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On the Philippines’ ‘fake news’ problem


Senator Jose Pimentel Ejercito, Jr., more widely known as Jinggoy Estrada, has filed a bill (Senate Bill No. 1296) that would amend the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act 10175) to include “fake news” among the many offenses the Act penalizes.

The Estrada bill defines “fake news” as “misinformation and disinformation of stories (sic) which is (sic) presented as a (sic) fact, the veracity of which cannot be confirmed, with the purpose of distorting the truth and misleading its (sic) audience.”

The grammatical lapses of its “definition” are not the only infirmities of the latest bill criminalizing the dissemination of false information.

The use of the term “fake news,” is one. It was popularized by former US President Donald Trump and his minions in their tirades against the media. But the phrase is an oxymoron — a contradiction in terms.

If a piece of supposed information is false, it is not news; and if it is news, it is by definition accurate. For instance, if not verified, a newspaper account that claims that University of the Philippines students are being recruited by New People’s Army agents among the staff is not “fake news”; simply false information. But another report that the Department of Health has declared residents of the National Capital Region as once again at moderate risk of COVID-19 infection would be news if its accuracy has been established through interviews, documentation, and those other means available for journalists to confirm the truthfulness of their reports.

The “fake news” oxymoron has nevertheless been legitimized in public discourse among other reasons because it has been used in the US and elsewhere to attack the media as supposedly deliberate purveyors of false, misleading, or distorted information.

The media, whether old (print, television, radio, film) or new (online news sites, blogs, social media), do at times fall short of providing accurate and meaningful information on issues and events of public concern. In some instances, as we saw during the last campaign and election, they do so intentionally in behalf of advancing a pre-determined end such as convincing their audiences that they should support this or that candidate. But it is also true that many media practitioners exert every effort to get at the truth and to report it despite such difficulties as being barred from covering a public event or even being threatened with physical harm.

The problems with anti-“fake news” legislation is that of distinguishing between the first and the second, as well as between deliberate misinformation or disinformation and an error committed in good faith — information which turns out to be false but which the media practitioner thought was accurate.

It is in determining which is which that things become problematic. Under the provisions of RA 10175, and those of previously proposed anti-“fake news” bills, fabricating and spreading false information would be punishable with huge fines and even long prison sentences. Preventing the Act’s being unjustly used against journalists and other communication professionals will require both a complainant and an enforcing agency to establish, through documentation and consultation with experts among others, the truth or falsehood of, say, the claims of a blogger or an online news site.

Whether the alleged offense was deliberate or not is even more difficult to determine. But the Estrada bill’s definition of that dubious “fake news” phrase assumes bad faith in every case of misinformation or disinformation. That much is evident in its declaring that every such incident is “with the purpose of distorting the truth and misleading its (sic) audience.”

Already weaponized against free expression and press freedom, the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act would be even more repressive if “fake news” as defined by the Estrada bill were to be added to the list of offenses the Act penalizes.

That it is government — whether the Philippine National Police, the Department of Justice, the Office of the Press Secretary or any other agency — that will most likely claim that a report that puts it in a bad light is false is even more dangerous to free expression and press freedom.

Government and its instrumentalities have used RA 10175 in their attempt to silence not only critical reporting but even truthful coverage of government affairs. Adding the prerogative of prosecuting groups and individuals for supposedly generating and spreading false information to the vast powers of government will make the already difficult and even dangerous journalistic enterprise more uncertain, and will have a devastating impact on the people’s right to know what is going on in the government to whose officials they have delegated their sovereign powers. Any law penalizing the making and spreading of false information will, for the above reasons, more likely be part of the misinformation and disinformation problem rather than part of the solution.

Like the many attempts in this country to legislate it out of existence (the Estrada bill was preceded by two other similar attempts in Congress), manufacturing and spreading false information is neither new nor rare. Neither has its impact on human affairs ever been beneficial. More than a hundred years ago, for instance, many Americans’ support for the Spanish-American War of the late 19th century, which among other consequences led to the US occupation of the Philippines, was at least partly encouraged by the false claims of the William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer tabloids then that Spain had blown up the battleship USS Maine while it was docked at Cuba’s Havana Harbor.

More recently, in 2003 a majority of the US population supported the invasion of Iraq on the basis of the disinformation that it had weapons of mass destruction and was protecting Osama bin-Laden’s Al-Qaeda terrorist group. That invasion cost over 100,000 civilian and military lives and led to the perennial instability and regression of what was previously one of the more developed countries in the Middle East.

But the problems of disinformation have since been multiplied by the trolls and keyboard armies funded by political and economic interests as well as by those well-meaning but untrained individuals who recklessly upload unverified information and who share them with innumerable others.

The resulting crisis in information has thus become a major factor in the further decline of citizen understanding of the issues and events around them, thereby contributing to the ascendancy in many countries of the authoritarianism that flourishes in mass ignorance.

The antidote to false information, however, is not the enactment of laws that will worsen rather than remedy the problem, but in educating the media audiences on how to distinguish between false and accurate information as well as on responsible Netizenship.

Some media organizations are themselves already so engaged. They fact-check themselves and each other, and provide their audiences information on how they can distinguish false accounts from the true, in addition to improving Netizen capacity to critically read social media and online blogs and news sites.

But the involvement of the educational system is even more vital in this crucial undertaking. Instead of focusing on restoring mandatory military training and appropriating millions in “confidential funds” to monitor the alleged terrorist infiltration of public schools, the Department of Education could more wisely spend its budget on improving its severely inadequate media literacy programs at the basic education level, which have been mostly limited to teaching students the use of video and still cameras. Unfortunately, that has never been, and still seems to be farthest from, the priorities of the Department.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).


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