Beware: That fake news can be a crime set up
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - January 15, 2020 - 12:00am

News fakers went wild online this week as Taal Volcano erupted. Their dark motives varied. Don’t fall victim.

Via phone messaging spread a dramatic photo of a crater aflame with black plume billowing out, supposedly taken from a helicopter of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. In truth it was a pickup of a Jan. 2009 online post, of the Santiaguito lava dome formed by the explosion of Santa Maria volcano, Guatemala. Whoever mislabeled it as Taal must have wanted to impress his circle that, in reflected glory, he has contacts inside the prestigious Phivolcs. Or, he found malicious glee in his prowess at instant but false research. Falling for and forwarding the image, many did aid his calculation. It was like the previous week’s hot resends of “Drone footage of Soleimani’s assassination,” complete with sound effects of a walkie-talkie conversation. Many who passed it around may still not know it’s from a 2014 iOS videogame “AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron.”

Also via SMS spread a bogus “NDRRMC Update #1” purporting that Taal’s Alert Level had been raised to 5. Meaning, as Phivolcs earlier announced, volcanic tsunami could occur within the caldera. The longish “bulletin” enumerated threatened lakeshore towns, which were in fact already being evacuated by civilian officials and soldiers. One giveaway of the falsity was a reference to “Laguna de Bay and Manila de Bay,” a frequent geographic confusion – Laguna de Bay means Lake of Bay town; Manila Bay, not Manila de Bay, is the seascape named after the national capital but also abutting four provinces. Another slip was that seawaters allegedly were rising not only in far off Bauan and Balayan Bays but also in Tagaytay City up in the ridge overlooking Taal. Still, notwithstanding the fact that there’s no sea beside hilltop Tagaytay, nearby residents panicked. The digital dis-informant achieved his aim of sowing public hysteria. Phivolcs had to dispel the distracting wrong report, with the help of busy local officials and newsmen.

There were other news manipulators. One politico sought to grab headlines by falsely accusing Phivolcs of failure to alert the public about Taal’s activity. In fact since Mar. 2019 state volcanologists had been reporting on that volcano’s act-up, as they did on five others. Just because the politico wasn’t paying attention doesn’t mean there were no updates. Another lawmaker publicized his leading – actually interloping in – the emergency work of executive agencies. Premature electioneering.

It gets worse. Another SMS spread a warning to “turn off your cell phone tonight, 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.” Volcanic tremors supposedly will emit “strong radiation from cosmic rays, nuclei-atomic ... Ibinalita ni Kuya Kim at sa BBC News Cable ... Delikado at baka nakamamatay daw. Huwag itabi sa pagtulog ang CP. And please paki forward din sa iba for their information – from Phivolcs.” It was plainly a hoax. Yet spreaders must have been taken in by the scientific mumbo-jumbo, laced with the name-drops of ABS-CBN celebrity weather-caster “Kuya Kim” Atienza and very credible BBC News. A quick check showed that the item had spread and been denied by ABS-CBN as far back as 2014. BBC in turn had reported in 2010 how people in Ghana were duped by the digital rumor. That same rumor spread by SMS in America in 2008, in relation to Mars’ orbit close to Earth. It was a setup for crime, said Cyber-scammers went about announcing serious accidents befalling certain targets. Relatives and friends could not verify with the victims because the latter’s gadgets were off. Confused and distraught, they gave in to inducements of “urgent” bank transfers or phone loads. Similar to the old “dugo-dugo” voice calls, the modus could have duped Filipinos this time.

That fake news can prelude cyber-fraud is expected in this age of digital truth distortion. It thrives on people’s readiness to believe, as discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in “Talking to Strangers.” Legislation has been attempted in many lands, but wide scopes have only served to curtail free speech. Ferdinand Marcos had criminalized rumor-mongering during his dictatorship, yet used the trick for his own plunderous purposes. Authoritarians today accuse political foes and media critics of fake news, yet themselves employ big-lies tactics like Hitler and Stalin, recapped Peter Pomerantsev in “This Is Not Propaganda.”

If only info-tech instantly can identify and take down fake news, and expose and punish the perpetrators. But the best antidote is digital education and constant vigilance. People must learn to discern reliable news sources and outfits.

Good news nonetheless prevailed. By yesterday Uratex Foundation headed by Naty Cheng had rushed two truckloads of foam mattresses and t-shirts to evacuees in Batangas. Two other deliveries of 400 pieces each are set today, plus more as soon as sewn. Lamoiyan Corp.’s philanthropic CEO Cecilio Pedro rushed in thousands of packs of Hapee toothpaste and brushes. Tzu Chi Philippines will follow through with work-for-pay rehab, as in past disasters. Countless other citizens swiftly pitched in to aid countrymen forced to flee their homes.

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