“In the fight against fake news, media owners’ leadership would go a long way.”
‘Cause when they own the information They can bend it all they want.’
– John Mayer, Waiting on the World to Change
At no other point are fake news and shameless propaganda more prevalent in our country than today.
In these weeks leading up to the May elections, the term “disinformation” has become a buzz word as much as the names of the candidates themselves.
As a result, and with greater urgency than ever, citizens, professional groups and civil society organizations have felt compelled to put up fact-checking units, and more importantly to collaborate, to combat this menace.
Despite such initiatives, it remains difficult to catch up with the sheer number of fake and misleading posts online.
Our first instinct would be to blame technology. In the olden days, journalists were hard pressed to get quotes from their sources or background information for their assignments. But because of technology, a simple Google search would bring us thousands, if not millions, of search results. It is also now easier to get quotes from practically anyone.
The deluge of all these presents a problem – which, and whom, to believe?
But technology is a double-edged sword, as it has always been. Our current predicament is more a result of human nature.
The receiver of fake news may just not know any better. Or may be too fascinated with the immediacy offered by the Internet while oblivious of its dangers. Or enamored of certain personalities, proof and logic be damned.
Those peddling fake news deliberately have their own agenda. Perhaps it is to profess their undying loyalty to an idol. Collect a paycheck. Sell their soul.
Those who stand by and look the other way may say it’s freedom of expression at work. In fact, they are simply protecting and preserving their own interests, whatever these may be.
It’s easy to criticize disinformation on personal blogs and vlogs and social media platforms. Those behind them have no formal training, enjoy no mandate and are not in any way accountable for what they say. It is far more heartbreaking to see fake news, or indifference to/tacit encouragement of it, on what are supposed to be legitimate media outlets.
For example, there are reports that solely rely on PR feeds of candidates without getting the other side of the story. Some opinion writers hide behind the protective cloak of “opinion” and use it as a license to spew lies and insults, and fan speculation. When they are called out, they cry persecution and violation of their rights.
Still another tragedy is that many Filipinos are not able to tell news from opinion, especially when they gain access to articles not from the web sites of legitimate news organizations, but from social media links, memes and quote cards. Worse, being fact-checked is now being portrayed as something evil or unjust, inflicted on persons merely trying to express themselves.
Then again, who could be victims of fact-checking except liars themselves?
Why do we see disinformation as a threat to our democracy and our way of life?
People’s decisions, especially during elections, shape the course of the nation. But how do we arrive at this decision? What input do we take into consideration when deciding whom to vote for, or junk? Naturally, if our people base their decisions on lies and denials despite proof to the contrary, their votes would be tarnished and would no longer be freely made.
Filipinos could be discerning and intelligent if they set their mind to it. They could have an open mind and arm themselves not with hateful words but the skill to distinguish valid from invalid claims. The operative word, however, is “could,” not “are.” Not yet, at least.
The various initiatives to this end are laudable. Fact-checking groups have daunting work before them, but they persevere. Individual journalists who do what they can to choose the truth fight their battles every day. Social media users who lovingly guide their relatives and friends to becoming more discerning consumers of news are on the right track.
But there is one powerful group of people that, if they are tapped, could do much to institute an evidence-based mindset on a greater scale. These are media owners.
Many owners of media organizations are themselves big names in politics and business. It would be worth asking them periodically of the motivations that brought them to own their news outfit in the first place. Is it to push their own or their relatives’ agenda? Protect their business and political interests? Rake in profits by appealing to as many news consumers as possible?
Or are they true to the calling of the profession – to seek the truth and enable Filipinos to make informed and enlightened decisions about their way of life? Whatever their answer, they must realize that the tone is set at the very top. So what tone do they want to set for the members of their organization?
It’s not as simple as it sounds, of course. There are many real-world factors to consider, and sometimes these considerations conflict with one another. Journalistic integrity or economic survival? Valid criticism versus family loyalty? Sustainable governance for the future of our children or the concentration of power within a certain clan? Afflicting the comfortable or exposing yourself to backlash? Sometimes you make courageous decisions. Sometimes you give in to your baser instincts. Sometimes you feel defeated and get exhausted, but live to fight another day.
The industry is, as anyone, a work in progress. But we should never fail for lack of trying. The course of our country, and our children’s future, hinges on the kind of information we use and allow to influence our decisions today. Wherever we are on the information chain, let’s protect that with all our might.
Today is April Fools Day. Today and every day, let’s resist being the Fool.