• Trolling takes its toll on the truth

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    TITA C. VALDERAMA

    NAME-CALLING used to be common only during campaign seasons, between and among rival parties. But nowadays, name-calling has become an almost daily occurrence, particularly in social media.

    Have we become so democratic that an ordinary citizen can call the President crazy or madman, or a government consultant describe the Speaker of the House of Representatives as an imbecile? And this happens amid fears of a martial law imposition throughout the country on any grounds that the President and his minions could imagine.

    I am not saying here that the President is neither crazy nor a madman, or that the Speaker is not stupid. What I mean is that anybody can say whatever he wants against anybody, including powerful persons, without ending up in jail. The worst they face is handling online trolls.

    Not so many years ago, the trolls we knew were dwarfish creatures with pointed hair and beard, and of typically ugly appearance. Nowadays, trolls are everywhere on the Internet, particularly on social media networks Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and in blogs and chat rooms.

    They unleash cynical, sarcastic, inflammatory, and completely out-of-line remarks on anybody. They try to provoke debate, insult somebody, or just say just anything, regardless if it’s senseless or stupid, fact or fiction, true or false.

    They lurk around almost every corner of the social media networks. Most of them use assumed names, hiding behind their computer screens and goes haywire causing trouble online, some for money, others for attention or for no reason at all.

    What is bothersome is that online trolls have been hard at work to dominate the news by destroying the credibility of the legitimate media. Worse, the army of trolls are either fed or paid, or perhaps both, by powerful and influential people who may be desperate to have their way.

    Online trolls and people who feed them with half-truths, if not falsehood, and then pay them, are putting the legitimate media on their toes.

    A few weeks ago, I happened to sit down with some of the country’s respected investigative journalists after we listened to a talk by Sheila Coronel, academic dean and director of the investigative reporting program at the Columbia Graduate School, on “Journalism in the Age of Fake News, Propaganda, and Media Manipulation” held at a hotel in Quezon City.

    The small-group discussion was about the next step to deal with trolls and fake news. Small group that it was, we could not agree on who should take the lead, and what measures could be effective in fighting fake news.

    Sharing our thoughts between bites of pizza and sips of coffee, the group agreed to keep looking at more decisive actions to promote responsible journalism and do our own little way of fighting the spread of fake news.

    Everyone in the group realized the difficulty of fighting fake news and propaganda given the reality that the news media no longer have the monopoly of creating and publishing news.

    As Sheila said in her talk, audiences get their news no longer directly from the news media but from social media platforms. The massive market penetration of smart phones created easy access to news, including fake and misinformation or propaganda.

    Online trolls feed on these fake news and propaganda. You often find trolls cursing, name-calling and just causing trouble just for the heck of it. They populate news or blogs of people who express opinions contrary to theirs or their patrons, and accuse the writers of being biased, paid, or partisan. Sometimes they do this to provoke debate which almost always ends up with personal accusations against the writer. They demonize those who don’t share their beliefs.

    The legitimate news media has its glaring faults and weaknesses, but aiding and feeding the trolls don’t make any sense at all if we truly care for the country.

    Perhaps, the best way to deal with trolls is to either ignore or expose them.

    In this era of fake news and trolls, the news media is far more challenged to be more discerning.

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