, but apart from guns, authorities uncovered from the pair what is said to be a set of quasi-religious paraphernalia that eventually spurred the province and the entire island of Mindanao into the wormhole that is conspiratorial thinking.
The region’s fixation with the supernatural isn’t exactly surprising: scholars of Philippine vigilantism point to Mindanao as home to the country’s most notorious fanatical cults. These predominantly right-wing groups, like the Tadtad who believed that their bodies were bullet-proof, gained momentum in the late 1980s. Their killing methods, heartless in the most literal sense, include hacking their victims to death, which the government found useful in terrorizing guerillas. And so the military forged a convenient alliance with the group to curb hotbeds of Muslim separatist and communist insurgency on the island.
Particular to Misamis Occidental, the most prominent group that emerged post-Marcos is Kuratong Baleleng founded by a local political elite. Originally formed to curtail left-wing zones in Northwest Mindanao, the group splintered into gangs and criminal syndicates organizing mafia operations across the country. Members were known to wear shirts with Latin inscriptions, which they believed to have talismanic properties. More recently, in 2017, high-profile members of the founding clan were killed in a police raid a year after President Rodrigo Duterte released a controversial narco list that allegedly linked them to the drug trade.
It's all about the algorithm
It’s too soon for a conjecture that the Tuktok is the latest social imagining of the paranoia my province used to fight in the past. We’re more prone to public amnesia than collective trauma. And perhaps setting out on a quest to uncover the cult is a futile attempt, because in today’s febrile truth-seeking, the anatomy of manipulation, misinformation, and conspiratorial beliefs has evolved, thanks to one important ingredient—the inescapable algorithm.
At the onset of the Tuktok frenzy, a TikTok account amassed millions of views overnight as it aggregated videos of community fiascos allegedly caused by members of the cult, including an obviously doctored surveillance footage of a “teleporting” man. On Twitter, “Misamis Occidental” and “Mindanao” were the country’s top tweets at one point, led by stan accounts mostly oblivious to the geographical distinctions of the two. To top it all off is TV program giant Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho’s coverage of the phenomenon, pushing the conspiracy theory into urban legend status for the show’s 22 million Facebook followers.
A slingshot by the window before sunset to fend off evil spirits
It’s no secret that a media environment like this helps enable the ubiquity of “fake news,” and to a much dangerous degree, disinformation. Plunging us into our own chamber of truths, mega-platforms have a well-designed mechanism—the more we see content that builds on what we’ve already established to ourselves as true, the more we tend to shut down other information that doesn’t support that bias. And while there’s a whole psychology to it, our heavy reliance on social media only makes us more vulnerable to dubious accounts. Never mind trolls; fear fearmongers the most.
The disinformation machinery
Although muddled with bizarre and paranormal elements, what makes it the hardest to disengage from the Tuktok ruckus is that it is hinged on an indisputable truth: murderers do exist whether we like it or not. So when I dissuade my neighbors from being frantically superstitious or dismiss my Facebook friend for sharing posts seemingly wrung out of the comic book Trese, am I morally wrong for discrediting their actual, physical fears?
This is what makes it the ideal model for a disinformation machinery: entertaining enough, scary enough, “truthy” enough. In today’s insulated ecosystem of information, the “truthiness” of the truth is a myth on its own. Allow one gospel truth to cling to a fabricated lie and every derivative that comes out of it is equally believable online.
In closing the case for Tuktok, I am once again brought back to history but much farther—the Huk Rebellion in the 1950s. Without the tentacles of the internet, the military managed to hijack into the psyche of the Huks: ambush a guerilla member, puncture vampiric holes into his neck, and leave the corpse on the trail. Upon seeing the demise of their comrade, the Huks could only draw from their folklore and point to the shape-shifting aswang as the sole suspect. These deliberate scare tactics gradually evolved into a psychological warfare the Huks fought to no avail. In exchange for their downfall, we have this expensive lesson on disinformation.
Riding on the paranoia
It's no coincidence that some of my neighbors claim that local law enforcement is starting to ride on the paranoia of the Tuktok to efficiently impose curfews and checkpoints. Pat your back for being superstitious, you get peace and order. They could be right or they could be wrong. Social media doesn’t care much, either way; it only rewards whichever you choose to be true.
As of now, the Tuktok is a mere falsehood. And I thank God every night I get to prove what it is: a myth. An urban legend. A piece of fake news. Call it what you want. While we're at it, we rig the algorithm by deliberately choosing the myths we entertain ourselves with, the myths we base our values on, and the myths we pluck out of the system. Disinformation is best purged when we nip it in the bud.
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