Words by Federick B. Biendima
Truth is described as a belief that is regarded as true, backed by facts. But the truth doesn’t always stay as a fact. One person’s truth may not be the same as the other’s.
Today, our decisions are highly influenced by information on digital platforms, and its effects unfold across all aspects of our life – from household practices, political inclinations, and even medical beliefs. This highlights how disinformation can divide and consume people due to the massive influence and power of social media on our views about the truth.
As the pandemic spread, one key term, “infodemic,” became infamous for emphasizing the division and confusion among individuals due to widespread misinformation. This epidemic of lies has become a threat to the media and other academic institutions’ credibility, as disinformation presents itself as the better alternative truth for the public.
How does the culture of disinformation continue to prevail and undermine the legitimacy of these institutions of knowledge? And how is the media responding to this crisis of falsity?
A crisis within a crisis
Infodemic is a combination of the words “information” and “epidemic.” It was coined in 2003, after the outbreak of SARS-Coronavirus 1, by journalist and political scientist David Rothkopf in a Washington Post column, to emphasize the rise of the “information epidemic” or the dangerous effects of hyper information in addressing public outbreaks. Infodemic during a global health emergency is a crisis within a crisis. The massive disinformation propagated during the lockdown period contributes to the tremendous fear and panic around the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has redefined an “infodemic” as the spread of too much information, particularly inaccurate or misleading health-related data acquired by an individual in both the digital and physical environment. The overloaded facts presented by the experts and agencies, mixed with rumors and uncertainties, create a space where an infodemic survived to undermine the proper response to this pandemic.
WHO added that with the immense power of social media and the internet to disseminate all kinds of information, an infodemic can continue to prolong outbreaks as long as people remain unsure how to act and respond to this type of crisis.
Social media is the new power that controls the spread of these viral lies. We rely heavily on the internet and numerous social media platforms to engage and socialize with people during the pandemic. As a result of “new normal” protocols, several sectors and organizations have been pushed to become more reliant on digital channels and services. The new work and educational setup become the new social life for the majority of people today.
As a result, most people are unable to detach themselves from their use of the internet, leading to digital dependency during the pandemic. Therefore, many people are becoming more vulnerable to various misleading posts and content that social media feeds us these days.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conducted a related campaign to fight Covid-19 disinformation. Based on their study, four primary methods are used across media to promote & support fake news as a fact.
The first format is the use of emotive narratives. This refers to the exploitation of strong emotions or sensations of people to support specific lies. Related cognitive research backed up this finding, concluding that higher emotionality plays a role in increased confidence in fake news posts.
Fear is common during the pandemic, and inciting that sense of panic among the people is a good tactic for those spreading misinformation. These results are alarming because they emphasize an individual’s vulnerability when feeling and not reasoning are at work to assess the truth.
The second method is through false websites and authoritative personas. It includes the use of fictitious databases or sources while making an argument. They also identified bogus websites of various government institutions and public companies that post their news and articles for their benefit. As these false organizations are presenting themselves as the new authority, the public becomes unsure and misled about whether the news is still trustworthy or accurate.
The third format is the usage of altered, fabricated, or decontextualized images & videos. Visual content is an effective way to convey an idea and influence the audience, as the saying “to see is to believe” suggests. And because numerous social media platforms such as Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, and Tik Tok focus on visual material, fraudulent videos and photographs that go viral can be dangerous. The majority of individuals do not thoroughly investigate the authenticity of a photograph or video, therefore leaving most users with fake stories and views.
The last and most harmful format is disinformation through virtual infiltrators and organized attacks. This method’s primary objective and motivation are to spread false information and target certain consumers for their advantage. It involves bot and troll attacks as part of a coordinated effort to create distrust across the internet. These deliberate campaigns are also used to promote the divide and politicization of the pandemic.
As the pandemic becomes a political issue, the country becomes split on what policies should be implemented. Politicians and lawmakers become misinformation carriers as others believe in false treatments for COVID-19, such as the use of Ivermectin in the Philippines. Finally, vaccinations and booster shots become more difficult to enforce when public perceptions and fears are fueled by misinformation spread throughout the internet.
After two years, the effects of the pandemic continue to impact the country. The state of the health sector and workforce is still recovering after the consecutive waves of Covid-19 cases. As for the infodemic, it is far from over. It continues to spread in new directions, with disinformation becoming the new media norm.
Disinformation as the new virus
Everyone is tracking the virus’ movement during the lockdown, but unfortunately, another virus unexpectedly emerges and moves quicker than the actual COVID-19. Infodemic is not just about the rise of disinformation; it’s also about the possibility of anybody accidentally or intentionally disseminating any dangerous and misleading ideas across media.
Rothkopf clarifies that, when he coined the term “infodemic” in 2003, he did not expect a significant improvement in modern information technologies today that would negatively impact the public. Disinformation affected society as a whole, a virus whose spikes have already jeopardized the stability of our economy, security, and politics.
In the current political climate in the country, misinformation and black propaganda are used to create division among the public. These manifestations of disinformation boost the campaigns of some candidates in the national election while directly undermining their opponents’ narrative.
Recent issues of historical revisionism under Marcos’ martial law period are being called-out. These distortions of facts are being utilized to support the late dictator’s son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.’s presidential bid.
Bongbong Marcos is the considered leading beneficiary of fake news and disinformation across social media with related positive campaigns supporting him. While Vice President Leni Robredo is the biggest target of disinformation, a victim of different fake and negative attacks attributed to her and her family. This is based on the collaborative fact-check initiative by Tsek.ph launched in January 2022.
The unprecedented misinformation about this 2022 election becomes the reality for most Filipinos. Fake news is their truth, and facts are questionable. According to the recent data released by Social Weather Stations (SWS), 51% of Filipinos evaluated that they experienced difficulties assessing the fact across the internet.
As the public’s views and opinions differ, dangerous practices emerge that endanger the security of several sectors. Disinformation is used to red-tag students, activists, journalists, teachers, and even regular workers. False claims are used to justify the brutality of the state force on many civilians. Hate speech and violence become the mainstream narrative of people when arguing with others who hold opposing views.
Trusted media outlets and campus publications are labeled as biased to discredit their reputation and credibility in delivering news. These threats produced by lies are serious issues that can jeopardize the safety of these institutions.
This is a critical moment for us to stop and evaluate how deception evolves in today’s information system. Today, the emotions of innocent people are exploited, and false information has become the backbone of attacks, with unseen personas lurking to strike. Can we still fight back?
Journalism’s stand against disinformation
The role of journalism has become more crucial than ever, as misinformation carriers continue to attempt to establish foundations of lies and misleading information in our minds.
Journalists always speak and hold the truth in power to secure democracy, but if the public already distrusts us, we cannot call those in power accountable for their actions. Campus journalists around the country are expected to be biased but biased only for defending the truth and protecting the interests of our constituents and oppressed groups.
Alliances of student publications under the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) with different mainstream media outlets are already working to counter this manipulation of facts.
It includes the Tsek.ph which is a joint fact-checking initiative involving media partners such as Philippine Star, ABS-CBN, and Interakyon. They also collaborate with universities such as the University of the Philippines and the University of Santo Tomas to provide academic support in countering disinformation.
Fact-checking and validating news and articles constitute the core of the press in the fight against disinformation. However, it has its limitations, as it only covers certain groups or issues in the vast majority of viral lies.
Campus press continues to engage in many initiatives such as active publishing and spreading factual information. We present our narrative and perspective to help raise awareness throughout the community.
Informing everyone has the potential to eliminate the culture of lies that has infiltrated our society. Creating a space for free speech and formative discussion has proven to be a more sustainable and effective method of combating the infodemic. Journalism assists us in creating and expanding that space by providing us with facts and relevant information.
As we approach a new administration, the media and press are set to reassert their role as one of the pillars of democracy.
Truth still matters
Infodemic continues to shape our view and perception of the truth and trust. Its effect has already manifested in a multitude of ways even beyond the pandemic. The public’s lack of faith in government and institutions, the rising popularity of hatred, and the flow of deceptive propaganda drive out positive and constructive news, causing damage to our political decision-making.
The media will always uphold its responsibility to promote truth and justice. But, as our society continues to divide because of the rise and surge of disinformation, everyone must act as responsible citizens and media consumers. This is a fight for anyone who still believes that the truth still matters.
Disinformation has already infected us through our emotions and beliefs. Many of us are victims of systemized disinformation. Recognizing our failures to access the truth, on the other hand, is a significant step toward putting an end to this culture of deception. [P]