Beyond the disinformation narrative
Over the past several years, “fake news” and “disinformation” have emerged as a core element in narratives to make sense of today’s political landscape, particularly the outcomes of the past two presidential elections.
This view is backed by scholarship, including those from our own researchers, like the communications scholars Jonathan Ong and Jason Cabañes. While recognizing that fake news and political propaganda have always been around for ages, they correctly point out that today’s information landscape allows for the virality of falsehoods even as efforts to counter them lack the same power. Crucially, they furnish empirical evidence of how sophisticated the “architecture” of the troll networks is, indicating the importance politicians themselves see in these networks.
Just as crucially, crusaders against disinformation indict social networks like Facebook and YouTube for enabling this kind of content through their algorithms. As Maria Ressa said in her Nobel lecture, “While the public debate is focused downstream on content moderation, the real sleight of hand, happens further upstream, where algorithms have been programmed by humans with their coded bias … The impact is global, with cheap armies on social media tearing down democracy in at least 81 countries around the world.”
In hindsight, however—and especially in the aftermath of the 2022 elections—we must also recognize that the view that disinformation alone decided elections is simplistic and incomplete. To be fair, this “maximalist” view of disinformation is disavowed by many—including Ressa and Ong. Nonetheless, this recognition is important if we wish to counter the premise (which we may or may not recognize in our own thinking) that people are simply deceived by fake news and that once they are “corrected or “educated” through efforts to “debunk” these myths—whether through fact-checking articles or house-to-house visits—they will change their views.
Of course, there is a need to address disinformation and challenge fake news at the moment of its inception. Similarly, there is a need to debunk myths about the past.
But to simply dismiss political outcomes like Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s landslide victory because people believed in a fake future or a fake past is to ignore our present-day political realities. Many may have supported the Marcoses because they believed in martial law as a golden age, but for many, it could also be the other way around: They believed in martial law as a golden age because they liked the Marcoses. And this support, this fondness, can come from many things that have nothing to do with facts, like being more likable on TikTok, more generous during the campaign, being more connected with local politicians, being associated with a nostalgic memory (e.g., Ferdinand Marcos Sr. having built a highway in their province) or simply feeling more familiar.
It can also come from a disdain for what some voters might think of as personality-based, color-coded fandoms to which they do not feel a sense of belonging. Fake news, too, has a hand in this disdain—just look at how Leila de Lima was vilified in social media—but the idea that people can be “properly educated” to change their views will only alienate them further. (Most people think they’re critical and independent thinkers; 70 percent of Filipinos believe fake news is a problem as per SWS.)
The most effective forms of “disinformation,” if it can be called such, operated at a level not of facts but of emotions. And mindful of Asimov’s famous claim that the best lie is the truth itself, it may not even be disinformation at all: one can be a good father, coolly playing video games with your sons, but also be a corrupt politician; one can be a tough daughter, slapping a sheriff, but also be an enabler of an authoritarian regime.
Today, especially with the advent of artificial intelligence, countering disinformation in its rapidly evolving forms and disguises is as vital as it was in 2022, 2016, and even 1972.
However, it is equally necessary to go beyond a simplistic disinformation narrative which, if nothing else, leads to a negative or disempowering view of ourselves. “It’s as if we are passive receptacles of Marcos propaganda or social media manipulation,” as Sheila Coronel observed in a speech last year, of the prevailing explanations around Marcos’ victory. “We’ve either been conned or seduced by the Marcoses. Or we’re pawns of a history not of our own making.”
It can also detract attention from the shortcomings of opposition candidates and their campaigns. I do not claim to know the way forward, but surely, it will involve connecting with voters in ways that resonate with their values and concerns, instead of insisting on certain narratives and facts.
Just as surely, it will involve working toward a genuine, inclusive, and long-term political movement, one that, in Coronel’s words, eschews “explanation instead of action.”