Worse than the disease

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The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) have launched an online means of identifying and guarding against the spread of fake news. They’re using Fakeblok, the Google Chrome plug-in which flags fake news on Facebook. This enterprise is in addition to efforts by some media organizations to fact-check the statements of news sources and to closely monitor their own reports.

But Senators Joel Villanueva and Francisco Pangilinan apparently believe that such self- regulatory initiatives by journalists’ and media advocacy groups are not enough. Villanueva has announced that he intends to file a bill that would penalize, presumably with a fine, imprisonment or both, those who spread fake news in print, over radio and television, or online. For his part, Pangilinan has called for a Senate inquiry to look into the liabilities of social media sites such as Facebook when they fail to prevent fake news from being posted.

The danger to free expression of these intentions should be immediately obvious. A Senate inquiry could help enlighten both lawmakers and citizens on the issues involved. But it could lead to the filing of a bill, such as that contemplated by Villanueva, which would impose punitive sanctions on social media sites, individual and group account holders, print and broadcast media organizations, and journalists.

It immediately raises a number of issues. Who or what will determine whether an item in social media, a blog, a news site, or in print, radio and television is fake news or not? By targeting print and broadcast media as well as online sites (as Villanueva has announced) such a law will also infringe on the Constitutionally-protected freedom of expression and of the press. Equally important, while the damage fake news inflicts on the levels of discourse on public issues is considerable, the supposed cure is likely to be worse than the disease.

Fake news is not the recent phenomenon most people including senators think it is. It’s proliferation is fueled not only by the rampant misunderstanding of the responsibilities of communication and its value in human affairs, but also by the deliberate manipulation of human perceptions by forces whose interests are contrary to mass understanding of public issues. Any anti-fake news law, while punishing the sources and sites of fake news, is therefore unlikely to enhance public understanding of the ethics and standards of communication, to raise public awareness of the critical role of the media in society, or to provide any long-term remedy to the problem.

Unprecedented, unhampered and unregulated access to means of communication, which the new information and communication technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones have made possible has enabled almost anyone to acquire misleading information and worse, to share it with others. But it is a mistake to assume that fake news is disseminated only by the ignorant, who in good faith use social media, blogs and news sites to unknowingly spread fraudulent information. Individuals and groups also knowingly spread fake news to further a political, economic, or other agenda.

Public relations practitioners, who use the media to cast their clients in a good light, or to put down the latter’s rivals, share with online trolls the common objective of shaping public opinion in behalf of a predetermined purpose. Corrupt journalists in the pay of this or that interest are equally accountable. But accountability in the exercise of the right to communicate is best enforced, not by the State, but by the media community itself as well as by a public media-literate and responsible enough to detect and not to spread fake news.

As some of its constituents are already doing, the media community has to sharpen he capacity of its practitioners and publications to monitor the issuances of social media users, bloggers, and news sites. It also has to identify those bogus sites that have been created to spread fraudulent information for or against individuals, groups, policy proposals, ideas or issues relevant to citizens’ lives.

Understanding how the media operate, knowledge of its standards, as well as a critical eye and ear are among the necessary attributes an informed public needs so it may not be victimized by the purveyors of fake news. It is a long and tedious process no punitive act can hasten.

Fake news creates a dumbed-down public — the very opposite of the informed citizenry every society needs. It detracts from the sum of human knowledge, and by influencing the shaping of public opinion to favor political and other interests, debases democratic discourse. But penalizing social media networks and those individuals and groups that use such sites will not halt the proliferation of fake news enough to justify the political and social costs of censorship in another guise.

Complex problems require complex solutions as well as time enough to address them. Media regulation is a solution only to those unaware of the complexities of communication issues. The reality is that there are no quick fixes that can solve a problem that has long haunted an information-needy world.

The pronounced use of social media in the spread of fake news has made it seem as if fake news were a new phenomenon and that social media are entirely to blame for it. But fake news via the old media of print has been around for over a century, and has been disseminated to manipulate public opinion in favor of, or against individuals and groups, State policies, and even entire nations.

From Philippine history we have the example of the justification for the US conquest of these islands at the turn of the 20th century as summed up in the contention that US intervention was an act of “benevolent assimilation” to “civilize and Christianize” Filipinos, or in the claim that the fighters of the Katipunan were “bandits” and “insurgents.”

A more recent example also unintentionally exposed the dangers inherent in government regulation of the media. Government sources, whether officials or agencies, have themselves spread fake news. The State-run Philippine News Agency (PNA) ran a fraudulent and deliberately misleading report that said that an overwhelming majority of other countries approves of the Duterte administration’s handling of the so-called war on drugs. The same agency later tried to pass off a photograph from the Vietnam War as supposedly taken during a firefight in Marawi City.

As the above example shows, the most common form of fake news passes off false information as fact, the dissemination of which conscientious fact-checking can prevent. But if lodged in a government agency such as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), or even the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) which oversees PNA operations, the power to decide which is fake news and which is not among thousands of reports online, in print and over radio and television can lead to the censorship of information contrary to government interest. The agency can simply declare an item in social media or in print and broadcast as fake news and therefore subject to legal sanctions. In addition to malice is the stupidity factor, as demonstrated by the PNA gaffes mentioned above.

The danger in the Villanueva and Pangilinan initiatives is that, with the growing concern over the impact of fake news on citizen opinion, knowledge, and capacity to make informed decisions on public issues, any bill that will seem to address the problem could handily pass Congress despite the constraints it will certainly impose on free expression — and without most citizens’ being aware of it.

First published in BusinessWorld.

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