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The martial law echo chamber

/ 04:02 AM October 15, 2020

Refresh Facebook. Browse YouTube. Keep up on the nonstop breaking news, play Candy Crush, binge-watch HBO.” So goes Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky’s description, in their book “Make Time,” of what has become nearly everyone’s daily default. The Netflix documentary film “The Social Dilemma” reinforces their observation.

But while “Make Time” offers personal tactics for taking back our time from what Knapp and Zeratsky refer to as “infinity pools,” “The Social Dilemma” ups the ante by taking FB, IG, Twitter, and the like to task for their terrifying long-term effects. To explain these, it enlists over a dozen former employees of leading social media companies as well as credentialed researchers. Together, they cite evidence that are difficult to ignore. Unlike Knapp and Zeratsky who recommend deleting social media apps, Tristan Harris, who is at the center of the docufilm, proposes to engage with social media companies to curb their ill effects. More to the point, the Center for Humane Technology which he co-founded seeks to “reverse human downgrading and realign technology with humanity,” because “in the attention extraction economy a human is worth more when we are depressed, outraged, polarized, and addicted.”

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These four unintended effects of social media use are deftly explained by “The Social Dilemma.” But its compelling exposition of how these apps could manipulate us was what jumped out at me. To be fair, the companies behind these apps are doing something about it. Just last Sept. 23, for example, the Inquirer reported that “social media giant Facebook has shut down several fake Facebook accounts and pages…”

Unfortunately, even if we take out the fake accounts that trigger social media users, the algorithms of these apps tend to accomplish the same thing. Each time you watch a YouTube video, whether it’s, say, “Enrile: A Witness to History,” or “Batas Militar,” the algorithms do not only remember what you watched. They also anticipate what you will view next in real time. Should you click something else, they simply update your “model” using the latest data points you unwittingly provide.

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At first glance, there seems to be nothing wrong with this. Filipinos who regard Marcos as a “misunderstood hero” would naturally prefer to watch “Enrile,” while those who think that he was a “cunning dictator” would lean toward “Batas Militar.” However, if you apply the dynamics of these algorithms to the number of Facebook users in the Philippines, which was around 73 million in 2019, over time you are looking at ever-increasing divisiveness resulting from online echo chambers.

Echo chambers was curiously how one of my fellow attendees referred to the sessions of “Balik/Ka/Saysay/An,” a recent conference on fighting historical revisionism. While I commend its organizers for holding this timely conference, I agree with a fellow attendee who noted that it was like preaching to the choir. Yes, I now know there is so much vetted historical and economic information proving that the martial law years were hardly golden. I am now more aware of the highly acclaimed books, films, and plays that convey what happened to the 3,257 killed, the 35,000 tortured, and the 70,000 imprisoned. The question is: Would these suffice to convince the Filipinos who dismiss them as biased narratives peddled by the “dilawan” forces and the CPP/NPA/NDF?

I wonder if the way forward is similar to the route taken by Tristan Harris. More specifically, I wonder if the “Balik/Ka/Saysay/An” organizers could scale the next conference by bringing the fight outside WebinarJam. For instance, is there a way that Bongbong Marcos, the late dictator’s son, could be asked to interview former senator Rene Saguisag about martial law? Is it possible to request Rigoberto Tiglao to share his martial law narrative vis-à-vis that of Prof. Randy David?

Who knows? By reaching out to those who subscribe to alternative constructs of the martial law years, more Filipinos might realize that the truth about this chapter in our country’s history can never be reduced to the narratives of Marcos versus Aquino or the AFP versus the CPP/NPA/NDF. As the folk-rock group Buklod once put it: “Hindi pula’t dilaw tunay na magkalaban. Ang kulay at tatak ay di siyang dahilan.”

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Von Katindoy teaches and volunteers at the Ateneo de Manila University.

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TAGS: Commentary, Ferdinand Marcos, Marcos martial law, Von Katindoy
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