Open letter to Grace Poe on ‘fake news’

/ 05:10 AM January 30, 2018

Dear Senator Grace,

Thank you for the invitation to attend the second committee hearing on “fake news.” I regret to say I have a previous commitment and am unable to attend. Please consider this open letter as my position paper.


1. Distraction? I understand the view of some who think that this inquiry is a distraction, but I do not hold that view. That perspective is based on the mistaken notion that focus is a zero-sum game in the attention economy, that if we pay attention to the problem of “fake news” we can no longer pay attention to other issues, such as the Dengvaxia controversy or the P6.4-billion shabu smuggling scandal. Untrue, and also unhelpful. We need to be able to tell truth from falsehood to make sense of these issues—and “fake news” is designed precisely to weaken that ability, to blur that line. So by all means let us continue this necessary inquiry.

2. Definition. I think your committee can already serve a distinct public purpose if it can generate a consensus on key definitions, of such conveniently vague terms as “fake news” or “opinion.” This may sound naive, or at least overly optimistic, but such a consensus would help straighten out public discourse. I do not mean that laws need to be passed for us to agree on these definitions, only that through the debate it provokes and the discussion it encourages the committee can help popularize the consensus.


3. Double Nature. On reflection, it seems clear that “fake news” has two meanings. (This is also the reason I bracket the term in quote marks, to emphasize these limits.) The first is an act of dismissal; we use the term “fake news” to dismiss, to delegitimize, any information we don’t like. The second is an act of deception; we use “fake news” to deceive, to distort the truth, or to disseminate lies. The committee would make better use of its time if it focuses its inquiry on the second use of “fake news,” as a form of disinformation.

4. Dismissal. The first use of the term is the one weaponized by Donald Trump. When he says “CNN is ‘fake news,’” or when we reject unwelcome information as “fake news,” we are using the term as a tool to prick other filter bubbles, while keeping ours intact. (President Duterte has sadly taken to this tool, too.) But used in this sense, it has become such a common phrase it is now practically useless: If anything can be “fake news,” everything can be “fake news.” The phrase is transitioning from insult to cliché to punch line.

5. Deception. The problem with the phenomenon of “fake news” lies in the reality behind the second use of the term. When it refers to falsehood masquerading as news, the phrase represents an insidious danger to both the democratic project and the discourse that sustains it. Many definitions have been offered. The country’s Catholic bishops, in their courageous pastoral exhortation against “fake news,” defined it as: “reporting what never happened, concealing what really happened, and distorting what should be presented in a straightforward manner.” Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote a spare, elegant definition: “deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public.” In news and media literacy forums I join on behalf of the Inquirer, we also use this 3-D formula: “It is a DELIBERATE act of fabrication and manipulation; DISGUISED to look, sound, feel like the news; designed to DECEIVE.”

6. Danger. As Inquirer editorials have reminded us from time to time, the democratic ideal is not merely consent by the governed, but rather informed consent. The second type of “fake news” threatens this ideal by seeding the community of the governed with lies and falsehoods, and because of this diet eventually stunting our growth as moral, reasonable, responsible citizens. Hannah Arendt sounded the alarm half a century ago: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is … people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

7. Disinformation. “Fake news,” in the second sense, is only one type of disinformation. Social media platforms amplify some of the other forms: Photoshopped images, manipulated video, script messaging by what scholars Jonathan Ong and Jason Cabañes call the architects of networked disinformation, bot armies. It has become clear that Facebook and Twitter are fertile ground for the seeding of disinformation, with the Russians (and possibly the Chinese) mastering the farming of it. I believe the Senate, without necessarily passing new legislation or mandating new regulations, must look into all of these—if only for the truth to emerge, blinking, into the light.

Much more needs to be said, but I leave the rest to the real experts you have invited.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand


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