That social media has become a morass of lies and dirty tricks is vividly illustrated by a group of bloggers calling itself “We Are Collective.” It has come up with the so-called “NagaLeaks” that questions the political ascent of the late, lamented Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, strongly suggests his links to illegal drugs and the illegal numbers game jueteng, and claims that he lobbied for his Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service. The RM Award Foundation, which conferred the honor in 2000 on the longtime mayor of Naga City, has swiftly issued a statement to dispute the claim. Others have rushed to Jesse Robredo’s defense, outraged that such dirty tricks could be employed to denigrate this man of sterling record.
Such posts speak of the toxic atmosphere released by the anonymity inherent in the Net, an unfair advantage maximized by parties whose main objective is to wreak havoc on civilized and rational discourse. With no accountability because of their hidden identity, online trolls destroy reputations, bully the vulnerable, and propagate lies.
Consider how, during last year’s election campaign period, trolls regularly threatened with bodily harm, including rape, those who did not share their political views. Young children were not spared. False data and fake news rapidly gained currency, paving the way to a dangerous post-truth era.
Facebook has vowed to weed out fake news and has put in place mechanisms to report spam and inappropriate social media content. But in trying to provide the world with “a personalized newspaper,” as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised, FB uses algorithms that choose news items “most interesting” to the public, those that are aligned to certain political beliefs and biases. Instead of questioning or double-checking fantastic claims or stories, netizens accept them blindly—because these confirm, even harden, certain mindsets.
How to deal with fake news or false claims? According to some studies, repeating or reposting them—even in the context of debunking them—can only make them stick. Myth-busting may work initially, but as memory fades, only the myth is remembered because it has been repeated many times. And, yes, fake news with their amazing premises can be more interesting than truth, the same studies suggest. And they are made even bigger when they are repeated.
Jesse Robredo’s widow, Vice President Leni Robredo, is fighting back and is thinking of filing charges against the anonymous group of bloggers: “They have crossed the line.” She had kept quiet when online trolls made up fake news on her, she said, posting spurious stories on her alleged previous marriage to an insurgent and on her being pregnant and later having an abortion, as well as online rape threats directed at her daughters.
But attacking her late husband is going too far. “My husband is not here to defend himself,” VP Robredo said, adding that filing a case in court was among the options she was considering as a “principled response” to the dirty posts.
One could say the relentless attacks in social media were meant to intimidate into silence this vocal critic of the administration’s push for the death penalty and its bloody war on drugs that has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings. The fake news and vulgar stories might also be seen as a way to disparage and repudiate her victory in the vice presidential race against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ son and namesake and President Duterte’s apparent anointed heir.
VP Robredo is confronting “the stream of constant lies” head-on through a call to collective action. “We must put a stop to the massive and orchestrated campaigns of defamation and deceit that have come to characterize our public spaces, particularly social media,” she said. “I urge the countless others who have been subjected to similar attacks, and those who can no longer tolerate the further erosion of truth, to stand with us… If [we] don’t file cases, this [cyberbullying and online lies] will only persist…”
With cyberbullying included in Republic Act No. 10627 or the Anti-Bullying Act of 2013, it’s a path that can be pursued “to keep our engagement honest and respectful,” and to cleanse the Net of anonymous parties who would drag into the gutter this otherwise accessible tool for social interaction.