BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - The Freeman

The Cebu Citizens-Press Council has a motto that says, “Being accountable comes with being free.” If there is no sense of accountability in communication, distrust and polarization prevail and what follows is the gradual breaking up of society’s structures and functions.

That is what we see today with social media, where a lack of accountability has spawned disinformation. Disinformation on social media by bad actors hiding behind fake identities is supposedly unacceptable. But it has become a norm today.

Anonymity equals lack of accountability. One study shows that controversial content is three times more likely to be shared anonymously. (Zhang, 2014) Yet to require the verification of identity of the person behind a social media account could not even make it through legislation.

Hardly surprising, President Rodrigo Duterte has vetoed the bill that requires SIM cards and social media accounts to be registered. The palace raised concerns that the bill will “give rise to a situation of dangerous state intrusion and surveillance.” The Left and other cause-oriented groups lauded the veto, which is also hardly surprising considering the Left’s outdated views on civil liberties under an IT-dominated ecosystem.

Reuters reported that Duterte disagreed with the inclusion of social media in the bill because it was without detailed guidelines. The bill could still have been passed into law, with the detailed guidelines incorporated into its implementing rules and regulations (IRR), just like the process in other laws.

But then the possible real reason for the veto is hinted in the same Reuters report: “Duterte's election victory in 2016 was partly attributed to a well-organised social media campaign, but critics have blamed pro-Duterte trolls and influencers for spreading misinformation to discredit and threaten opponents.” To Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon, the president’s veto of the bill is a victory for the trolls who “hide behind the anonymity in the social media in spreading lies and discord.”

Professor Michael Tsikerdekis of the Western Washington University, writing for the academic journal of the Association of Computing Machinery, said that deception has been used in various contexts throughout human history. But today’s ease of getting a social media account makes it far easier for individuals to deceive one another. “There are many examples of people being deceived through social media, with some suffering devastating consequences to their personal lives,” Tsikerdekis said.

There’s a hypothetical scenario described by lawyer Ashley Nicolas in her article entitled “Taming the trolls: The Need for an international legal framework to regulate State Use of Disinformation on Social Media” published in 2018 by The Georgetown Law Journal Online. That scenario is this: Hundreds of agents of a foreign country that wants to ensure the victory of a Manchurian candidate (a politician being used as a puppet by an enemy power) arrives in your country months prior to the election. These masked agents spend the weeks leading up to the election going door to door in vulnerable communities, spreading false stories intended to manipulate the population into electing a candidate with policies favorable to the foreign power’s positions. They set up television stations, use radio broadcasts, and usurp the resources of local newspapers to expand their reach and propagate falsehoods.

It's a logistically and legally impossible scenario imagined from the cold war of the 1980s. But with today’s social media and its lack of accountability, it’s no longer logistically impossible to propagate such falsehoods and to influence the outcome of elections. Legal measures toward accountability, on the other hand, could have addressed some of these problems. But as the president’s veto shows, none of that is forthcoming.


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