Call it synchronicity. While I was going over Pope Francis’ advance message for World Communications Day, the hearing of the Senate committee on public information and mass media was starting, with its chair Sen. Grace Poe conducting.
It was difficult to get my eyes and ears off the TV set, especially with the jaw-dropping presentation of Maria Ressa, CEO of the beleaguered online news network Rappler, who showed how the “fake news ecosystem” was spawned during the 2016 election campaign and exposed a state-sponsored online hate and harassment campaign “to silence and intimidate.”
There were inputs from journalists, bloggers, techies, lawyers, senators and Secretary Martin Andanar of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) and his colleagues who maintain personal blogs while being paid with taxpayer money.
The inputs came in the form of questions, answers, opinions, information and even confrontations and accusations. The exchanges were far from heated compared with the hearings on drugs, sex, bribery and corruption, but if one listened well there was a lot of information to be derived. And also insights on what has become of us in this woebegone country.
The topic was fake news in social and mainstream media — its definition, sources, purveyors and recipients, the technology involved, how it has shaped politics, the toxicity it has generated, etc. Clearly, there was a gray area in social media beyond the reach of the law, and the potential for enormous good and enormous evil.
I noticed the attempt to replace the words “fake news” with misinformation and disinformation, which are euphemisms for lies, falsehoods and untruths.
So “swak na swak” (apropos) is Pope Francis’ message released last week, which is “The truth will set your free (from John 8:32),” with focus on fake news and “journalism for peace.” The Pope’s message is traditionally released on Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of Catholic journalists. It is timed months before World Communications Day (May 13 this year), the Sunday before Pentecost, to give church groups months to prepare. World Communications Day was launched in 1967 during the pontificate of Blessed Pope Paul VI, who had the prescience to see the power of media for cultural transformation.
Pope Francis (who has had his share of bad-mouthing from President Duterte) said that “the capacity to twist the truth is symptomatic of our condition, both as individuals and communities… In today’s fast changing world of communications and digital systems, we are witnessing the spread of what has come to be known as ‘fake news.’”
Fake news, he said, “refers to the spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on nonexistent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader. Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.
“The effectiveness of fake news is primarily due to its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible. Secondly, this false but believable news is ‘captious,’ inasmuch as it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration. The ability to spread such fake news often relies on a manipulative use of the social networks and the way they function. Untrue stories can spread so quickly that even authoritative denials fail to contain the damage.”
Praiseworthy, the Pope added, are the efforts at helping people “take an active part in unmasking falsehoods” and “those institutional and legal initiatives aimed at developing regulations for curbing the phenomenon… Yet preventing and identifying the way disinformation works also calls for a profound and careful process of discernment.”
Fake news, the Pope stressed, are rooted in thirst for power and greed. If responsibility is the answer to fake news, then the weight rests on those “whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protector of news.” Theirs is not just a job, he said. “It is a mission.”
He ends by borrowing from the structure and cadence of the famous Prayer of St. Francis: “Where there is shouting, let us practice listening… where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity … where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.”
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