When the first bloodless Philippine revolution ended the 21-year-long dictatorship in 1986, democracy was instantly placed on a pedestal, with the Filipinos celebrating another period of independence. This triggered other historic episodes, such as the stepping down of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, the retirement of Mahathir Mohamad after 22 years of being Malaysia’s prime minister, and the termination of Suharto’s 32-year rule in Indonesia. The democratic sentiment penetrated the media, as people found ways to raise their once suppressed voices. The free press in the Philippines became uncontrollably exuberant. Print and broadcast media companies felt the liberating energy. However, with the rise of the digital era, this vigor subtly shaped the exercise of freedom of speech and led to the aggravating problems of mis- and disinformation.
Misinformation happens when a narrative, devoid of clear evidence and not supported by expert opinion, is unintentionally disseminated. Disinformation, on the other hand, is a goal-directed spread of fabricated, decontextualized, or wrong information, such as for steering public opinion and augmenting social distrust. Both can be dangerous in a democratic setup because they deprive the public of an authentic discussion and a full understanding of relevant circumstances. Consequently, disinformation campaigns manipulate events like elections and put a stop to dissenting viewpoints. There are as many different sides to any story as there are storytellers or writers. Any effort, therefore, to turn people away from the verified truth poses a threat to democratic participation and processes.
Social media, for example, while in many ways can be empowering and beneficial, has become a popular platform for fake news, hate speeches, and online activism. The shutdown of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcasting network, further magnified its role in tackling various issues amid the pandemic. For one, fake news websites have become prevalent, proliferating lies in a manner that convinces readers to believe and share their stories. Paid voices deliberately overpower legitimate ones and persuade the public to take their side, whether for an ideology, a personality, or a specific course of action. Bloggers seem to replace journalists in the pursuit of information and relevant narratives. Given the Filipinos’ vulnerability as a captured social media audience, no wonder blogs are accepted and used to refute other claims.
The online controversy involving Toni Gonzaga-Soriano’s interview with Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. showed just how extreme people can become with regards to common sentiments. While the actress-host has all the rights to her own YouTube channel, opposing groups and individuals likewise hold the right to express their disagreement graciously– the essence of democracy. The issue lies on how the content of the interview should be perceived, whether as an attempt to revise history or as a mere expression of personal experiences and thoughts. It can also be seen as a first-hand account from someone subjected to public scrutiny because of history and politics. For the younger generation, it can even qualify as an added source of information. Truth be told, the digital platform has revealed our tolerance and perception levels and made extremism in debates or arguments real, disregarding whatever valid facts there are from the other party.
Quality information is indispensable in a strong democracy. How we exercise our freedom digitally can either weaken or solidify our defenses as the ultimate rulers of this nation. According to the We are Social and Hootsuite Digital 2019 report, around 76 million Filipinos access the Internet, which obviously increased as a result of the pandemic. Over fifty percent of this number uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. On Facebook alone, several accounts were deactivated due to their involvement in dubious activities. Some even served in the promotion of select political interest groups and politicians. There is a need to verify whatever information we read to reduce the possibility of getting false reports.
Media literacy plays a crucial role. As legal advocates, we can warn the public regarding the risks of getting incorrect information on social media and help them authenticate sources. Having a list of legitimate news sources can also help. We have a tendency to get agitated or incited when reading a sensationalized story, a usual occurrence that results in negative reactions or breeds hatred. Education is an effective tool to solve this dilemma. In this way, relying on and sharing fake news can be minimized. Additionally, checking facts or claims, especially from political candidates, and publishing authenticated findings can facilitate fair and honest elections.
The same social media that generates misinformation and disinformation is the very key to strengthening the Philippine democracy. The Filipinos, indeed, are in the most strategic position to protect the governing power. It’s high time that we do it responsibly.