Education vs fake news
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 11, 2019 - 12:00am

He looks like a dead ringer for his uncle, the late senator Benigno Aquino Jr. In fact with his glasses and hairstyle, he looks more like Ninoy Aquino than Ninoy’s only son and namesake, former president Noynoy.

In 2013, this was surely an asset for Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV when he ran for a Senate seat. His first cousin the president, though personally still popular, could not persuade voters to go for a Liberal Party majority in the Senate and “daang matuwid” was looking crooked. But yellow was still the color of the ruling class and the economy was doing well.

In his first stab at the Senate, the 35-year-old Bam Aquino won. Delivering on his advocacies of education, employment, financial literacy and entrepreneurship, his first law was the Go Negosyo Act.

Today “dilawan” has become a pejorative term used by the new ruling class to describe personalities from the previous administration, particularly those who have been tainted by corruption scandals and other controversies.

The dilawan or yellow tag, Bam Aquino admits, has had some adverse impact on the opposition. Yellow is not the color of the “Otso Diretso” opposition Senate slate; Aquino wore a white barong to our office. Some of their candidates are presenting themselves as unifying forces, and yellow can have a divisive effect these days. Leni Robredo, who is regarded as the leader of the opposition because among all the members, she holds the highest rank in government, explains that she is the vice president of all Filipinos, regardless of political color.

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But Bam Aquino still wears yellow when going around the country. After all, he is currently the only Aquino in government, and despite recent controversies and wrongdoing imputed on Noynoy Aquino, it’s a surname that remains associated with many things positive in this country. Senator Bam defends the record of his cousin and stresses that no presidency is perfect.   

Is the Aquino name a burden or a boon for Senator Bam? He says it’s both. Does he feel pressured to carry on the Aquino torch, or legacy of freedom and trying to do what is right? The pressure is not due to his surname, Senator Bam told us, but because he’s the only opposition member making it to the Magic 12 – although lately, he’s been missing from the winning circle in some of the surveys. “May struggle talaga,” he admitted to The STAR.

“It’s not about being an Aquino,” he said. “It’s about representing marginalized groups.”

Which groups are these? The millions, he said, who are feeling the pain of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion or TRAIN; those who are opposing the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility; the workers displaced by the abrupt shutdown of Boracay; those who have suffered from extrajudicial killings.

And there are many others. Aquino stresses that he believes the Duterte administration has laudable goals. But on the way to attaining the goals, certain sectors are hit.

“Somebody has to speak out for them,” he said, adding that the minority can be more vocal in its dissent.

But first they have to get elected. If the surveys are accurate, however, the opposition is being crowded out of the Magic 12 by pro-administration candidates. “And that’s the pressure,” Aquino said.

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Starting tomorrow, the Commission on Elections will be empowered to level the playing field, somewhat, by regulating candidates’ display of billboards and paid ads. If the Comelec does its job, this should give candidates with limited resources better chances of projecting themselves.

What the Comelec can’t regulate is the proliferation of trolls.

“The negative trolling has never been this bad in our history,” Aquino told us.

The worst accusation hurled at him so far, he says, is involvement in terrorism. This was after he showed up in Marawi shortly before the start of the siege in May 2017. Never mind that he was in the city for the opening of a Go Negosyo center, in the company of military and police officers.

With the official start of the campaign, Aquino expects the trolling to get worse.

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What’s the antidote to the trolling virus? An informed citizenry, says Aquino, who is campaigning on a platform of further improving public education.

Among other things, he hopes to help address the jobs-skills mismatch. After being the principal sponsor in the Senate of the free tertiary education law, Aquino says legislation can help correct the mismatch in the skills of the country’s workforce and the requirements of various industries and sectors.

Improving education will also boost Filipinos’ competitiveness in a global environment where it’s not just information that matters, but the correct information. Today information is available at anyone’s fingertips; the challenge is separating truth from falsehood, from outright lies and disinformation.

An informed citizenry, Aquino says, is the best foil against the proliferation of fake news and trolls.

Maligning political rivals has always been around, he points out. But information technology has dramatically increased the velocity and efficiency of spreading black propaganda.

Aquino is supporting legislation to confront fake news. But he stresses that it must be balanced with the need to uphold freedom of expression. What is needed, he says, is to develop an informed citizenry.

Despite the trolling, the fact that he’s still landing in the Magic 12, he said, “is great.”

“People know, they are aware of the truth,” he said. “We’re still here. We’re still surviving.”

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