Bill vs fake news prone to abuse

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

For Christians spreading fake news is a sin as it breaks the Eighth Commandment: Thou shall not bear false witness. Catholic bishops last week reminded the faithful that lying uncharitably prevents people from making right judgments. It’s unclear if they were referring to President Rody Duterte, who had chided one of them, fervidly denied of course, as having two wives. Fake news has always plagued history. Rizal falsely was accused of inciting the Katipunan; Bonifacio was rumored to be napping when it was time to signal the Revolution; Gen. Luna was misreported as defying Aguinaldo. Gossip dooms men, but it’s their way.

Reborn-Christian Sen. Joel Villanueva proposes to outlaw news fakery. His bill would imprison for five years persons who “maliciously offer, publish, distribute, circulate, and spread false info” in print, broadcast, or online media. The aim is to zap lies that “intend to cause panic, division, chaos, violence, and hate, or propaganda to blacken or discredit reputations.” Violators also would be fined up to P5 million. Offending public officials face double penalties, plus perpetual bar from public office. Media managers also would be jailed and fined for refusing to take down fake news.

Of late fake news has been proliferating as political hype and terrorist propaganda. Hillary Clinton lost the US presidential race due partly to false reports of being Russia’s bet, but which turned out to be someone else. The Islamic State has been massacring in Iraq and Syria, then blaming it all on America and Russia. The Maute is promising in Marawi a benevolent rule under IS’s global caliphate, while beheading Muslims and Christians who shun its jihad. Villanueva says it is high time for legislation “in light of recent events where numerous fake social media accounts were created to spread false news.” His press release cites in particular Justice Sec. Vitaliano Aguirre’s “false implication of opposition lawmakers” to the Marawi terror rampage. The senator was among those who demanded, in vain, Aguirre’s retraction and public apology.

The bill is prone to abuse. A bigot administration can apply it to suppress the opposition. By prosecuting critics as news fakers, the government can stifle legitimate dissent. Whistleblowers, not the grafters, would be imprisoned and fined for daring to talk. Investigative journalists would cram the jails. Democracy would die. Even Villanueva could end up behind bars if a powerful falsifier turns the tables on him.

The way to curb news fakers is by public exposure and shaming. “The solution is not the court of law but the court of public opinion,” as University of the Philippines journalism professor Danilo Arao says. Besides there already are older laws – against libel, slander, perjury – as recourse.

Governments must balance security and liberty. In the wake of the terror attacks in Manchester and London, British PM Teresa May growled at big internet firms: “(You) cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed.” Germany recently imposed stiff fines on online platforms that host hate postings. Yet there is no reason for the tech firms to promote extremism; in fact they have been active against child porn, copyright infringement, and cyber-fraud and -bullying. They need to be, as subscribers and advertisers pull out of such atmosphere.

Authorities and tech firms can cooperate to educate the public and use technology against online liars, bigots, and terrorists. Under a voluntary agreement with European regulators, for instance, tech giants strive to review and, if warranted, remove within 24 hours materials complained about. The result as The Economist reports: Facebook reviewed 58% of flagged items within a day, up from 50% in December. Twitter handled 39%, up from 24%. (YouTube’s score fell, though, from 61% to 43%.)

Facebook has hired 3,000 more online reviewers, an expensive but reputation-boosting doubling of its work force. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg is investing in artificial intelligence and deep knowledge to detect and differentiate fake news, hate bigotry, and extremist propaganda from legitimate info and honest opinion. Last year Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft got together to develop a terrorist alert method to warn their users. Others discreetly help intelligence agencies surveil, for effective pre-emption, terrorist websites, blogs, and social media accounts. With such aid from 300 firms, a British anti-terrorist police monitoring unit removed 121 offensive postings in 2016.

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“Kinky Boots,” Cyndi Lauper's Tony Award-winning pop opera, starts its month-long Manila run this week. Atlantis Theatricals features a female impersonator helping revive a shoemaker’s flagging career. Starring Nyoy Volante, so memorable as Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys,” and Laurence Mossman.

Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., June 30 to July 23, 2017, at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Ayala corner Gil Puyat Avenues, Makati.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

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