The President as purveyor of fake news

When President Duterte casually stated in a recent television interview that he was the source of the false foreign bank account numbers purportedly belonging to his political nemesis, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, perhaps he did not realize that, by this admission, he had become the nation’s chief purveyor of fake news.

Keen to clear his name, the young senator had gone to the trouble of traveling to Singapore to dispute the existence of these accounts. The President mocked his efforts to get to the truth of these alleged bank accounts, saying that the fellow had taken his “bait.” I don’t see what the trap is about, if there’s any. But, Mr Duterte added that, in time, he will give the “real” numbers of these accounts.

Fake news is the greatest bane of the mass media in the age of the internet. It threatens to destroy the bedrock of mass communication itself — its basic trustworthiness. This dark twin of legitimate news has afflicted journalism for a long time. But, there have always been effective ways of neutralizing its pernicious presence. Newspapers and broadcast networks that set great store by their hard-earned credibility develop rigorous fact-checking systems, and make instant corrections and amends when errors are committed.

The internet gave fake news a tremendous boost by making it possible for anyone with access to the digital world — by way of a personal computer, a tablet, or a smartphone — to disseminate information to a mass audience. This was initially welcomed as a good thing, a necessary countervailing force to the power of the modern mainstream media to select events worth reporting and, ultimately, to shape our representations of everyday reality.

The birth of the social media, in particular, was celebrated as the irreversible democratization of the world of information.  It was seen as empowering ordinary people — hitherto the passive recipients of information — to generate and disseminate information themselves without having to own a printing press, a radio station, or a television network. This is a lot of power — but without the corresponding responsibility.

What the public did not foresee is the massive abuse of the internet as a medium for the propagation of the vilest forms of slander, hate speech, and false information. There are no adequate mechanisms for checking this abuse in any comprehensive way. One may complain to a host server against a fake news site that regularly fabricates and dishes out offensive information.  But, the best response one can hope for is that the offending website is taken down. For, often, there is no real person or entity that one can call out.  The same army of anonymous operators can easily resurrect the fake news factory under another label, usually mimicking the logo, the look, and even the website address of a legitimate news agency.

The wonder of it all is that so pervasive has the culture of fake news become that people who regularly participate in its routines, as consumers or as purveyors, begin to think of the whole thing as a game. If you are a victim, that’s just too bad; you are expected to take all of it in stride. If you are the purveyor, and you are caught, you are supposed not to feel any accountability. For, that’s just the way things are.

One wonders if this is the same attitude the President was thoughtlessly expressing when he nonchalantly owned up to an act of lying that, as commonplace as it may seem, is still widely frowned upon. When the president of a country seizes upon the gaps opened up by the growing relativization of truth to invent an outright lie, what does it do to the nation’s highest seat of governmental authority? I believe that, at the very least, it inflicts a serious damage on the covenant between the state and its citizens — a relationship based on trust.

But, more than this, when the president himself becomes the purveyor of fake news, facts alone will not be sufficient to counter the falsehood or outright disinformation. Mr. Duterte has been able to make full use of the popularity he enjoys to legitimize the violent and brutal aspects of his war on drugs.  He cites questionable figures and theories of drug addiction to justify his brutal approach. Yet it seems almost futile to argue with him by citing contrary data and theories. Like President Donald Trump of the United States, he revels in attacking mainstream media organizations that do not share his view of reality.

Cloaked with the authority of the presidency and the force of Mr. Duterte’s personality, even the most bizarre piece of information could take on the shape of a fact. People tend to be attentive to information that confirms their beliefs or supports their unexamined prejudices, regardless of its veracity.

So huge is the battle against fake news that it cannot be left to the mainstream media to fight it alone. Neither can we expect scholars, experts, and specialists to weigh in all the time and correct the misinformation and disinformation that clog social media. For, there is a public out there that has long harbored a resentment against experts, that trusts in the power of its own commonsense, and that is sustained in its comforting delusion by the bits of information it picks up from Wikipedia.

This fight ultimately has to be waged in the internet itself by digital activists who refuse to have their reality defined by trolls that can neither spell right nor write grammatically, that resort to exclamation points to call attention, and that, most importantly, paint a world we cannot recognize.