Angels, zombies, truth-tellers, drunks
To defend the truth, we need more “angel stories,” more truth-telling warriors, fewer “zombie narratives,” less drunken language. That, in the proverbial nutshell, is one possible summary of the Democracy and Disinformation Conference, held at the Rockwell campus of Ateneo de Manila University
early this week.
The conference was a gathering of scholars and students, journalists and bloggers, advertising executives and public relations professionals who shared a common concern about “fake news” and its impact on the democratic project. It came soon after the second hearing of the Senate committee inquiry into fake news, and just a week before Secretary Martin Andanar’s so-called grand information summit, the National Information Convention.
There was near-unanimity among the hundreds of participants that fake news must be understood as a species of disinformation, and an emerging consensus that fake news involves at least three elements: that it is manufactured, that it pretends to be news, and that it is meant to deceive. There was also a healthy mix of proposed solutions to “push back” against it, from improving or creating new apps or extensions to track and block fake news to the coordinated conduct of news literacy campaigns across the country. And there was, too, a growing sense that the Duterte administration must be held accountable for its role in propagating a culture of disinformation, starting from the President. The Vera Files video compilation presented at the start of the conference said it all: “The President as Source of Disinformation.”
The depth of the discussion and the range of options reflected the diversity of the disciplines represented in the conference, which had academic partners in Ateneo de Manila, De La Salle University, and the University of the Philippines; media representatives in the ABS-CBN News Channel, GMA, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler, and Vera Files; civil society stakeholders in such groups as Blogwatch, Citizen Safe, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, and the Foundation for Media Alternatives.
There was a lot of talk about the need for ordinary citizens, not just journalists in the government’s line of fire, to push back, because democracy requires full and free access to truthful, relevant, useful information. While the journalism profession is necessarily involved, in something that relies on the fabrication of “news,” the calamitous effects are felt not only by journalists but by all citizens.
Ateneo de Manila president Fr. Jett Villarin, SJ, offered a helpful framework for thinking about the true stakes in a society overrun by disinformation. Enough with what he called “zombie narratives,” he said, which appeal to the darkness in the human heart; instead, we need to encourage more “angel stories”—stories which shed light on the human condition, fables of light. These stories won’t be found in Facebook or other social media sites, he continued; rather, they are to be discovered, and shared, in “public squares,” where people can see and relate to each other face to face.
Br. Armin Luistro FSC, the president of De La Salle Philippines, used the framework to focus on the current controversy over President Duterte’s obscene joke ordering soldiers to shoot women rebels “in the vagina.” This, he said, was the “language of the drunk,” and called on people who ought to know better not to encourage its use. It was in this context, that our laughter or applause in the face of jokes like these make all of us complicit in the obscenity, that he said what may well have been the most provocative of the many thought-provoking statements made in the conference: “The fist bump is the architecture that allows fake news.”
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