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Editorial

Truth for lies

/ 12:11 AM January 24, 2017

How shall freedom be defended? By arms when it is attacked by arms, by truth when it is attacked by lies.”

Ah, if only it were that easy. The American poet and writer Archibald MacLeish wrote those lines just before World War II, when lying carried the risk of a far greater censure in the public sphere than it does now, especially among politicians. Ninoy Aquino etched those lines in many a patriotic Filipino’s heart by making it a highlight quote of his arrival speech on Aug. 21, 1983, which, of course, he never got to read. Against the tyranny and routine lying of the then seemingly immovable Marcos regime, he invoked the power of the simple truth—that: “The country is far advanced in her times of trouble… the killings have increased, the economy has taken a turn for the worse and the human rights situation has deteriorated.” Three years later, despite the dictatorship’s control of the press and repression of speech, the sham that was Marcos’ New Society was gone.

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But that was then. These days, something strange and chilling has happened: Truth and lies no longer appear to mean what they had always meant when societies and people still put value in them. The emergence of social media, and its ability to splinter the presentation of reality into whatever suited one’s fancy or feeling, has enabled the emergence of an Orwellian new era of “post-truth,” which the Oxford dictionary defines as “denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Thus, it has become fashionable among many social media denizens to advance the notion that Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship was not the dark, brutal period of history that it was. This is not backed by facts: The paper trail on the Marcos plunder is overwhelming, the Swiss bank accounts are real, the receipts of Imelda Marcos’ purchases of jewelry, art and buildings in Manhattan are extant, and there is no conspiracy among historians to invent the unprecedented record of oppression and human rights abuses under martial law. But among those who grew up in the post-truth world of slickly produced YouTube videos extolling the Marcos years, personal belief undisturbed by facts is what matters.

What has helped drive the march of untruth and misinformation from the fringes to the mainstream is social media’s inability, or unwillingness, to call out fake news for what it is—a situation that partisan groups are only too happy to exploit. According to a study, fake news stories proliferated way more than legitimate news on Facebook in the last US presidential election, which Donald Trump won.

Similarly, on the campaign, Trump repeatedly made demonstrably false statements; he won, anyway. Hence the swagger on just Day 2 of his presidency, when his press secretary Sean Spicer hectored reporters for allegedly misreporting the size of the crowd at the new US president’s inauguration. It was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” said Spicer—despite photographs and official size estimates to the contrary.

The scourge of fake news bedeviling other countries is familiar to Filipinos by now. It had a head start on the rest with a landmark presidential campaign that was heavily conducted on social media, and that featured the now-familiar tropes of fake news, click-bait headlines, and a troll army intent on not only bending the discourse its way but also on shouting down and even threatening those with whom it differed.

It’s a scourge that must be confronted in every way possible—with truth in the face of misinformation, with the law in the face of threats and harassment. Sen. Francis Pangilinan has also filed a bill to penalize fake news sites and those who knowingly create them. In the ominous post-truth world in which outright lying has become the norm, the matter deserves serious study.

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