Fake News, Facebook, and “Ethics in Internet”
“Post-truth” has been declared as the 2016 international word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. Post-truth refers to a circumstance where appeals to emotion and personal stance is more important than facts in molding the opinion of the public. “Post-truth politics” has been a common denominator in the vote that led to the Brexit and the election of President Trump. But even prior to these two events was the highly charged post-truth campaigning that was critical to the victory of President Duterte of the Philippines in the May 2016 elections.
Several articles have come out investigating the campaign that has become one of the most virulent and divisive of friends and families in the Philippine elections in years. The primary agents of fake news are the trolls who deliberately provoke in their posts to elicit maximum argumentation or to pick a fight with someone who is on the opposing side or view. Professional trolls work for legitimate public relations outfit whose job is to manage for different clients their campaigns in social media. They do this for the pay and not necessarily because they believe in the candidate they are promoting online. The pay can reach P100,000 pesos or roughly $2,000 per month. Many use fake accounts and “bots” which automatically respond or “like” a post making it seem that there is a surge of public support for a particular candidate or opinion. Being driven by machine, a bot can send a thousand posts per minute. By these means, the internet has become – not only during but even after the elections −a “weapon” to misinform as well as to silence dissent with personal threats such as rape or death. The social media supporters of Duterte even came out in what they admitted as a “Trollerati” party. Others would assert that the use of facebook “warriors” did not start with Duterte but with the previous administration, though the latter’s “warriors” were volunteers and not paid.
From a traditional predominantly Christian Asian society where people generally do not criticize each other openly, cuss words and personal attacks on others suddenly have become normal on facebook postings. As the Vice-President of the Philippines in her speech to university students aptly expressed, “It pains me to observe that mean is in and the homegrown values of service and empathy are out.” (“Service that Counts”)
A petition at Change.org has called for the banning of the blog in the Philippines by Mocha Uson, a singer with allegedly 4M facebook followers, who has been repeatedly using her blog to spread fake news and misinformation and elicit “unwarranted hate from the public.” Others, however, argued that banning her blog would be going against freedom of speech.
While written in 2002 by the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications, the document “Ethics in Internet” has some guidelines that continue to be relevant for Christians confronted by post-truth politicsin the internet today. First, it reminds us that it is the common good that is the context for discerning whether media is being employed for good or evil. It enjoins the use of the internet in an “informed, disciplined way, for morally good purposes. (no. 15)”
Though cautioning against [government] censorship which should only be resorted to as a last resort, Ethics in Internet stresses that the internet like other media, should be subject to the laws against hate speech, libel, and other offenses (no. 16). Along this line, some lawyers have offered their services for free to young women who were slut-shamed by facebook users because they were demonstrating against the burial − initiated by Duterte − of the late president and dictator Marcos at the Heroes’ Cemetery (Libingan ng mga Bayani).
Ethics in Internet also notes that “[t]hose whose decisions and actions contribute to shaping the structure and contents of the Internet have an especially serious duty to practice solidarity in the service of the common good. (no. 15)” Responding to mounting criticisms and in accordance with its news feed values which is “authentic communication,” Facebook has finally decided to address the problem of fake news. They constructed a model that is able to detect posts that are inauthentic or game feeding (asking for likes, comments, or shares). According to Facebook, this will not entirely eliminate fake news but they will show lower on the feed, depending as well on how closely linked you are to the person sharing, as well as, the post’s popularity.
On the part of the ordinary users, Ethics in Internet reminds that “[s]chools and other educational institutions and programs for children and adults should provide training in discerning use of the Internet as part of a comprehensive media education including not just training in technical skills…but a capacity for informed, discerning evaluation of content. (no. 15)” Concretely, users should be taught how to distinguish between valid and fake sources of news. The virtue of prudence is important; avoid the temptation to share immediately “memes” that appeal to one’s emotions without investigating first the veracity of its content. Better yet, it should be a practice by all to footnote a meme with the reference. Another concrete advice from conscientious citizens has been to “starve the troll” by ignoring it. Sharing or commenting “feeds the troll’ and makes the fake news/post even more popular, and trolls thrive on attention.
It is indeed time to take back facebook as an arena for sharing factual information from those who use this digital highway to spread misinformation. Take back facebook as a public square for democratic discourse from those who would employ it to silence discussion.
Take back facebook as a means to connect and create linkages from those who would use it as a weapon to divide and polarize!
Agnes M. Brazal
De la Salle University Manila