Vital, vigilant journalism
Facebook’s shutdown of more than 250 fake accounts engaged in red-tagging and political disinformation and propaganda in the Philippines made headlines last week, and rightly so in an environment increasingly allergic to truth and accountability.
The news was astounding not just for the sheer number of fake accounts but also for what they were designed to do, and for the discovery that a cluster of these fake accounts was traced to China’s southeastern coastal province of Fujian.
Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook security policy, said in an online press conference on Tuesday night that the fake accounts were shut down for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior’’ (CIB), which violated the US social media network’s community standards.
This is not the first time Facebook shut down fake accounts related to Philippine politics. In March 2019, it shuttered over 200 bogus accounts belonging to a network managed by Nic Gabunada, Mr. Duterte’s social media strategist for his 2016 candidacy.
The takedown of these fake social media accounts is an important step in battling the scourge of fake news that proliferates online, and the more sinister government-sanctioned misinformation and propaganda used to harass dissenters and critics of government wrongdoing.
The weaponization of social media for the benefit of powerful political interests is why journalism has become even more vital and relevant today.
In an age where all sorts of information are at people’s fingertips, the work of journalists has become way more daunting but essential, a constant fight to shine the light of truth against those who have the motive and the means to suppress it.
That the fake Philippine- and China-based accounts sprouted during the debates on the anti-terrorism law, China’s increasing aggression in the West Philippine Sea, and the government’s closure of ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest TV network, indicates a deliberate and well-funded campaign to use social media to push a certain narrative.
The pandemic has only heightened the need for timely, accurate information from an independent press, as millions of people live with anxiety over a lethal virus, the loss of their jobs, and severe restrictions on their mobility and freedom imposed for their supposed safety and security.
It is the job of journalists and media workers to sift through the clutter of misinformation and confusion—even contend with the lack of information, deliberate or otherwise — to provide the people the essential information they need to keep themselves safe, to know what their government is doing (or not doing) to stem the spread of the pandemic, to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent judiciously and transparently on their behalf, to bring their urgent stories to the attention of those in power.
Over the last months, as hundreds of billions of pesos were allocated to address the pandemic, journalists documented the stories of the poor folk who lined up for days to get their cash aid, or braved the elements and the virus threat to sleep on pavements outside the airport while waiting to be transported to their hometowns; of doctors, nurses, and other valiant frontliners who tended to the avalanche of cases in hospitals while enduring, on one hand, the lack of protective medical equipment and adequate government support, and on the other, public stigma over their work; of high officials in the state health insurance agency who allegedly went about their merry ways plundering at least P15 billion as the country was in the grip of the worst public-health crisis in its history; of a costly cosmetic beach beautification project launched amid a crippling economic recession; and many other issues overlapping with the life-and-death situation at hand.
As countries like the United States and the Philippines (incidentally both targets of fake Facebook operators) march toward election seasons amid the twin threats of the pandemic and the stealthy forces of disinformation on social media, journalists are all the more needed to do their job freely and resolutely.
Today, journalists around the world celebrate World News Day — an occasion, said the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers or WAN-IFRA, that “aims to raise public awareness of the critical role that journalists play in providing credible and reliable news, to help people make sense of — and improve — the rapidly changing world around them.’’
Indeed, journalists doing courageous and excellent journalism is just half of the battle. An enlightened citizenry must also do its part — one, by being discerning and critical about information they see and read so that they do not fall prey to the vultures of the inauthentic; and two, by fighting alongside journalists and media workers to defend freedom of speech and freedom of the press at all times, as the core, non-negotiable freedoms of any country that garbs itself as a democracy.
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