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Deny manipulators the oxygen they need

/ 05:08 AM March 19, 2019

Two excerpts from the keynote speech on “misinformation and media manipulation” that I read yesterday at the annual conference of the Philippines Communication Society — held in, of all places, the newly renovated auditorium at the head office of the Philippine Information Agency:

[Excerpt 1] We meet a mere three days after the horrifying attacks on the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand — the shock has not yet worn off, the depth of human suffering has yet to be
fully plumbed.

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What seems clear now is that the world has just experienced what we can call an act of perlocutionary terrorism. Borrowing from the philosopher J. L. Austin, a perlocutionary act is classified by the “… consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons…”

Austin was classifying speech acts, or more specifically what he called effects of speech, but I am not the first person to say nor will I be the last one to claim that terrorism is also a statement: It is violence as political or ideological statement.

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What makes the attacks in New Zealand even more repulsive is that at least one, the attack on the first mosque, was designed and executed as a made-for-media spectacle. As the Washington Post tech reporter Drew Harwell tweeted: “The New Zealand massacre was livestreamed on Facebook, announced on 8chan, reposted on YouTube, commentated about on Reddit, and mirrored around the world before the tech companies could even react.”

The violence was meant to have consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of a specific audience scattered across the world: white supremacists, both full-fledged or incipient. It was meant to persuade them, to move them to action. It was, chillingly, meant to inspire imitation. The statement was crafted to be shared and retold. In that sense, it was perlocutionary terrorism.

I hope I will not be misunderstood. When I focus on the aspect of statement, I do not mean to minimize the human suffering inflicted on the Christchurch victims, or to deny the horror of the violence, or to diminish the responsibility, the savagery, of the mass murderers. (The considerations would be the same, if we were to discuss, for instance, the bombing of the Jolo cathedral only last January, which killed 23 persons and wounded 95.)

[Excerpt 2] Closer to home, we have our own examples, our own experience, of media manipulation. Let us zero in on just one: President Duterte’s so-called narcolists. As even the police have had to admit, these narcolists cannot form the basis of criminal charges. To date, only administrative cases have been filed—and even those may not be able to meet the much lower threshold of proof required in administrative proceedings. As it has done before, the Duterte administration has illegally shifted the burden of proof from the government to the hazily, lazily, haphazardly accused.

It is clear that the narcolists have a symbolic role — they are a statement, designed to reinforce the administration’s overarching narrative about the so-called war on drugs.

What can the Philippine media do to blunt the harm that the narcolists cause, to both journalism and democratic institutions? Three principles for action: restraint, restraint, restraint.

The Data and Society Research Institute has a useful metaphor we can use as a cautionary reminder: the oxygen of amplification. Attempts at media manipulation are fires which feed on the oxygen of amplification which traditional media and digital and social media often unwittingly provide.

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The Institute also warns us that “violent antagonisms [are] inherently contagious.” The potential for so-called copycats, or in the case of the narcolists, of policemen and vigilantes reading them as license to kill, is high.

Not least, much of the insidious power of media manipulation lies in the graphic images or suggestive text that are designed precisely to circulate. In the case of the narcolists, the mere naming of the alleged accused or the posterizing of their images already creates real harm.

For these and other reasons, it is the responsibility of the media, and of the citizens who also now perform their own gatekeeping role, to guard the gates zealously, to remind each other about the harmful shaping that media manipulation makes possible, and to always be on the lookout for anything that might assume the shape of harm.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: jnery@inquirer.com.ph

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