Do we need a ‘Truth in Campaigning’ act?

AS A MATTER OF FACT - Sara Soliven De Guzman - The Philippine Star

The “Marites” trait is everywhere. In the workplace, barbershop, salon, neighborhood and even at home, there is always a time for gossip. Do not be absent during parties and reunions because there is a pretty good chance your story will be the appetizer, main course or dessert. “Tsismisan” (gossiping) is a favorite pastime to some, and with social media, it has become a high-paying job for trolls and purveyors of fake news.

From long hibernation, members of former president Fidel Ramos’ Cabinet published an endorsement for a presidential candidate. The diehards may ignore this as an expected publicity stunt from the followers of the general who was a major player in EDSA 1, and others may conveniently dismiss it just by saying “pana-panahon lang.”

But there is an apparent truth to their statement that “the emerging campaign for the coming elections is being compromised by the proliferation of misinformation, dubious promises and outright falsehoods; deliberate thought manipulation especially via social media through the use of large numbers of fictitious accounts and mercenary troll armies; misuse of certain polls and surveys that may not necessarily reflect and represent true voter preferences.”

It is indeed alarming and frustrating for one sacred vote to be misguided by fake credentials, false achievements, fictitious surveys and blatant lies.

Do we have laws to regulate fake news? I remember Presidential Decree No. 90 punishing rumor-mongering and spreading false information, which to my mind is overreaching as it included even plain gossip that could have “divisive effects among the people.” As expected, this was repealed by Executive Order No. 65 because the issuance “in effect paved the way for violations of the freedom of expression of the people.” At present, we have Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code punishing a person who “shall publish or cause to be published as news any false news which may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State.”

We also have the Cybercrime Prevention Act (R.A. 10175) addressing crimes committed through computer systems. Among others, it penalizes cyber libel, which is “the malicious imputation of a crime, vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit or contempt of a person or blacken the memory of one who is dead,” through the use of a computer system or any other similar means, which may be devised in the future. It also considers unlawful the “use of computer data, which is the product of computer-related forgery for the purpose of perpetuating a fraudulent or dishonest design.”

The Bayanihan to Heal As One Act (RA 11469) has a provision imposing the penalty of imprisonment or a fine, or both, on “individuals or groups creating, perpetrating or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear or confusion; and those participating in cyber incidents that make use or take advantage of the current crisis situation to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails or other similar acts.”

And of course, we have Article 26 of the Civil Code protecting the privacy of a person by allowing a cause of action for damages against someone prying into the privacy of another’s residence, meddling with the private life of another, intriguing to cause another to be alienated from his friends and vexing or humiliating another on account of his beliefs and other personal conditions.

While we have a ton of laws penalizing the publication of fake news vilifying, maligning or disparaging a person to his damage and prejudice, it is unfortunate that there seems to be no specific law to even restrain fake news and misinformation glorifying or extolling a person, especially during elections. Or is every candidate guilty of this so that it had become a mere customary election trade practice? In the sale of goods, there is the principle of “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) where the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality of goods he will buy, as the usual exaggerations in trade are not themselves fraudulent when the other party had an opportunity to know the facts.

Nonetheless, the Consumer Act of the Philippines (RA 7394) has a “truth in advertising” clause, as it prohibits “any person to disseminate or to cause the dissemination of any false, deceptive or misleading advertisement by Philippine mail or in commerce by print, radio, television, outdoor advertisement or other medium for the purpose of inducing or which is likely to induce directly or indirectly the purchase of consumer products or services.” It stipulates that in determining false, deceptive or misleading advertisement, “there shall be taken into account, among other things, not only representations made or any combination thereof, but also the extent to which the advertisement fails to reveal material facts in the light of such representations.”

Considering the great significance of the election process and the serious impact of its results in our lives, should we not also have a “Truth in Campaigning” law to prohibit and penalize false election advertisements and propaganda? There should be no issue in publicly stating a personal opinion about a candidate as everyone is entitled to his own opinion, ridiculous or otherwise. But when a material fact or misinformation is fabricated to mislead other people, should this not be curtailed at the very least? Shouldn’t the Comelec monitor this practice? Or is it more interested in the identification of who paid for the publication of an election advertisement, rather than the truthfulness thereof?

At least in the sale of goods, the consumer can return a defective product, but in elections, it is “no return, no exchange” although the “defect” of the elected candidate and the resulting damage to public service are always irreparable. Sadly, with the current state of things, we can only hope that people spreading election-related information must be responsible enough to check their data before representing them as “facts” and for people receiving these alleged “facts” through random social media, not to be gullible and easy to fool.

A lie should not be more powerful than the truth. While a lie may temporarily hide or bend the truth, the truth will eventually expose and straighten a lie. At this time of too much fake news and misinformation, one must realize that recklessly embracing the lies will only bring disaster, and no amount of regret could ever repair unfulfilled expectations and broken promises. Lest we forget, it is only the truth that could set us free from all the troubles we are going through. Come election day, please get real. Vote on facts, not on fake news. We owe it to our children!

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