Information disorder

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Last Friday I received a text message from an unknown number, advising against voting for some of the greediest dynasts seeking Senate seats.

It’s the first time in this toxic campaign that I received such a message presented as voter information guidance. The message hits candidates belonging to the camps of major rivals for the presidency, making it difficult to guess the source.

Maybe tech-savvy youths concerned about their future are behind the message. May their tribe increase.

There have also been numerous articles on popular web browsers, correcting disinformation (deliberately inaccurate, misleading and malicious reports), misinformation (erroneous but no malice) and mal-information (genuine information that is twisted, reframed, shared and weaponized to cause harm). The fact-checking articles also provide proper context to patently biased stories.

We’ve also been seeing efforts by Meta to self-regulate and prevent the use of its popular mobile apps – Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger – for trolling and disinformation.

I don’t know if similar developments are being seen on TikTok, which I watch largely for cute posts on dogs and cats. But seeing the pervasiveness of the app, I understand that TikTok is a major battleground for hearts and minds in the ongoing election campaign.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s camp saw this early and apparently invested heavily in attaining dominance in the site compared with his rivals for the presidency.

Groups behind a campaign to fight disinformation admit that the Marcos camp enjoyed a big head start in the social media running track. I’m eager to find out if the belated counter-attack will have any impact on the elections.

Even if the impact turns out to be minimal, the current election campaign is highlighting the immense potential for evil of fake news and disinformation when spread through a pervasive media platform.

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The “information disorder” of fake news and black propaganda has been around for as long as I can remember, always surging during election campaigns.

Before the age of digital technology, smear campaigns were carried out through bogus “white papers” sent to mass media outlets, certain offices and universities.

Obviously, unless the black propaganda was widely disseminated and amplified by reliable sources of information and news platforms, it had little impact. I never believed anything sent by anonymous sources. Even if the sender provided a name, contact number and an address, if these could not be verified, I considered it garbage.

Today, however, anonymity reigns on social media, providing an ideal platform for disinformation, fake news, hate messages and trolling.

In mainstream mass media, journalists undergo specialized training to gather and report news and current events, with editors vetting the articles for errors and inaccuracies, scurrilous or biased or unfair information, obscenities and other offensive content.

We have to do this because we are accountable to consumers of the information we put out. Our real names and faces accompany our published stories; we can’t hide our identity on TV. Libel, cyber libel and slander are criminal offenses in this country, and we can be sued, arrested, fined and sent to prison for malicious reporting or commentary.

There are no such filters on social media and zero accountability for anonymous stories, images and videos that can be freely altered.

In our country, even before the election campaign went into high gear, there was already spirited discussion about the historical revisionism regarding the conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, using mostly social media platforms, and the deployment of trolls against critics of the Duterte administration.

The government, for its part, was concerned mainly about disinformation being spread against COVID vaccination, particularly related to jabs made in China. In 2020, the World Health Organization had lamented the “infodemic” that was hindering the global pandemic response. Even Pope Francis issued a similar message.

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Social media giants such as Meta have tried to deal with the problem, but the task is tricky. Inevitably, Meta has run into controversy and stirred debates on restraining freedom of expression, even among certain quarters in this country that are hardly known for championing that freedom.

Similar efforts in other countries, particularly related to politics, have triggered the same debates, such as in Twitter’s moves directed at former US president Donald Trump.

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, has bought Twitter and promises to turn it into a free speech platform. Critics, however, say it’s unclear what Musk means exactly when he refers to free speech.

In our case, regardless of the outcome of the May 9 elections, efforts to curb the proliferation of fake news and disinformation will surely intensify.

Even the Commission on Elections has expressed concern about the impact of fake news and disinformation on voting and the electoral process.

An article last year in the August issue of the state-run Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), which cited the “serious” damage inflicted by fake news, gave several recommendations to deal with the problem.

One is to increase public awareness of tools that are available for free for fact-checking.

Another is by strengthening citizen engagement or participation in fact-checking. Volunteers are starting to make this happen. Training programs can be offered to develop more fact-checkers.

The PIDS article stressed that the ability to detect fake news and disinformation must start early in life. Critical thinking and basic digital intelligence must be developed at a young age.

Media literacy must be included in the basic education curriculum. Four bills along this line were filed in the House of Representatives, but enacting such a law will now have to wait until the next Congress.

Like the COVID pandemic, battling the infodemic calls for a whole-of-nation approach, anchored on the belief that the fight is a civic and moral responsibility of every citizen.

This battle will be waged long after the May 9 elections are over.


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