Online at sunset
A woman using her smartphone by the beach at sunset (Rainer Maiores/Pixabay)

Now on its 26th year in the Philippines — March 29, 2019 marked the 25th year since the country was “wired” into it —  the global communication network known as the Internet has been rightly hailed as another milestone in providing the perennial human need for information.

Not only has it made billions of bites of data available at one’s fingertips. It has also armed those with access to a computer-based device with the capacity to acquire and disseminate information, and to make their views known to a global audience. Long denied the full exercise of their right to communicate by the monopoly over one-way communication of the old media, billions of men and women all over the planet now have the means to interactively express themselves and to connect with billions of others.   

Anyone with a laptop, a tablet or a smart phone can create a blog and/or a social media account to update their friends and kin with the most recent events in their lives and to maintain communication with them. They can also use the Internet, specially social media, to provide news as well as commentary on issues of public relevance, in the process transforming themselves into virtual journalists. 

The economic and political interests behind the print, television and radio corporations and their gate-keeping and editing processes prevent enough, and even reliable information from reaching the audiences they supposedly serve. Absent those barriers, so say its most ardent enthusiasts, the Internet can provide the information that has long been denied millions and made interpreting the world and changing it problematic.

The emphasis on the advantages and upside of the Internet is understandable but tends to downplay its disadvantages, of which its use by the unscrupulous to  spread  fraudulent and manipulative information is  among the worst. The optimistic assumption that it is exempt from the pressures of the political and economic interests that drive print and broadcast has since given way to the realization that the Internet is far from immune to commercialization and politicization.

Both weaken the capacity of the old media to fully discharge the responsibility of providing the accurate and relevant information free men and women need. The same interests have made access to reliable information through the Net problematic, with millions of websites, social media accounts and blogs being focused on providing selective information to advance pre-determined, self-serving ends. Rather than the empowerment the information age promises, billions of men and women have been and are being manipulated into forming uninformed opinions and acting on them, and hence disempowered without even being aware of it.

The Philippine experience is demonstrably troubling. A case can be made out of the argument that the despotism that now threatens the people of this “social media capital of the world” was in no little way made possible through the power of the Internet.

It was of course human intervention, primarily through public relations practitioners, that misused that power.  Public relations — the use of both old and new media to create among the public a preferred image of people, ideas, policies, actions, or organizations — is a business that communication scholars have long regarded as problematic.

Its practitioners claim an affinity with journalists, but their only link to journalism is their use of such journalistic skills as the writing of news reports to advance their aims through the media. During election campaign periods, for instance, many of the publicity items that make it in print, broadcast and online as “news” are generated by the public relations hirelings of the politicians running for public office. Because public relations has a predetermined agenda, the “information” it spreads is slanted for or against this or that person or group.  Among responsible journalists the consensus is that it is totally alien to the professional and ethical standards that guide journalistic work.

As in numerous other instances, recent events have validated this view. In 2016, ethically-challenged public relations mercenaries were engaged, at considerable expense on the part of their clientele, in  using the media to convince the electorate the wisdom of electing Rodrigo Duterte to the Philippine presidency. Without any regard for its consequences, and in furtherance solely of their money-grubbing aims, to achieve that goal they used not only the old media but also the new, specially Facebook. They catapulted to national power a provincial despot accused of, and who has even admitted to, involvement in the Davao Death Squad, whose murdering hooligans have killed thousands of alleged criminals and even children in Mr. Duterte’s home turf. 

The same public relations philistines apparently devised such of Mr. Duterte’s campaign tactics as his announcing his candidacy at the eleventh hour, by which time his rivals for the presidency had only a limited period in which to challenge his “change is coming” mantra. That catch phrase itself made cunning use of the widespread demand for change that has long resonated among the Filipino millions.

But these manipulators and debasers of political and democratic discourse did not stop there. With their patron elected, together with regime bureaucrats they orchestrated the use not only of the print and broadcast hacks under their pay, but also of hundreds of social media accounts to spread false information. Together they harass, threaten, and incite violence against government critics and human rights defenders, thereby creating, in violation of every ethical and moral standard known to man or beast, the poisoned online communication atmosphere that has made rational discourse increasingly impossible in these benighted isles.

They call themselves “communicators,” but these creatures from the black lagoon of complicity in the conspiracy against the Bill of Rights are nothing of the kind, the right to communicate being premised on ethical responsibility. What they are are disciples of the greed that are the damaged and damaging wares of an evil age.

Like the old media of print and broadcast, the Internet is also an arena of contention between the forces of change and reaction.  In the 26th year of the Internet, this thrusts upon those who earnestly believe that the Web can be one more means of realizing the freedom of all humanity that reliable and accurate information can make possible, the responsibility of combating the disinformation, ignorance-mongering and hate speech that the forces of evil are using and spreading to undermine and pervert the liberating promise of the Internet. 

That task has never been as urgent as in this time and this place, when what is on the block is the freedom, the rights, the lives and the very future of this country and its people. In the context of the profanity, name-calling, hate speech, incitement to violence and mendacity being peddled by the bought-and-paid for old media hacks and the troll armies in social media, the only way to responsibly discharge that task is to be accurate, fair, honest, and above all, sane — to do the exact opposite of what the fact-resistant flunkies of  unreason are doing.

Thankfully, despite threats, attacks and harassments, there are the responsible journalists in both corporate and alternative media, the civil society organizations, the independent bloggers, the human rights defenders, the Church, and the Moro and indigenous people who are doing their all to combat the madness that the oligarchs and their hirelings this country is cursed with have let loose on this sorry land.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Pixabay photo courtesy of Rainer Maiores.

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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