By Gabriel Dolot
The proliferation of disinformation in times of a pandemic, usually puts the unsuspecting population in immediate danger by further distracting public perception from unresolved issues, therefore conceiving ill-informed judgment of the situation.
With the recent shutdown of ABS-CBN Corporation, one of the Philippines’ biggest media outlets, the menace brought upon by individuals fabricating and peddling inaccurate information in different social media platforms has further shrouded the access to credible and critical information—essential in crafting sound decisions, especially since the country is having a hard time grappling with the health crisis.
The terms “disinformation” and “propaganda” are two words that are usually interchanged but have subtle differences and are also associated with fake news. For one, disinformation is a relatively new term where some say was first used in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. But the term “disinformation” was borrowed from the Russian word “dezinformatsiya”, which according to Soviet planners meant “dissemination ( e.g. press, on the radio, etc.) of false reports intended to mislead public opinion.”
Propaganda however was already used in the 1600s and promoted particularly biased information specifically for political effect. The term “fake news” is deemed problematic by the academe because news is factual and verified but coining it with the word “fake” loosely translates to “false factual information.” Fake news is popularly known to be a form of news that deliberately promotes disinformation through mainstream and social media.
According to Professor Clarissa David of the College of Mass Communication (CMC) of the University of the Philippines (UP), media scholars categorize fake news into misinformation and disinformation where the former is unintentional and has no political agenda whatsoever and the latter is planned with financial support mostly for political reasons.
Disinformation fuels the Strongman
Fake news, misinformation, and propaganda may not be inherently lethal but with the reinforcement of power and influence, it could be weaponized against dissent and public scrutiny; a simple phrase such as “shoot to kill”, could turn into a non-binding policy and it could sway public opinion and likely cause harm.
Considered to be one of the brutal despots in history is Adolf Hitler. Hitler led Nazi Germany into despising Jews and instilled in the minds of the German people that they were like parasites that needed to be eradicated physically, according to Timothy Snyder, an American author and historian. His main weapon to manipulate the people was propaganda, where he utilized newspapers to disseminate disinformation aside from his charismatic and performance-like speeches.
In the Philippines, late Dictator, Ferdinand Marcos justified his 14-year dictatorship under Martial Law through propaganda. He had claimed that communist rebels in the National Capital Region (NCR) were growing and that a series of bombings were initiated by these rebel forces. However, records claim that former Senator Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. received a confidential military plan by Marcos saying that he was going to use a series of bombings such as the 1971 Plaza Miranda Bombing in order to declare Martial Law.
Duterte, labeled as a “strongman” by TIME magazine, has sufficient reason according to Ian Bremmer, foreign affairs columnist, and editor-at-large for TIME. Based on 2018 reports from Human Rights Watch, it is said that the country has been “plunged into its worst human rights crisis since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 1980s ” and Duterte himself has admitted to the extrajudicial killings that took place during his war on drugs. Bremmer also said that by definition, a “strongman” is someone who “restricts basic rights to tighten one’s hold on power.”
The strongman uses disinformation as a weapon or a wall to distract people from lapses in their leadership. One example is Duterte’s war on drugs where, officially, 5,526 drug personalities were killed but human rights groups claimed that it could be over 27,000. These drug-related killings included “alleged” drug users and pushers, bystanders, and the youth as young as three years old.
Information could be packaged into a psychological weapon where non-lethal means such as social media platforms are used to create a narrative that counters political propaganda released by the opposing party. However, in many cases, dissenting voices tagged as “terrorists” may just be victims of disinformation.
Recently there have been attacks against progressive and legal groups in the Philippines, such as the former National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) chair Rowena Carranza-Paraan, College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), and student organizations all over the country. One recent event was the red-tagging of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) students via a video posted by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) last May 10.
This harassment may result in further persecution such as death threats, which has had 12 cases as of press time, against student activists and leaders in the university. “Red-tagging is being used to justify attacks and harassments against activists, and government critics,” according to National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) secretary-general Ephraim Cortez.
Credibility and accountability of influence
With social media being used to amplify the influence of leaders and politicians, everything they send, tweet, or post is under scrutiny. Fact-checking influential people has been a common habit of internet users especially during a time where information has become a valuable resource in addressing issues especially, during this pandemic.
In 2016, at least 300 websites were found to have been spreading fake news, and through investigative journalism, Rappler, a social news network, exposed state-sponsored disinformation campaigns prior to the 2016 Philippine elections. And last April 9, Twitter suspended accounts that were promoting pro-Duterte hashtags. With the presence of social media, a number of pro-Duterte facebook groups with almost 200,000 members feast on disinformation disguised as legitimate news articles.
“The main aim of fake news is to dismantle the credibility of institutions, including journalism, but not only journalism,” said Kari Huhta, Diplomatic Editor of Helsingin Sanomat, a newspaper in Finland.
Twitter’s action in labeling the President of the United State’s tweet about mail-in voting as misleading takes a new step in fact-checking. As twitter takes action in a direction that seems to be a step against the culture of misinformation, this gives the opportunity for the misinformed, especially information coming from influential people such as Donald Trump, to be corrected or be fact-checked by verified and factual information.
This action also helps verify the validity and the credibility of the person releasing those claims to the public. Credibility among leaders and other influential people is tantamount to the people’s trust. In this pandemic alone, misinformation is being used as a distraction from inaction and lapses that hold leaders accountable. Public servants should be held to the highest standard and should be held accountable due to the fact that their influence has an impact on public opinion that could potentially cause more harm than good.
“The horrible thing about fake news is it undermines democracy. Especially because social media is supposed to be a platform where the ordinary citizen can have a voice,” Professor Rachel Khan, former Chairperson of the Journalism Department and now Associate Dean of the College of Mass Communication
Role of the Press as the fourth estate
It is imperative that the press fulfills its duty as the fourth estate in order to maintain a healthy democracy. The duty of the press is to promote public access to information as it is stated in the constitution and to educate the people. And as a watchdog, the media holds the other states accountable through transparency. This is where press freedom comes to play.
Journalists are more than stenographers or reporters of events. They provide a critique or analysis of events that should not be taken only at face value. They also help educate the public and guide them in creating informed opinions.
Media literacy promotes critical thinking as part of one’s everyday functions in an information motivated world. The ability to scrutinize and fact check information is critical not only for journalists but for the common citizen as well. These fabricated stories do not only engage in present events, but they also try to manipulate how history should be written with historical revisionism.
In 2016, the Marcos burial issue came about when President Duterte allowed the late dictator to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Marcos, a strongman himself, was the man behind the 9,000 human rights violations from 1969 to 1986. Aside from that, the Marcoses were accused of graft and corruption, murder, torture, etc. It’s these records by historians, survivors, and the press that helps debunk claims that promote historical revisionism.
It’s important that we safeguard history so people and the younger generation will not forget but to continue to learn from it. The role of media as record keepers is essential to keep our leaders accountable especially during these trying times. [P]