The rise of fake news: the Philippine case

Picture: flickr user “The Public Domain Review”, PD.

The internet and social media are digital platforms that can be a boon or a bane to the people and societies in general. They are avenues whereby information or misinformation can be circulated. And given the rapidity by which these can spread valid or fake news, the stakes are high, as this information can manifest itself in the clear possibility of the citizens being in a state of online quandary. With a staggeringly increase of internet and social media users, it is indeed worthwhile to look into this matter. This article zeroes in on the Philippine case and appropriate recommendations apt to the said country are provided.

Social Media and the Rise of Fake News

Early this year, the “Digital in 2017 Global Overview Report” was released, and results show some data regarding internet and social media use that are worth delving into. In particular, there are 3.773 billion internet users and 2.789 billion social media users all over the world. The global internet user number is reported to be up by more than 80% since year 2012, and there is an increase in social media use of 21% users year-on-year.

The prominence of internet and social media play a pivotal role in the way information becomes available and accessible in this Digital Age. Citizens of this era have at their behest new platforms that can be utilized both in positive and negative ways. The most palpable boon that the digital world offers is the democratization of knowledge and information and the strengthening of freedom of expression. It makes information very accessible to people, and this results in a free-flowing information that is easily reachable and shareable. Social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter also seemingly empower individuals to easily express their thoughts and sentiments on their social media accounts.

The convenience that the internet and social media seems to bring with it could cause a boomerang effect, as this very same convenience could result in laxity. The use of social media does not pose any rigorous measure that requires the content to be filtered, the facts to be checked, and the grammar to be edited. Worse, as some academics would contend, “An individual user with no track record or reputation can in some cases reach as many readers as Fox News, CNN, or the New York Times.

This kind of digital ambience has led to the prominence of fake news. Fake news has been playing a crucial role in this information – or rather misinformation – era. Although fake news did not happen only with the advent of recent technology and the birth of social media, these new avenues have ushered in more rapid ways of disseminating false information. This aspect is worthwhile to delve into, considering that there is a growth in social media use.

The Philippine Case

The presence of fake news in the Philippines has been on the rise as can be glimpsed by the alarm it has caused among public officials. Recently, there have been Senate hearings specifically tackling the perpetuation of fake news. Citing the head of the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, Senator Grace Poe, she argued, “If fake news is not challenged, it will create lynch mobs out of certain people, turning them into an army of character assassins, who can be unleashed, with just one meme, to destroy an idea, a person, or an institution.” She even remarked that bots and trolls that make use of dummy social media accounts are spreading around fake news.

On the present administration side, seven Senators argued a foul conduct over a blog that called them to be “Malacanang dogs” (referring to the term “Malacanang/Malacañan Palace”, the official residence of the Philippine President) after they failed to sign the Senate Resolution 516, a resolution urging the Duterte Administration to, “undertake the necessary steps to stop the spate of killings, especially of our children”. This indignation of the seven Senators provoked the Senate hearings on fake news.

The Senate Committee also invited administration officials like the controversial blogger and dancer-turned high government official, Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, who runs the “Mocha Uson Blog”. She is lambasted by the public for spreading fake news such as using a photo of the Honduras police when she asked the public in one of her articles to pray for the Philippine Army during the recent war in Marawi. In the peak of public outrage due to the killing of the 17-year-old victim Kian Delos Santos as part of the drug crackdown of the Duterte Administration, Asst. Sec. Uson wrote in August this year a story of a killed cop in an operation to prick the conscience of those against the drug war of the President. However, the officer’s wake that she cited was still back in year 2016. Senator Nancy Binay argues that it would be hard for the government to fight fake news when one of its perpetrators comes from its very own ranks, pointing to Uson.

The issue on fake news is more significant than ever, and if not curbed, it would continue to fool readers, carrying on with its antics of blurring the truth from manufactured lies. Strategies then have to be laid down in order to help citizens and readers evaluate the authenticity and credibility of the information that is given to them.

Manifold Strategies to Deal with Fake News

As this era of Digital Technology does not promise any reversal of the direction it is heading to but only proffers yet a more advanced technology, the smarter move to do is to equip the people with the tools to handle this immense information available at their fingertips, without isolating them from technology.

The appropriate structures have to be present both at the macro and micro levels because, left with their own discretion, the readers can easily be buffeted by the cacophonous voices that emanate from this fake and misleading news. Very crucial is the cultivation and the sharpening of their higher-order critical thinking skills. It cannot be that the society just leaves its people the legacy of its new tools and technology but not equip them with the necessary training how to utilize them properly. Technology, regardless of how grand and broad may its expanse be, is still something neutral. It is a double-edged sword, whereby its users have to continuously tilt its use towards the positive side. Hence, the role of various institutions – such as the government, the school and the church – are crucial in upholding the proper use of the internet and social media.

Measures at the Political Level

 At the institutional level, the government has to be the one heralding the truth and heading the campaign against fake news. At the very least, the government and the structures and policies it provides need to promote an objective and scientific procedure for coming up with news articles, and not be the ones propagating fake news.

Recently, there have been moves from the government specifically from Senators Antonio Trillanes IV, Kiko Pangilinan, and Joel Villanueva to address this issue. Senators Trillanes IV and Pangilinan filed resolutions to investigate misinformation and fake news. Senator Joel Villanueva filed the Anti-Fake News Bill on 22 June 2017 that gives stiffer penalties to individuals “who maliciously offer, publish, distribute, circulate, and spread false news or information in print, broadcast or online media.” Moves such as these have to be supported, promoted, and enhanced (by giving feedback should these policies have loopholes), because programs and policies like these have the capacity to reach the greater public, maximizing the public-ness of the government – as the Institutionalist Model of Public Policy propounds. Only the government can cut across all sectors, and it is the only institution that has the power to legitimize policies and sanction violators at a national scope.

Measures at the Educational Level

Educational institutions have to catch up with the speed of technological advancement. The usual lessons that teachers impart on their students in terms of reading, writing and editing have to be transposed to this new context of Digital Age. Exercises including concrete examples from the internet and from various social media posts have to be given to help contextualize and localize the skills to be acquired. On September 20th, 2017, the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) announced its program of media literacy program to be conducted in the provinces precisely to address the rise of fake news.

Measures Supported by the Church

The intervention of the Church could also be tapped as a means of addressing this issue. For instance, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) recently issued a pastoral letter regarding the use of social media. In its appendix, it outlined websites that contain “fake or unverified contents”. It even reminded its lay faithful that it is a sin to spread fake news as it is against the virtue of charity.

Responsibility of Citizens

The citizens also play a very crucial role in this issue of combating fake news. If they are to be the leaders of this fast-changing world, the people have the responsibility to take a proactive stance in safeguarding the information that is handed to them and being spread around by reacting to the abuses, reporting fake news, making campaigns, or by simply not to falling prey into fake news. The citizens have to be vanguards of democracy lest these IT tools and platforms promoting greater democratization become a threat to them in the end.

To conclude, in order to maximize the advantages that the internet and social media offer to the digital citizens, there has to be a holistic approach in combating fake news. Active measures at the level of various institutions have to be undertaken.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maria Pilar M. Lorenzo has recently finished her coursework in the Master of Public Administration from the University of the Philippines. She works as a Director for the Center for Leadership, Communication and Governance Research and Consultancy Institute (CLCGI) and a Researcher for the Philippine Society for Public Administration (PSPA), where she serves as well as the Managing Editor of their publication entitled Philippine Governance Digest. Her researches deal about citizen participation, youth unemployment, ethics, and governance. She is also a registered teacher and a licensed trainer.