Fake news and self-regulation
I watched with interest the recent Senate hearing on fake news and came away bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
I was bewitched by Assistant Secretary for Communication Mocha Uson, so charming and so innocent. When asked by Sen. Bam Aquino if she had ever asked people she criticized in her blog for their side of the issues, she refused to answer on account of self-discrimination. When she was corrected to say self-incrimination, she repeated it sheepishly and added, “Pasensya na po,” ever so sweetly.
I was bothered by Rey Nieto, who claimed that his blog, ThinkingPinoy, has 700,000 followers, and added without so much as a blush that the Department of Foreign Affairs, for whom he worked as a consultant, needed him more than he needed it, and he was ready to resign anytime. Such arrogance!
I was bewildered that Sen. Antonio Trillanes could not quite pin down the issue involving Uson and Nieto, which really boiled down to conflict of interest. In my day as an old journalist, we rebelled at the idea that government bureaucrats or consultants, which Uson and Nieto both are, also write columns in the mass media. This was taboo during our time.
They have undue advantage, being sources of news and close to power and being purveyors of opinion at the same time. Think how much power a senator would have were he to write a column at the same time. That can happen only in controlled societies, not in supposedly democratic societies like ours.
But Sen. Nancy Binay came close to the issue eventually, when she told Uson she should make up her mind whether she wanted to be a government official or a blogger. She cannot be both, in the interest of fairness in a democratic society.
Among the resource persons invited to the hearing I take my hat off to journalist Ellen Tordesillas. She was the only one who had the balls to SAY that President Duterte is the main culprit for fake news, like when he reported Trillanes’ alleged bank account in Singapore which turned out to be fake. Mr. Duterte likes to make exaggerations and innuendoes that turn out to be untruths, and then explains later that he was just joking.
Tordesillas raised interesting issues. First, she said the source of false information should be the one guilty of disseminating fake news, and not the media who just dutifully report them, as in Mr. Duterte’s statements.
When the media report the lies or exaggerations that President Digong mouths, it is true that he said them even if what he said is not true. So who is guilty of fake news — the source or the reporter? One can debate this issue endlessly.
The other point that Tordesillas raised is that fake news is an oxymoron. In other words, it is a contradiction in terms. How can news (fact) be fake (not true)?
My suggestion is to use the term “false information,” “misinformation,” or “disinformation” (connotes “intentional”). But fake news is sexy, and I predict it will continue to be used in the mass media and social media.
In my humble opinion, the issue of fake news can be solved not by more laws but by more self-regulation—by professionalizing bloggers. They should first pass certain standards before being allowed to practice. Instead of censoring, we should start professionalizing our social media—like what we did with the mainstream media, where we now have training, codes of ethics, and self-enforced standards.
There are enough laws, like the law on libel, to protect us from abuses of the mass media and social media.
Our system is admittedly imperfect. But there are journalism and mass communication schools to train potential practitioners, as well as professional organizations that set standards and codes of ethics.
We drill into our students the principles of objectivity, double-checking facts, accuracy, fairness and balance in news reporting, as well as responsibility in opinion writing.
At the same time, we should educate media consumers on the ways of mass media and social media so that they will not be seduced, or fooled, by them.
Professionalizing media practitioners combined with educating consumers is the way to go.
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Crispin C. Maslog, PhD, former journalist with Agence France-Presse and former journalism professor, is now board chair of the Manila-based Asian Media Information and Communication Centre.
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