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Truth: the biggest loser in the elections

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”—Daniel Moynihan

As in every election, certain contests will be disputed, and there will always be allegations of cheating. Blessed are those who can declare victory unequivocally—such as Rodrigo Duterte in the most important race of all—for they can look forward to a speedy proclamation.

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Meanwhile, we can safely proclaim the biggest loser in the May 9 elections: the truth.

The internet promised to open up a wealth of information at people’s fingertips. But over the past few months, we have seen the internet open up a barrage of lies. Moreover, people have become more sophisticated in spreading misinformation in social media. We have seen how satire is taken seriously, and serious posts are taken lightly. Social media has not made people more gullible, but it has exposed how gullible people are.

Nowadays, all it takes is a face and a phrase to come up with a statement from a foreign dignitary. All it takes is a photograph and a paragraph to come up with with an endorsement from an overseas Filipino worker or a “Yolanda” survivor.

Tweets are faked by using a person’s actual Twitter ID and profile picture and turning it into a fake screenshot with completely-fabricated messages.

Videos are edited, spliced and tweaked to mislead people, either by being taken out of context, or by denying the importance of context.

In the past, journalists quoted “reliable sources” anonymously to protect their informants’ identities. Today, people invoke a “reliable source” to hide their lack of sources.

In the past, we counted on respected journalists to give us facts. Today, with the media themselves having been victimized both by the failings of some of their own members and the barrage of lies that have unfairly cast doubt on their credibility, we are left with a vast sea of (mis)information. Some lament not knowing what to believe; many end up believing what they want to believe. People end up accusing what they don’t want to believe as ignorant, biased or even paid.

What is worrisome is the fact that journalists, bloggers and even ordinary netizens are lynched by online mobs just because they posted something disagreeable to the mobs’ preferred candidates. Not content to spew out insults, they threaten people with rape and death. Posts are removed (by reporting them to Facebook as offensive), and blogsites are hacked or taken down, as journalist Raissa Robles experienced a number of times. Freedom of speech, which is a precondition for truth to be told and tested, has itself taken a beating.

Here are some personal steps we can take to avert the demise of truth in social media:

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First, don’t share or retweet anything without bothering to check its accuracy. You can easily google all kinds of information, and visit people’s Twitter feeds if they actually tweeted something that’s being shared around. By sharing a post, you give it a wider audience. By “liking” it, you unwittingly give it more valence and thereby contribute to its readership.

Second, challenge people to back their posts with data or sources. If we can be evidence-based in our medicine, jurisprudence-based in our law, scientific in our engineering, and mathematical in our economic models, how can we be so uncritical in our politics?

Third, don’t post inflammatory rumors online. Don’t incite people to come up with conspiracy theories without any basis.

Fourth and more proactively, fight falsehoods with facts. While many memes circulated the myth that the martial law regime was a “golden age,” these were counteracted by graphs showing the historical trend of the Philippines’ GDP, helping set the record straight.

Lastly, before you accuse others of bias, look at yourself in the mirror. If you are only willing to accept information that’s favorable to your cause, perhaps the bias comes, not from others, but from your own self.

More than these personal steps, we should  also take collective action. We need to hold websites and Facebook pages to account for sacrificing truth for the sake of virality—or some darker agenda. Who took the effort of taking all those photos of P500 bills with sample ballots? Where did the alleged quote from Leni Robredo that she cannot work with Duterte come from? Satirical websites, knowing that they are taken seriously by many people, should reflect on the ethics of manufacturing propaganda material.

If we do not go after them, the people behind these pages will wreak havoc again—and they will be much better and more sophisticated the next time around. They have learned so much in the May 9 elections. They have just advertised themselves to those who may tap them in the future for their services. Individuals who sensationalize stories, too, will have gained more following, and will be in a better position to cause trouble in the future.

Our next president has vowed to bring discipline to the nation. The question is: How can we discipline social media in a way that protects freedom of speech but also demands accountability? Surely, the long-term solution lies in the educational system: Perhaps teachers should include social media ethics in the teaching of values, and emphasize the importance of honesty and respect.

In the meantime, the law against cybercrime (Republic Act No. 10175) expressly states that online libel is no different from other forms of libel—and is thus covered by the Revised Penal Code. A proper implementation of this law will make for cleaner elections, and a healthier public discourse.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.

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TAGS: Elections 2016, internet, misinformation, Rodrigo Duterte, social media, truth
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