In an SWS survey held last December 2021, 51 percent of Filipinos found it difficult to spot fake news on social media and other forms of media. It’s an alarmingly high rate and tells how disinformation has taken various forms that are difficult to distinguish and weed out.
Fake news travels fast and sometimes originates within our circles. It can start from a tito sending a post with manipulated headlines to the family group chat. A batchmate sharing the familiar black and white photo of a man with an arm raised insisting martial law was the country’s golden age — in truth, the 14-year period buried the country under $26 billion of debt. And more recently, it’s been photos of massive sortie crowds from other countries, claimed to be the attendees of a local candidate’s.
According to UP Mass Communication professor Clarissa David, in an interview by UP Media and Public Relations Office, “If it’s screaming at you, if it’s trying to rile you up, if it makes you angry, if it has curse words, if it has exclamation points, the odds of it being disinformation are very high.”
For the huge population of Facebook, or social media, even, fact-checking isn’t exactly common practice. Parsing false news from not does require a bit of research, and more so when public officials and partisan media organizations become the source. The social media giant’s Free Mode option also paved the way for articles and posts from dubious sources to be consumed and believed in without users realizing it. Given their limited visibility for its full content, it made it easier for purveyors of fake news to spread propaganda.
There’s a sense of fear when I think about the magnitude in which disinformation can polarize public opinion and further the personal interests of those vying for power. Worse comes to worst, it can ultimately put a person with malicious intentions into power once again.
Communications expert Emil Dela Cruz explains how disinformation remains a big threat in the upcoming national and local elections, “This affects a politician's chance greatly because people think they are voting under the premise of being an informed voter, but really they are just misinformed. It might make a candidate, whose credentials and platforms are good on paper, lag behind a lesser candidate, because of the smear campaign on the former.”
In a report by fact-check initiative Tsek.PH, Vice President Leni Robredo placed highest among targets of disinformation during this campaign season. The fake news ranges from fabricated affairs and made-up statements, to a multitude of scenarios vilifying her lifestyle for not reeking of lavishness, which they see as uncommon for a politician. All of which are driven by the desire to discredit her name and the initiatives her office has launched.
A study by lecturer Chrysalis Wright, part of UN Communications, found that contrary to what most people think, the opinions, attitudes and beliefs we hold aren’t entirely 100 percent ours. She shares, “Fake news absolutely influences our attitudes, our beliefs, and we also know that it can influence our actual behavior.”
Admittedly, it’s also hard not to blame ordinary individuals for deliberately taking part in misinforming the susceptible public, but I believe that they, just like us, are also victims of a system rooted in deceit.
Often left out of conversations on why many Filipinos fall prey to such tactics is how easy it is to consume and believe disinformation, particularly when content has evolved into such easily digestible forms. Fake news typically mimics the aesthetics of official news sites, while content from TikTok fits right into our short attention spans, drawing large amounts of views. It’s a problem that’s rapidly being embedded into our system.
The Filipino national memory is short-lived. Pieces of disinformation recently consumed have the tendency to supersede history. It also doesn’t help that we see things with a confirmation bias — that even if the news does not hold any truth, our mind has been conditioned to accept and focus only on information that’s aligned with our beliefs and dismiss other information that does not.
And for years, Facebook has been complicit in the prevalence of fake news: its response in combatting it has been largely lackluster. It wasn’t until 2018 that Mark Zuckerberg was called to stand before US lawmakers and asked to put stringent measures in place to control the flow of information on the platform he built.
One may ask, is it still possible to dismantle this kind of system given how it has become so deeply entrenched in our lives? Because, if this dreary reality remains unchanged, it’s likely that people will eventually care far less about learning the truth and finding its factual counterparts. It also poses another challenge to the relationship between media and the people — which might further trigger distrust.
Amidst the noise of the 2022 poll elections, groups and organizations have taken it upon themselves to break through the waves of disinformation. It is telling that the threat to the democracy of the Filipino people requires not only imploring social media giants to safeguard and enforce their influence on the platforms they own, but also for us to join the battle against it.
Dela Cruz ticks off ways to fight disinformation without heavily relying on social media: “Go above the line, find interesting media or ways where you can combat misinformation — ways that will grab people's attention. It can be holding an exhibit about martial law, doing a house-to-house to support a campaign, or just standing up to family and friends who believe in false information. We must do what we can to ensure that the voice of truth is louder than the voice of deception.”
As we lead up to the upcoming elections, this calls for us to double down on our efforts to fight disinformation and reach out to those within and outside our circles. This 2022 election might just be the battle of our lifetime that could possibly alter our history — and hopefully in the right direction.