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The Difference between Fake News and Satire, and Why It Matters

 

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On September 2017, Philstar.com (The Philippine Star) reported that “spreading fake news [is] now a crime” after President Duterte signed into law Republic Act 10951. They pointed out that Article 154, Section 18 of the act sanctions “unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances”, imposing a penalty of arresto mayor and a hefty fine upon those who publish false news.

This penalty is imposed upon “Any person who by means of printing, lithography, or any other means of publication shall publish or cause to be published as news any false news which may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State,” as stated in the article. But what The Philippine Star got wrong that Republic Act 10951 merely amends the Revised Penal Code, which was passed in 1930, to hike fines matching their 2017 monetary equivalent.

In layman’s terms, this law already exists, and the outdated penalty for Article 154 was simply adjusted from 1,000 pesos maximum to a fine ranging from 40, 000 to 200, 000 pesos plus up to six months jail time. In layman’s terms, President Duterte did not sign an entirely new law on fake news and that The Philippine Star more or less misled its readers into believing there was, in fact, a new law on fake news.

Short quiz: Does this mean The Philippine Star actually published fake news for posting that headline? Should The Philippine Star be penalized under the law for spreading false news and arguably causing damage to the credit of the State? Wait, if they didn’t write it intentionally, does it actually count as fake news?

There is no doubt that the prevalence of fake news has had a negative impact on our society and that there needs to be a solution. However, the lines remain blurred in the current law and in the proposed Senate Bill No. 1492 or “Anti-Fake News Act of 2017” introduced by Senator Joel Villanueva. Considering how the current administration has been, the arguments against and the descriptors for “fake news” could be used by those in power to take away press freedom and our right to freely express ourselves.

DEFINING ‘FAKE NEWS’                                

Academics Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow in their article “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election” published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2017 defined fake news to be “news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers.”

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Immediately, so many articles come to mind. We have the more “blatant” political propaganda fake news that’s used to damage the credibility of both the State and the opposition. We have fake science news (or poorly-communicated research findings) that have been around way before the Duterte-Trump era. We’ve seen unverified news posted by social media users claiming there’s a thing happening somewhere, like a terrorist attack, or a bomb threat. There’s also tabloid news, hybrids of factual-and-fake news, and even satirical news (more on that later).

 

In the case of The Philippine Star, the headline is verifiably false and has certainly already misled some its readers; however, we can’t say for sure whether the author did it intentionally. While Philstar is among the Philippines’ most widely-circulated

newspapers that have been around for decades alongside The Philippine Daily Inquirer, and Manila Bulletin, to name a few, we should always be reminded that mass media is prone to conflict of interest.

First and foremost, mass media is a business that needs the occasional sensationalist, click-snatching headline to gain website views and ad revenue. Secondly, mass media is monitored and controlled by certain individuals and individual groups who could very easily twist facts and churn out disinformation. And lastly, although it is in the interest of journalism to deliver factual and substantial news, sometimes we make mistakes in an effort to provide it as soon as it happens.

So what if it was a mistake? UP College of Mass Communication Associate Professor Danilo Arao says “honest mistakes should not be classified as fake news.” Errors in media reportage could be linked to editors and writers who fail to uphold the professional and ethical standards of journalism. Some might also need to have a background on law or whatever topic in order to communicate a story better. There also needs to be self-regulation among journalists and concerned citizens, who can point out bad practices. Initiatives and organizations such as VERA Files, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and IBON Foundation regularly do fact-checks. Ideally, media organizations that have been called out shall correct and apologize for their errors.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SATIRE AND FAKE NEWS

Another form of “fake news” that should not be classified as such is satire. You’ve probably seen satirical news on your Facebook timeline, posted by The Onion or The Superficial Gazette. If you haven’t heard of them, you can also check out our lampoon issue called UPLB Defective. Arao says that satire professionally-done can help shape public opinion by making audiences think through an exaggerated depiction of reality. Unfortunately, satire done badly exists, and they are often misinterpreted by readers.

If you look back at history, satire was used in times of crisis, particularly during the Martial Law Period where the Marcos regime closed down several broadsheets and radio stations. Campus publications like The Philippine Collegian and Ang Malaya as well as underground publications Pahayagang Malaya and Veritas were among those used satire to voice out against the authoritarian government. Even in the American Colonial Period, satire existed in the forms of prose and editorial cartoons when writers did not have press freedom. Perhaps the most historical and well-known satire is Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo and Noli Me Tangere, which were crucial in winning our independence.

All of those mentioned could be easily tagged as “fake news” under the law and the proposed Anti-Fake News Act. But what makes them different is that satire essentially performs the function of journalism by educating its readers and showing what is true and just. It is still unclear whether coming up with a clear definition of “fake news” is possible without trampling on our right to exercise press freedom, or if a definition is something that we even need, but for now it is important that we promote free, accessible education for all and critical media literacy so that we can distinguish fact from fiction.[P]

 

Written by Mac Andre Arboleda. This article was first published on print, UPLB Perspective Vol. 44, Issue 1. 

UPLB Perspective is the official publication of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, established 1973. It is the first campus publication established during the Martial Law in the Philippines.

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