Sonny Trillanes, Mocha Uson chat after Senate hearing
Presidential Communications Operations Office Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson exchanges pleasantries with Senator Antonio Trillanes IV after a public hearing on fake news conducted by the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chaired by Senator Grace Poe on October 2017. Trillanes had earlier filed criminal and administrative charges against Uson for reportedly spreading “fake news” about his supposed offshore bank accounts. (PRIB/Cesar Tomambo )

Whether they’re in the opposition or administration side, the distinguished senators of this endangered Republic, who’re otherwise hopelessly fractious, share one thing: their hatred for “fake news” — and a consequent, irrepressible urge to penalize its disseminators.

That’s what last week’s hearings on the subject led by the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chaired by Senator Grace Poe suggests, among other equally troublesome implications on press freedom, free expression, and the little that’s left of Philippine democracy.

Many of this country’s senators, congressmen and more prominent officials, whatever their political affiliations, claim they have been, or are still, victims of false information. Opposition senators related how they’ve been falsely accused of various wrongdoings, one example being that of blogger and Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson’s and her principal’s claim that Senator Antonio Trillanes IV has secret offshore bank accounts.

But it was administration senators Manny Pacquiao and Vicente Sotto who were particularly strident during the hearings. Pacquiao said he has been accused of supporting extrajudicial killings (EJKs) because opposition senators did not bother to show him a resolution condemning EJKs.

For his part, Sotto declared in his opening statement that he has been called names and accused of crimes by people online who won’t identify themselves — and promised before the entire country that he will “hunt (them) down.”

One can appreciate Pacquiao’s outrage, but only if it means he’s against the drug-related killings that have transformed poor communities into warrens of fear and murder and disgraced the country before the rest of the planet.

As for Sotto, someone should suggest to him that one way to stop the dissemination of “fake news” is to ignore those who won’t identify themselves. Anyone who doesn’t attach his name to his rants is probably lying and doesn’t deserve any reply. Ignoring every such individual’s claims as of no value whatsoever should help silence the sound and the fury that plague so much of social media.

On the other hand, one option is to reply logically and with factual proof to those of his critics who do identify themselves — or to file libel complaints against them, rather than threatening to “hunt them down.”

The country’s 85-year-old libel law and the 2012 Cyber Crime Prevention Act are oppressive enough. Both mandate prison terms for libel in print and for libel committed online in addition to fines, which should move the learned senators to ask why a law penalizing the dissemination of “fake news” should even be considered. The hearing was nevertheless almost certainly only a preliminary step in the process of discussing and eventually passing such a law.

This column noted last June 23 that the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) had launched a means for Internet users — who arguably consist today of individuals who’re mostly into social media as sources and transmitters of information — to identify lies propagated online. That initiative is in addition to efforts by some media organizations to more closely fact-check the statements of news sources and to monitor the accuracy of their own reports.

But Senator Joel Villanueva and his learned colleagues are either unaware of such initiatives by journalists’ and media advocacy groups, or believe that they are not enough. Villanueva himself has filed a bill that if passed into law would penalize with fines and imprisonment those who spread “fake news” in print, over radio and television, or online. On the other hand, it was opposition Senator Francisco Pangilinan who called for the Senate hearings to look into the liabilities of bloggers who post such “news” and of social media sites when they fail to prevent such lies from being disseminated.

While the Senate inquiry could have helped enlighten both lawmakers and citizens on the issues involved (it didn’t), it can now lead to the eventual passage of the Villanueva bill or something similar. What it could have done, but did not, was to answer a number of questions, among them what exactly is “fake news,” and who or what will determine whether an item in social media, a blog, a news site, or in print, radio and television qualifies.

The dangers to free expression, press freedom and what’s left of Philippine democracy will escalate once a government agency is charged with both responsibilities. All governments have a stake in favorable publicity, and their agencies are hardly likely to be so impartial as to label as false their own fraudulent issuances or to identify as legitimate those reports, even if factually accurate, that are critical of government.

The proliferation of “fake news” is driven not only by media illiteracy (public misunderstanding of the responsibilities of communication and its role in human affairs), but also by the deliberate manipulation of human perceptions by forces with political and other interests opposed to citizen appreciation of the issues that confront individuals, communities and nations.

Practically limitless 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 share it with others. But lies are not disseminated solely by those who unknowingly use social media, blogs and online sites to spread fraudulent information. Individuals and groups also deliberately spread them to advance a political, economic, or other goal.

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 media-literate public responsible enough to recognize and not to spread lies from whatever source.

There is no exaggerating the harm false information inflicts on society. “Fake news” about the most pressing concerns, whether it’s the environment, issues of war and peace, the state of the economy, or how political power is misused, has led to mass disinformation — the very opposite of the informed citizenry every society needs. By influencing the shaping of public opinion to favor only their interests, the makers and disseminators of “fake news” also debase democratic discourse. But State regulation and censorship is a solution to the problem only for those ignorant of the complexities of communication and free expression issues. There are no quick fixes that can solve a problem that has long haunted those hungry for the information that will enable them to understand, and if necessary, change the world.

The pronounced use of social media in the spread of false information has made it seem as if it 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 for or against individuals and groups, State policies, and even entire nations.

But the greater danger is that, in the context of State officials’ tendency to exact revenge on their critics (Pacquiao, for example, is unable to appreciate the fact that being criticized is part of being in public office), any bill that will seem to address the problem could handily pass Congress despite the constraints it will exact on the right to communicate and on free expression. It will be a State license to chill those rights in these troubled and troubling times when their free exercise is most urgently needed.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Senate of the Philippines website.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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