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Alternative facts

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

We will look back at this era in our history as the time when technology was used to propagate fake news or falsehood. This may become the norm for public discourse and elections in this country unless proper regulations are put in place.

Technology was let loose. One party’s early investment in trolls, social media, and the scientific use of Big Data gave them an upper hand when the short campaign season started.

It is both amazing and appalling how falsehoods  demonized the Vice President for six years. She had to overcome six years of brainwashing against her before she could even start to convince voters she was the right candidate to vote for president.

Welcome to the brave new world of social media, of technology with vast potentials for good or evil. In its early days, social media was widely believed to be the best thing that happened to democracy. No dictator would dare to impose his will on an interconnected citizenry.

But the new rules of the game encouraged  dishonesty and mob dynamics. Donald Trump showed that social media can be used to continually chip away trust in democratic institutions.

In today’s times, shit is king. In a 2018 interview,  Trump adviser Steve Bannon said the way to deal with social media is “to flood the zone with shit.” He was describing the “firehose of falsehood” tactic pioneered by Russian disinformation programs to keep Americans confused, disoriented, and angry.

What happens next? Jonathan Haidt, a social scientist who wrote a recent extensive Atlantic article, observed that even American democracy is now operating outside the bounds of sustainability.

“If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown or constitutional crisis.”

Alternative fact was a concept another Trump adviser coined after Trump’s press secretary was caught lying. We of the older generation think something is either a fact or a falsehood. Alternative facts don’t exist.

But times have changed.  We are now supposedly  living in a post-truth society. Objective facts are a thing of the past. In a post-fact society, facts are viewed as irrelevant. Emotional appeals are used to influence public opinion. Never mind the truth, never mind the facts.

The Washington Post reports that our political process is a victim of “coordinated keyboard warriors  who spread disinformation, prop up political clients or smear their opponents, historical whitewashing is finding new homes” in the Philippines.

Political propaganda “is now proliferating on platforms like TikTok and YouTube that appeal primarily to Gen Z, ushering in a new era of fun, hip, glossily edited content that is harder to regulate online.”

“In the global war on the truth, the Philippines is especially vulnerable,” the Post observed, because of our large online population who find it difficult to spot fake news.

“President Rodrigo Duterte rose to power in 2016 aided by a keyboard army and online hate campaigns, forever changing the online landscape,” the Post. explained.

Indeed, the Philippines became a “petri dish” to test the use of Big Data analytics to predict and influence voters in an election, according to Christopher Wylie, a former employee turned whistleblower of the notorious Cambridge Analytica, a now defunct British political consulting company.

The company specialized in using data science  methodologies to support political campaigns. It  harvested the data of millions of Facebook users to target them for political campaigns in over 30 countries, including ours,  to influence political decisions. Trump was one of their clients.

Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica director turned whistleblower, warned about microtargeting or the practice of manipulating an individual’s thoughts and sentiments through disinformation tactics and the use of available personal data.

She said a politician who may want to “rebrand” or erase a current reputation can benefit from the expert use of  online data. “Call it historical revisionism, that’s exactly what it is, but it’s done in a data-driven and scientific way...

“You undertake just enough research to figure out what people believe about a certain family, individual, politician, and then you figure out what could convince them to feel otherwise. The goal would be to keep running tests until you actually start to see people’s opinions and attitudes changing.”

Unfortunately, no one really noticed when an alternative universe was being built initially on Facebook and Twitter, and later on TikTok and YouTube that was changing our historical narratives to win over the generations that had no experience of our past.

Credit the family for understanding the dynamics of the new game, which was expressed by the Queen in The Kingmaker: “Perception is real, truth is not.” And that’s how this election is being won, riding on surveys and a nonstop feeding of, as Steve Bannon puts it, a lot of shit on TikTok.

Still, there are millions of Filipinos who  are not ready to surrender this election just because surveys say they have no hope of winning. They went analog, held large rallies, and did house-to-house campaigning. They are also trying to catch up on TikTok.

By now, the only thing left to do is to continue praying for a miracle on May 9. Remember Jeremiah 32:27 when the Lord asked: “Is there anything too hard for me?”

When you pray, think of this woman who had no dreams of being president. She worked as a volunteer lawyer for the poor, lost her husband in the line of duty, became a reluctant congressional candidate and defeated the wife of the reigning local political kingpin.

Then she became an even more reluctant candidate for vice president with almost zero national name recognition and won. She endured six years of nonstop demonizing by administration trolls, but still managed to make her office meaningful. Is an unseen hand preparing her for bigger things?

All those people crowding her rallies without the usual incentives caused a people-powered campaign to blossom beyond everyone’s expectations, including herself. This could have only been inspired by a power bigger than all of us.

I can see the answer to our prayers. Keep faith.

 

 

Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

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