Clueless - Part 2  

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - The Freeman

Disinformation changes our perception of reality. However, it is glossed over in broad strokes and often masked in quiet doubt because most people are clueless on how it is being executed.

The rise of social media in the past 15 years has provided traction for disinformation to become widespread around the world --a “tidal wave” of propaganda, as one media commentator calls it, with talking points and consistently delivered on schedule. The sole aim of this “tidal wave” of disinformation is now becoming quite clear-- to undermine democracies in the US, Europe, and Asia, and to promote authoritarianism as a practical and justifiable form of governance.

This is happening partly because democratic governments are usually tolerant of free speech and free flow of information, unless the information or speech poses not just a “dangerous tendency” or “hypothetical fear of danger,” but a “clear and present danger” to society – a doctrinal test laid down in the case of Schenck versus the United States and echoed by our own Supreme Court in numerous cases. State regulation against disinformation may, in fact, end up undermining the very democracy that disinformation seeks to destroy.

Contrast this to authoritarian states like China where the government controls what the people can and cannot see on the internet and tri-media. I had a personal experience with this in 2011 when I was in Beijing for a week to attend a conference. While in China, I could not access my social media accounts; foreign TV news channels at my hotel room suddenly showed a blank screen, hiding perhaps some piece of news that China’s censors deemed unacceptable.

Authoritarian states like Russia and China have gotten very good at taking advantage of the free flow of information to inflame social divisions in Western and Asian democracies and --with increasing sophistication-- quietly manipulate information to influence the outcome of foreign elections in their favor.

The idea, for example, that the West and its allied states are in decline and China is on the rise is an oft-repeated theme in the online and tri-media nowadays. While there may be some truth to the claim that the United States and Western Europe are in crisis, as they have always been in cycles of decline and growth during the industrial and now post-industrial age, the claim that China is about to catch up with or surpass Western powers in the world stage, is overrated.

Just to illustrate this point with a single barometer of power and clout, name me a single Chinese brand that is known for its quality and craftsmanship, and then name me brands from the West and its Asian allies that are known for their quality and craftsmanship. For China, sorry to say, I could not think of any right now; for the West and its allies I can mention Apple, Google (US); Shell, Philips (Netherlands) Samsung, LG (South Korea); Rolex, Nestle (Switzerland); TSMC, a leader in semiconductors (Taiwan); Honda, Toyota, Sony (Japan), just to name a few. These are brands known for both their quality and integrity.

This is not to underrate China’s role as an emerging global power. It’s just to show you how misinformation and disinformation, shared and told in flagrant or subtle ways, can warp our perception of the facts and the reality on the ground.

Major social media companies like Twitter and Facebook (now Meta) say that they are “proactively and routinely tackling attempts at platform manipulation.” Last month, Twitter suspended more than 300 accounts linked to supporters of presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for violating its rules on manipulation and spam. Despite these efforts, research published in peer-reviewed journals continues to show that electoral democracies around the world are still intrinsically vulnerable to disinformation. Monitoring units of social media companies could just not keep up with thousands of automated accounts or bots created to shape the news agenda or amplify false information. Fake accounts abound in Twitter, Tiktok, and YouTube which are being used in coordinated ways to start a trending topic or flood the information ecosystem with fake news, thus stifling the credible news and information coming from institutional media.

That is why, going back to my topic in Part 1 of this piece, it is very important that for our electoral democracy to work, candidates and their supporters must keep a close watch of on-the-ground realities in order to counter disinformation in the digital information ecosystem, and reclaim the narrative that is based on facts and not on falsehoods.

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