IT is clear that while we might laugh at the people behind Presidential Communications, and cannot even begin to imagine what it has now become given the appointment of un-credentialed, anti-facts Mocha Uson; and while we might scoff at the social media army that are the ka-DDS—Duterte devotees—with an axe to grind against mainstream media, facts, data, and investigative journalism; here we are at a point when a member of the Philippine Congress—a senator at that—can face the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and declare with a straight face that there is no new spate of killings under the Duterte administration, and that the international attention was all the fault of mainstream media coverage, that bloated the number of dead and equated these killings with the drug war the President holds closest to his heart.
The thing with us having dismissed propaganda and spin to be nothing but—because look at who is spreading it, and how it’s being disseminated! and it’s so not based on facts and reliable information!—is that we didn’t see how in the case of Duterte’s social media army, all it takes is to keep repeating a falsity to make it more and more like the truth. Not the truth, but a truth.
This is not like the time of Daang Matuwid, where critics could hold up additional information, do interviews, report what’s happening on the ground, in order to put into question the data that the three-headed communications office was churning out in infographics and websites. This is not at all about facts versus facts. This is just the loudest voices, the ones that are spent on and promoted, spewing pro-Duterte opinion, and repeating it over and over.
Seems simple enough. Unexpectedly a formidable enough foe of relevant, credible discourse.
Context: media and elections 2016
To put into question the notion of human rights, Duterte’s social media army, as well as his PCOO, started things off by consistently discrediting mainstream media.
Now of course this was easy to do. We were coming from a presidential campaign during which we watched as mainstream media sacrificed relevant information for biased and partisan reporting. Sure, none of these larger media entities categorically declared their loyalty to any or one candidate; but it was clear in terms of coverage which candidates were favored and which ones weren’t, and in many cases the propaganda against certain candidates was happening way before the campaign officially started.
For Duterte, who declared his candidacy last, the coverage he was getting was clearly about his more controversial statements, including that one in May 2015 when he confirmed that he was the Davao Death Squad (Gikan Sa Masa, Para Sa Masa,May24, 2016), as well as that now infamous rape joke delivered during one of his campaign sorties. The killings in Davao took center stage, something that Duterte endorsers —many of whom were celebrities —responded to by highlighting instead how safe they felt on their visits to Davao.
Duterte was the dark horse, the underdog, the lone wolf—and he played that role to the hilt – giving supporters what they wanted, happy as they were with the little they knew of their candidate who had no real platform, but had enough soundbites to tide them over.
Discrediting mainstream media
It was because of how campaign season was handled by much of mainstream media that it became easy for Duterte devotees to go on the offensive against them, and bring media to its knees. We all witnessed the ways in which media played with the public during the campaign, as well as the multifarious ways in which we were bombarded with information, opinion, trivia that were not only skewed in favor of or against a candidate, but which also made no effort at bringing discussions to a deeper level.
Post-elections and with a new President Duterte, it was just too easy to take down mainstream media by putting into question all that it reported, highlighting its biases, talking about intent and collusion among media enterprises and critics, towards discrediting the information being delivered, the events reported on—including, but not limited to, notions of and reports on human rights violations.
Our tendency was to shrug it all off: the comms team of Malacañang is devoid of any credibility, its certified bloggers and social media army only hold as much information as the government is willing to release to the public. How could any of this information be considered as the facts, as the truth? We have journalists on the ground counting the dead, we have police reports, we have investigative stories, pointing to the contrary.
Ah, but we seem to have miscalculated what would matter in the long run—or at least by the end of Duterte’s first year. And here we are confounded by the manner in which media has been discredited all the way to the UN, taking human rights and justice along with it.
Listening to the senator defending the killings that happened in the first year of the Duterte presidency at the UNHRC, it is difficult to deny that all that he said, the way he spun the information, is exactly how Duterte devotees have responded to criticism against and reports on the drug war the past year. This was troll discourse and Duterte propaganda brought to a global stage, with nary the proper data and not much more than the usual soundbites.
To some extent we brought this upon ourselves. Because as we shrugged our shoulders, as we fell silent, as we decidedly ignored propaganda and spin and troll discourse, for whatever reason including our elitist notions of “what matters,” we further enabled this state of affairs, where government can categorically deny any wrongdoing, and even proclaim our nation’s safety, despite and in the face of thousands of deaths on our streets.
Obviously, there is a need to rethink our strategies. If not to just start thinking beyond the black and white, ka-DDS versus Dilawan kind of discourse. Because look at where that has brought us, a year in.