FAKE news is not necessarily a new thing, but as a global phenomenon and a casual political weapon it most certainly is. It could be particularly dangerous and ruinous when used against the state, but even far more so when used by the state against its enemies. Especially so in our digital age.
There was nothing false about the explosion that sank the USS Maine at Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, but strident false propaganda by the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers led to the Spanish-American war that resulted in Spain losing Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States.
Last June, fake social media statements attributed to the Emir of Qatar against certain leaders of the Gulf states prompted Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to cut off diplomatic, trade and transport ties to Doha, creating an absurd crisis which has since remained unresolved.
In the United States, the Trump administration has been attacked by fake news and accused of spreading it as well.
In our own jurisdiction, fake news has been used to promote the political interests of the administration and to savage its critics. Last September, a false international story reported Ambassador Nikki Haley, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, delivering a speech to the UN allegedly defending President Rodrigo Duterte from criticisms of his human rights record.
The story originated from a website falsely attributed to Al Jazeera and was picked up by unsuspecting repeaters who praised Haley for her alleged pro-DU30 statement without verifying its authenticity. The reported statement was completely uncharacteristic of Haley, who minced no words when talking of other heads of state like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Neither did it reflect the known US policy on DU30’s drug killings.
I smelled a rat as soon as I read the profuse praise for the alleged statement. In response to my query, the US Embassy in Manila, after checking with the State Department in Washington, D.C. and its UN mission in New York, officially denied the New York-datelined story. Thus, one major fake story was averted from inflicting grave injury on the Filipino public’s credulity. The trolls have since been reduced in numbers, but the remaining holdouts remain as dedicated as ever.
A fake death
In the last few days, some trolls have posted on the web the alleged passing of a senior Filipino statesman who used to be a staunch DU30 supporter but has since morphed into a rabid critic. Like the famous premature reports on Mark Twain’s passing, the report was clearly malicious and exaggerated. The apparent intention was simply to piss off the subject, who remained in disgustingly good health.
While writing this column, I came upon a post that came from “France Television” quoting International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda as saying she had started investigating DU30 for his alleged crimes against humanity. This was quickly disavowed by a tweet saying it was fake news. I could not ascertain whether the original post was indeed fake or the tweet saying it was fake was fake.
Until we get an official confirmation or denial from the ICC or Bensouda, I am afraid we would not know the real score. But if it is a fake, we should soon find out. The fact though is that last April 24, Mindanao lawyer Jude Sabio filed a case against DU30 before the ICC for crimes against humanity. And the complaint was subsequently amended by the Magdalo group represented by party-list Rep. Gary Alejano.
As earlier said, the battle against the fake news has become global, and it continues.
Reputable social media platforms have tried to battle its spread, but they have had to suffer verbal abuse from their adversaries in the social media and mainstream press. Among the better known of these platforms is Rappler, which has earned both wide praise and intense abuse for the work it has done.
Wikipedia lists Rappler as a signatory member of International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) of Poynter, a forum for fact checkers worldwide. One of its more valuable works (Propaganda War: Weaponizing the Internet) was written by its CEO Maria Ressa in October 2016 after the last presidential elections. In it, Ressa reports how the DU30 campaign used social media to flood the Internet with messages which helped it clench its victory.
Together with StopFake.org from Ukraine and Oxford Internet Institute from the United Kingdom, Rappler became this year’s principal awardee at the Democracy Awards Dinner of the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C. on November 2. Ressa was scheduled to receive the highly prestigious W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award from Dr. Madeleine Albright, the first woman-US Secretary of State, who chairs the NDI.
The other honorees
The late former President Cory Aquino was the first and only other Filipino to receive the award; in 2005. So far, the list of distinguished awardees includes former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Czech Republic’s first President Václav Havel, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, former US President Jimmy Carter, former US President Bill Clinton, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female African head of state, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
In November 2015, I had the privilege of attending these awards in Washington, D.C. and meeting Secretary Albright and the current UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, then the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who was the principal awardee that year, together with four Tunisian democracy workers, who had played a pivotal role in the Tunis Arab Spring—Yassine Brahim, Rafik Halouni, Wafa Maklouf and Sayida Ounissi.
Guterres delivered an extremely eloquent speech without a written text, which marked him, as far as the guests on my table were concerned, as the next UN Secretary General, which he is now.
It was a historic evening.
Challenge to all
This year’s NDI awards honor not only the specific awardees but all the men and women who want to stop the spread of disinformation, deception and outright lies within our society and around the world. It would be heartwarming if the DU30 government could somehow share our delight in welcoming NDI’s recognition of Rappler’s work as an important contribution to the development of democracy and free expression in the Philippines. The purveyors of fake news should now be able to recognize that an important international democratic institution has spoken in favor of fighting for what is true rather than for what is false.
It seems an excellent time to readjust their position. The future of this country will be built on the rock of truth, not on deception or falsehood. And DU30 and his supporters would find no greater reward than in trying to keep faith with it.
Can we now, once and for all, undertake a sincere and honest effort to find out exactly what our people think of their own president and government, and themselves? Until now, we have allowed the crooked pollsters and equally crooked media manipulators to tell us what they think our people think about everything. We must stop them deceiving us, and we must stop deceiving ourselves.
A real survey
Let us confront the issues, at the risk of knowing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The murderous war on drugs has killed thousands. Do we approve of the killings? No, we do not.
Do we fear we also might get killed? We do.
Now, one so-called survey says seven out of 10 fear they could get killed in the process. Who is behind the killings? The police and the so-called vigilantes.
But the average individual thinks DU30 is ultimately responsible. The order comes from him, and he personally threatens to kill certain individuals. Yet the same survey allegedly says they still trust him, and find him “popular.”
And we swallow this false news, this stupidity, from PhD to no read, no write.
Why don’t we conduct an honest-to-goodness survey that will finally ask real people the real questions and produce real answers once and for all?
Do you really believe all of the surveys coming out of Pulse Asia and Social Weather Station?
Have you ever been surveyed by either organization?
Do you know anyone who has been surveyed by either organization?
Do you know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who has been surveyed by either organization?
Do you believe innocent drug suspects have been killed by the police or the vigilantes in their so-called drug war?
Do you believe it is right for the police to kill these people?
Do you believe the President has ordered the killing?
Do you believe the President has the right or the duty to order any killing?
Are you or are you not afraid that even you or somebody close to you could get killed if the killing goes on?
Do you trust the President who could get you or somebody close to you killed in an anti-drug operation?
The questions are endless.
But you don’t have to ask, Do you still trust PDU30 or approve of his performance? — without at all dissecting his performance. This question would give the propaganda fraudsters the opportunity to come out with the fake news which has nothing to do with the fact that seven out of 10 believe they could get killed in a random police or vigilante operation.