Government Media News Analysis

Fake – half-baked

Sen Aquino_Fake News Hearing Senate

Yesterday’s day-long enquiry in the session hall of the Philippine Senate achieved precious little in concrete terms. The Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, though admirably chaired by Senator Grace Poe, reached no conclusions on the issue it was there to tackle – fake news and how to handle it. What it did do, however, was to open up a huge can of worms with a yellow Liberal Party label on it.

The irony of this hearing is that it came into being, in part, as a result of a fake-news report that claimed seven senators had refused to sign a resolution decrying the senseless killing of minors in police anti-drugs actions. Those senators, all allied with the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, were made to look as if they were insensitive to the deaths and were refusing to sign out of loyalty to Duterte.

That totally false report, issued by the website SilentNoMorePH.com – a website seen as aligned with the opposition Liberal Party – referred to the non-signing senators as “Dogs of Malacañang”. Malacañang is the name of the presidential palace in Manila. We covered this issue here: A Senate allegory.

The owner, manager or administrator of the offending website is Edward Angelo “Cocoy” Dayao, a former web-security consultant at the government-run Presidential Communications Operations Office and reportedly a political communications go-to person for Liberal Party senators Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan and Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, both of whom were present at the enquiry.

“Cocoy” Dayao, however, wasn’t there – even though he’d been invited to attend – leaving chairperson Poe to remark “It’s so ironic that his blog is ‘Silent No More’ when he’s so silent now”.

Certainly he needs to be grilled. Dayao is believed to run around 20 websites – including one, the terms of reference of which leave no leeway for ambiguity. Its title is “We Support Bam Aquino” and its purpose is to attack any and all critics of the senator.

It’s alright for him and his colleagues to say that as public figures they accept criticism, when they have resources like this behind them ready to take out anyone who dares to denounce them. Even if they haven’t personally endorsed those sites, the beauty of that is that they can keep their hands clean while support-sites do the wetwork.

No doubt we’ll be hearing from them then, because we are critical of the senator. Not least for his lack of grasp on the subject at hand. His comments at yesterday’s hearing showed an embarrassing lack of understanding about the nature of the published word and what actually makes news fake.

First he identified “parody and satire” as types of fake news, adding: “But unfortunately, we have a lot of our countrymen who don’t understand what is parody or satire”. Well, unfortunately, he’s one of them because neither of those constitutes fake news by any sane definition.

He also seems to want to lump together what’s generally termed ‘straight news reporting’ – factual accounts of events – along with news analysis, comment and opinion.

Let’s try and put this as simply as possible for him – there is no such creature as ‘fake opinion’. There’s alternative opinion and differences of opinion. But certainly no civilised society would ever attempt to stifle opinion. The word for that is censorship – in this case, if it happened, state censorship. The Philippines doesn’t need a phalanx of thought police it needs senators who can get up to speed with this issue and deal with it in a sensible, non-political manner. And from what we witnessed yesterday, we have strong doubts they’re capable of doing that.

Likewise there’s no such thing as ‘fake comment’. Comments are remarks, observations, which everyone in a free society is permitted to express. The freedom to comment comes under the constitutionally enshrined ‘freedom of expression’. But there again, not everything in the Philippine Constitution gets beyond the level of lip service. The separation of church and state, for example – Article II, Section 6 – makes it inviolable, yet that’s far from the case in practice.

As for analytical conclusions are concerned, these involve assessing a set of facts – population figures, for example – and presenting an argument based on them. It matters not that the conclusions reached differ from those of other commentators or analysts. They can be refuted by simply positing an alternative analysis. But the conclusions are not any part of fake news.

You can’t prosecute someone for having ‘the wrong opinion’. It’s a nonsense. You can’t sanction someone because you disagree with their analysis, or if you don’t like their comment or you take exception to their views. Down that way lies totalitarian government and its insidious cousin, social engineering. And that has to be resisted choose who it upsets.

State censorship of free speech is one of the most divisive and polarising items of weaponry it’s possible to imagine. It was used robustly in the former Soviet Union and in Mao Zedong’s Communist China to subjugate the masses. It’s purely a tool of suppression.

The United States had something similar in the 1940s and ‘50s. It was called McCarthyism. Its purpose – which we heard echoes of in the senate hall yesterday – was to make accusations of subversion and treason; offences for which the Philippines already has adequate laws in place. Among the main targets of McCarthyism were writers, journalists, essayists and poets – people who in today’s digital world might be described as “influencers”; bloggers and the like.

One of McCarthyism’s instruments was the Hollywood Blacklist. This was a register of names of individuals used by the US House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee to vilify anyone deemed to be disloyal to the state. Suspected communists were the main target; though so were homosexuals.

In 1950s’ America homosexuality was classified as a psychiatric disorder – a view more recently shared by Bishop Iñiguez, the former bishop of Caloocan. In 2010, he slammed the Philippine Supreme Court for giving the go-ahead to a gay-rights party-list group – Ang Ladlad (with 22,000 registered members) – to participate in the May elections. “Allowing them to have a chance to take a seat in Congress is approving and encouraging an abnormality,” he said at the time.

But McCarthyism went far beyond that. It was used to issue unsubstantiated accusations against political adversaries which resulted in ruined careers and social ostracisation. Its purpose was to remove any individual who questioned the state in any way.

Senator Bam Aquino revealed to the hearing that he too has a list. “We have been able to collate 87 sites that provide fake news,’ he told the enquiry. He didn’t elaborate who “We” are, nor did he name the sites. He just put it out there as if it was some irrefutable fact that required no further challenge. Well, it does.

Furthermore, Bam Aquino’s references to “libellous speech [sic]” also shows a lack of the most basic understanding of defamation. There’s no such thing. There’s ‘slander’ – and a good example of that was his defaming of  The Volatilian™  when he endorsed the ‘fake news’ list of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – the governing authority of the country’s Roman Catholic Church – which cites us as disseminators of fake news. Open letter to Archbishop Villegas.

Despite efforts to get the CBCP to elaborate on their claim, no explanation from them has been forthcoming. Perhaps Aquino would like to point out the fake news of The Volatilian™ . We believe he should because what he did yesterday by endorsing that list was to give senatorial approval to a piece of fake news. In other words, the very thing he claims he wants to stop, he perpetuated.

The point is, if Aquino and his cohorts in the Senate wish to address this problem, they must first practice what they preach. They must also be wholly non-partisan in going after the fake-news mongers. But given his ready acceptance that the CBCP list was ‘gospel’, we have concerns over his impartiality.

For example, did it not seem just a little odd to him that that list didn’t contain the name of a single anti-Duterte site? To an impartial observer that would jump out of the page. It makes us wonder, therefore, how many pro-Liberal sites appear on his list of 87.

He would do well to take on board what chairperson Poe said in her opening remarks which was this: “It doesn’t mean if it’s published by a particular site that it would be reliable. So we have to do double vetting for those”.

Let’s be more specific about that. Just because that list was read from pulpits across the Philippines by priests in vestments doesn’t automatically authenticate it. It didn’t come down from on high – at least no higher than the president of the CBCP, Archbishop Socrates Villegas who consecrated it.

The CBCP is far from infallible; furthermore, members of its upper echelon are openly critical of Duterte – Villegas arch among them – and by extension those who support him or his policies. They are, therefore, not impartial which would explain why no anti-Duterte sites appeared on their list. Quad erat demonstradum.

We may be wrong, but we have a sneaking feeling that certain senators only see news as fake when it shows them or their party in a bad light. If it shows, for example, the president or his supporters in a bad light, opposition lawmakers don’t seem particularly outraged. If that’s the case they should be nowhere near either evaluating what’s fake news or recommending what measures should be put in place to halt it.

Additionally, the enquiry’s emphasis was on social media as if they hold the monopoly on fake news. Well they don’t. Aquino’s take on the entire situation was this: “… what is happening to us here – you know blogging, the rise of social media demagogues – has happened before legislation is able to catch up”. False – the mainstream media have been running fake-news factories well before the Internet ever came into being. The only difference now is that they don’t have exclusive use of it.

The mainstream media is certainly not short of erroneous facts. For example, we’ve still yet to see how they come up with their death-toll figures for the government’s War on Drugs.

On 8 September, the Philippine Inquirer claimed the number of dead had “eclipsed 13,000”. As usual though, there was no source for that piece of ‘information’ – nor have we yet heard a single Liberal Party politician question it. We’d be prepared to bet though, if the pro-Duterte media suggested that the real death toll was closer to 2,000 there’d be a huge outcry from that quarter and demands that the facts be verified. Under Philippine McCarthyism – Heaven forefend anyone suggesting that might be clamped in irons.

Indeed it’s the distortion of facts by the mainstream media that’s provided the oxygen for social media. Simply, they weren’t doing their job. Their irresponsible stewardship of the Fourth Estate made it imperative that a Fifth Estate should arise to counter the propaganda production of the mainstream. That’s actually what’s got us here.

Our concern is that this whole fact-finding exercise is duplicitous. It’s a farce. And as long as it remains such there can be no progress in improving the standard and the integrity of reporting. Bam Aquino has no claims to the moral high ground; he’s an elected representative, he answers to the people – and that includes those on social media who call him out.

That said, if he can show defamation or treason or incitement to rebellion that’s another matter. But for those things there are already laws. The Revised Penal Code has provisions for all of them.

There’s no question that those who propagate genuinely fake news – meaning factually incorrect reports specifically aimed at defaming individuals or organisations, or destabilising government – should be held to account. But that shouldn’t provide a licence for Congress to interfere in media. In the same way as the judiciary is independent of government – or at least meant to be – so too must be the press.

It cannot have congressional overseers; if it does it stands the risk of becoming a tool of the lawmakers and its ability to hold those lawmakers to account is neutered. That might suit some but it would be a huge backwards step for democracy in the Philippines – but, there again, that too might suit some.

It’s an imperfect world – in every respect – and members of the Philippine Congress are not in a position to hold social media to a higher standard than the standard social media expect of them. It is the senators then – men like Bam Aquino – who must lead by example. Show that they’re impartial; account for their errors and apologise – as the media should – when they make them. They must respect the independence of the media however uncomfortable that feels. And above all, they must allow the people – whether bloggers or individuals commenting – to freely express their views. The alternative is too dark to contemplate.

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