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Opinion

Headwinds of disinformation

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - Philstar.com

Putting out a press release that paints a rosy picture on the “unmodified opinion” of the Commission on Audit (COA) of the city’s financial statements, is like putting out a smokescreen ahead of an actually scathing report.

It baffles me why Cebu City Hall’s public information team did that, when a complete and more accurate story about the COA report is bound to come out later. It was like trying to pull out a bunny from their purse, but then a mushy blob of dirt came out instead.

Several other LGUs who got an “unmodified opinion” from COA on the form and substance of their financial statements did not issue a similar press release. And the obvious reason is that it’s nothing to brag about.

Such “unmodified opinion on the financial statement” by COA reminds me of a court issuing an order stating that the pleading you filed is "sufficient in form and substance." No lawyer will ever brag about that to a client because all that means is that your document followed the proper format, made the necessary recitals, and basically complied with the rules. The statement has nothing to do with the merits of your case.

Yet City Hall is still trying hard to put a different spin. City Administrator Floro Casas Jr. was quoted the other day saying that the unmodified opinion rendered by COA “is proof that the audit observations were, in fact, already satisfactorily remedied and answered by the City Government.”

Former COA commissioner and OIC Heidi Mendoza’s explanation deflates such puffery. A clean financial statement simply means that the agency or LGU fairly presented in all material respects its position, Mendoza said. In her social media page, Mendoza explained: “Pag sinabing fairly presented, tumutukoy siya dun sa FS (financial statement); tama ba yung accounting treatment, nasunod ba yung international standards. Sa madaling salita, hindi masasalamin sa isang audit opinion ang katiwalian sa paggamit ng pondo ng bayan. Hindi komo may clean opinion ka ay walang katiwalian sa pagpapatakbo ng iyong ahensya.”

As I write this, pertinent findings of the COA report on Cebu City’s 2020 spending are already being reported in mainstream and social media. I’ll leave that matter to the fiscalizers and other commentators.

My interest lies more on our increasing tendency as a society to fall into the trap of misleading information coming from power players who lowball figures, exaggerate results, or inflate the meaning of certain facts.

Our people are being entertained, distracted, vexed, or made hopping mad in the world of social media. There is a gaping contradiction between the made-up stories painted by trolls and the stark reality on the ground. 

Political parties and the ideological principles they supposedly stand for have been rendered meaningless. Shape-shifting politicians now conveniently and brazenly adjust their sails, not to catch the critical needs of the times, but to catch the winds of opportunity; winds fanned by the cyborgs, troll armies, and bots of the digital age, as well as publicity generated in the social media page of politicians. All these now shape the news agenda and virtually push and pull the news cycle.

They not only influence the events and issues, they can now also curate content and often get away with it. And let’s admit it, much of mainstream media now lack the resources to dig further for the truth and compete for influence in a society awash with disinformation.

The US has survived the onslaught of Russian-backed trolls in their presidential election because it has strong institutions. The Philippines, on the other hand, has been faring badly against domestic and China-backed trolls because it has no buffer to protect itself from all the disinformation. Its vital institutions are weak.

Netizens of all shades, bright and dark, suddenly have the tools that empower them to influence the public discourse, a power that had never been seen prior to age of social media. This empowerment looked good at first but then it became sinister. People can buy SIM cards and open social media accounts anonymously. Troll farms can boost their presence with the assistance of bots, an artificial intelligence program that can interact with systems or users and increase the number of views on YouTube and Facebook by analyzing their algorithms.

Netizens not only lack proper understanding of the impact of what they produce for the consumption of a mass audience. They are also not willing to invest in understanding the impact of their activities. They are easy pickings for devious power players.

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