The Canada Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News website came out with an interesting piece about the state of discourse in the Philippines given mainstream media on the one hand, and the rise of fake news as propaganda on the other. Written by Senior Correspondent Adrienne Arsenault, it had as headline a quote from Rappler’s Maria Ressa, saying that “Democracy as we know it is dead,” which first made me imagine that the article was going to talk about the urgent concerns of summary executions on the streets and drug-related deaths, or the continued control by big business, oligarchs, and feudal lords over government despite a President who seems to stand squarely for the people (if / when his pronouncements hold and given his pro-people appointees), or even just the continued verbal assault against free speech from the President and his men.
Instead Ressa, and this article, were referring to the death of democracy … in relation to fake news and people like Mocha.
Yes, I’m as stunned as you are.
According to Arsenault, while we are the same as many countries that have a problem with fake news, there is something unique about what we have in the Philippines: “the bogus stories that pollute the internet <…> are startling in their venom, frequency, and sometimes clumsy attempts to look like the real thing.”
She then frames this in relation to the idea of fact checking and how despite Filipinos’ “spending more time on social media than anyone else in the world,” our slow mobile Internet services plus free mobile Facebook has cradled the current state of affairs. According to Ressa, relying on free Facebook “helps both the disinformation and misinformation, because if you can’t afford the data, what you see on your free Facebook is the [headline]” which is the most “interesting, provocative information.”
Ressa’s voice then takes over the article, where the work Rappler has put into “investigating the trajectory of fake news stories <…and> bogus social media accounts and online attacks” is highlighted, as they have traced it to the “coordinated social networks deployed” during Duterte’s campaign, which “turned their full force on the traditional media” once he became President.
Mocha is mentioned as one of the key pro-Duterte personalities with many followers. Layered with Arsenault’s personal experience with Mocha, the article forms a pretty sound analysis of Mocha’s function in current discourse which is nothing new to any of us: she is a propagandist for the President, plain and simple, full stop.
What Arsenault’s piece failed to do was to work with a more nuanced discussion about Ressa and Rappler, given that both were being used as credible yardstick against which fake news and propaganda were being measured.
Because it would have been clear to anyone who was also victimized by and following the rise of fake news and online vitriol from Duterte supporters that people like Mocha were not attacking mainstream media blindly. In fact, early into the Duterte presidency, it was clearly about calling out media enterprises for biased reporting and being so unforgiving of the President and his new government.
Many media practitioners would go on their social media accounts and blogs, and explain the notion of bias, the fact that it does exist (of course!) but that it should not remove from the fact of the news, and the need to report this. (Off the top of my head, Ed Lingao spent a good amount of time doing this.)
Rappler was unique in its tendency to turn defensive, instead of engaging properly and soberly with this particularly pro-Duterte public. Unsurprisingly, what this also revealed was Rappler’s elitist slip: half the time they would be looking down on this public, the other half they would insist they were beyond reproach.
Either way, Rappler was losing credibility not just with the pro-Duterte mob, but also with the rest of us who might not have cared much for it before, or really only cared for it when it was the only one carrying a certain story (in my case, that would be about the debacle of Torre de Manila and the complicity of the NHCP leadership).
We might all stand against fake news and lies, as well as the violence and vitriol perpetuated online, but we were also not blind to Rappler’s (and Ressa’s) own foibles, upon which Mocha et al.’s criticism was based.
Arsenault’s piece said of Filipinos who were on free data and reading only headlines: no nuance, no context. It could be said as well of this article.
A dollop of democracy
For Ressa to say that: “Democracy as we know it is dead <…> What you’re seeing is exponential growth of propaganda networks that hijack what used to be called democracy” – all seems like an overreach.
Because democracy in this country, at least as far as discourse is concerned, remains the same. It’s just that for the first time since Rappler was launched, Ressa et al. cannot claim control over discourse.
Fake news and propaganda accounts – as fueled by huge amounts of cash – are giving sites like Rappler a run for their money. To say that it is the Duterte propagandists who have ruined Rappler’s credibility is an overstatement – Rappler ruined its own credibility. What people like Mocha did was bait them into revealing their elitism, and sense of entitlement – things we’ve always known about Rappler anyway, just this time there was more reason to believe it.
Meanwhile, Ressa would like to generalize about how the vitriol is for everyone who even so much as mentions the drug war and criticizes the President – the better to paint a terrible picture of the state of affairs given Duterte propagandists. She says: “You look at anyone who says anything against the killings, against the drug war, especially if they are women, they will get clobbered on social media. They are threatened with death, with rape. You name it, it’s happened.”
I do not doubt that it has, and to Rappler writers even more so. But it hasn’t happened to me, and I’ve been as critical as the next person especially on social media. Here lies the difference: I was not biased against the President from the beginning. I had given the drug war, the President, the benefit of the doubt. It was only six months into his Presidency that I took a clear stand against the drug-related killings and summary executions, and I have not stopped since.
I also am not competing with Mocha et al. for follows or likes or shares – as a writer, I am more skeptical about what those mean, and how those function.
But then again, one understands this dichotomy between Ressa and Mocha, Mocha and Ressa.
After all, Rappler sold itself as “new” media that lived off crowdsourcing data, so that it could claim to know and write stories to feed “public pulse.”
According to Arsenault, when she asked Mocha why she posted about De Lima being the number one drug lord, Mocha had “defended her actions by saying that if you read the post’s comments, many of her followers agree with the claim.”
That reminds me of Ressa who, whenever Rappler would be questioned for any of its stories or any of its claims, would reply with the standard line: Let the crowd decide.
Ressa, meet crowd.