It was only a matter of time. After Malacañang watched its followers discredit media on the basis of the superficially discussed notion of “bias,” it then allowed for the proliferation of fake news.
Of course when we speak of that now, a year into Duterte’s government, it has become clear that it also means government officials who have so benefited from the manner in which media has been put into question, that they don’t even feel the need to retract their statements anymore. From Andanar insinuating Senate media were paid to cover Lascañas, to Ubial insisting she didn’t say there were 59 Marawi evacuees who have died, and every other questionable statement from the President to the Justice secretary in between, we have watched government officials utter shameless denials, instead of the more honorable admission of having committed mistakes, having spread false information, and issuing retractions of previous statements.
This is no surprise when one considers that this appeals to government supporters on social media. And when your basis for public opinion is social media (see last column), why would you care about right and wrong, fake and real, news?
A question of propaganda
Let’s start with this fact: we’ve always had fake “news.”
If you’ve paid attention to politics and government long enough, you’d realize that the proliferation of disinformation is not a new thing. Case in point: during the Aquino administration, time and money was spent on generating spin. There were three communications offices with three different heads; there were multiple websites, and countless infographics on every issue imaginable. We were not wanting in information for six years. We knew what government was doing, we knew where our taxes were going, we had a sense of what was being done on the ground to address key concerns: poverty and corruption, violence, peace and order.
And yet it didn’t take a genius to realize that much of that information was “fake.” Critics of the Aquino administration were quick to point that out: we were being told about how good things were in the Philippines, but we knew, we felt, we lived, how terrible it was on the ground. We were fed statistics and data that pointed to development, but we also all knew how those numbers could be manipulated to fit the spin and rhetoric they wanted to come out with.
This is not unique to just the Aquino administration: in my adult years, I saw Gloria Arroyo doing it, too, though with more finesse. That was also pre-social media as we know it now, so the playing field was different.
But see, we’ve always had fake news. We just used to call it government propaganda.
In the present, when we talk fake news, we mean websites that generate content based on rumors, which are almost always supportive of government and President Duterte, and which more often than not vilify government’s critics and perceived enemies. We also mean fake news as borne – if not as a kind – of opinion, sometimes premised on questionable surveys, often just a conclusion that is based on the flimsiest of bases – a photograph, a wrong parallelism, a failed juxtaposition.
Not once have we heard Malacañang’s communications chief speak against these websites, or the opinions upon which these are based. In fact, the tendency for Communications Secretary Martin Andanar has not just been to believe the “public opinion” that is manufactured and strengthened through these sites and accounts; it is to dignify these with an “official” response, if not to take these on as important issues of the day. Case in point: Leni Leaks, about which Andanar promised he would hire an “online forensics” team to look into the Yahoogroup (a yahoogroup!) that was carelessly and thoughtlessly left open to the public.
It is in this sense that one understands how and why Malacañang has always fallen silent about fake news websites and false information on social media: they gain from it, and in that sense, support it.
It seems we are in a time and place where fake news websites and propaganda Facebook pages are functioning as the “informal” propaganda arm and communications team of this government. Is this wrong? Not technically, and especially not if we can smell the fakery and falsity from a mile away (and have Fakeblok installed on our gadgets). Is this ethical? Absolutely not. Because while we can make the unstable parallel between the three communications offices of Daang Matuwid and the fake news sites and propaganda social media accounts, the basis of the former was information and “facts.” The basis of the latter is the total opposite.
That Duterte’s men and women, inside and outside Malacañang, have decided to be complicit in this disinformation is expected.
It does not make any of it right.
Here’s the thing: being supportive of pro-government propaganda on fake news sites also means being supportive of the hate and vitriol that these fake stories generate. It means supporting the kind of discourse that threatens the lives of journalists and critics, that brings discussions to the lowest and simplest of dichotomies: it’s you against us, dilawan versus ka-DDS.
Malacañang, by never issuing a statement against these fake news sites, by refusing to actually acknowledge the hate that is here, that even lends credence to these pages and sites that spread falsities and vitriol – ends up encouraging the existence of fake news and false information.
Imagine what it would be like if we had Malacañang on our side, if it took a stand against the bullying, hate, and vitriol, if it apologized for its mistakes, if it rose to the occasion of intelligent, credible, informed discourse?
Because say what you might about Daang Matuwid’s three-headed communications team, at least then we were talking issues and numbers and data. Not diving blindly into the abyss of questionable and false information.
I used to be distressed by this state of affairs; now I am merely watching it unravel. Because ultimately it is not mainstream media or credible criticism that is suffering here. It is government. Because while the rest of us are bound to the systems of checks and balances that are part of writing and working within media institutions, it is these structures for cross-checking, fact-checking, and truth-telling that Malacañang itself ignores, if not is absolutely dismissive of.
In the process, it has normalized for itself the insistence that they are being misquoted and taken out of context, that they are being attacked by media and critics, never mind that what they say is as clear as day, and is recorded for all to review.
Who do you think loses credibility in the long run? In fact, a year in, it is clear that this might be the least credible government we’ve had in years. And it’s got no one to blame but itself.