Can spreading gossip or hoaxes online land you in jail?

Vernise Tantuco
Can spreading gossip or hoaxes online land you in jail?
It can, lawyers say, if the information you spread harms the reputation or the rights of another person

MANILA, Philippines – On July 24, one Gabriel Ilano, through a Facebook post, accused Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) secretary general Renato Reyes Jr of corruption. Ilano’s post was picked up by the page Filipino Trends, which spread the rumor further.

Over the next few days, Reyes called out Ilano on what he called “fake news.” He threatened to take the case to court. Ilano came forward, apologized, and claimed that his account was hacked.


Reyes is still set on pressing charges against Filipino Trends and the other websites that spread what he called “fake news” about him – cybercrime complaints that will count among the hundreds that the Department of Justice (DOJ) receives every year.  

Increase in complaints

When it comes to cybercrime complaints, it’s usually famous personalities’ issues that make it to the news – take, for example, a teenager’s cybercrime complaint against Ellen Adarna in May.

However, there are hundreds of cybercrime complaints like Reyes’ that don’t make it to your nightly primetime newscast. According to the DOJ’s Philippine Cybercrime Report for 2016-2017, there were 3,951 complaints for cybercrime and cyber-related offenses in 2016 alone.

These were the combined number of complaints from the government offices in charge of monitoring cybercrime in the Philippines: the DOJ-Office of Cybercrime, the National Bureau of Investigation-Cybercrime Division (NBI-CCD), and the Philippine National Police-Anti-Cybercrime Group (PNP-ACG).

The graph below shows increase in the number of such complaints over time.


Respondents are ordinary citizens

Among the top 3 cyber-related complaints from 2014 to 2016 was cyberlibel, an offense that can cost someone 5 to 8 years in prison if found guilty by the courts.

The punishment for cyberlibel is higher than ordinary libel – up to 6 years and one day of imprisonment under the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines.

Since the cybercrime law was enacted in 2013, the number of cyberlibel complaints have increased drastically by 124% from 2014 to 2015, compared to the 8% increase from 2015 to 2016. That’s 249 complaints in 2014 to 558 in 2015 and 603 in 2016.

This is despite the increase in penalty.

What is more significant is the increase in the number of respondents who are ordinary citizens.

In the past, libel and defamation complaints were mostly made against media outfits or businesses. Information and technology law expert JJ Disini however says there has been an increase in libel complaints filed against ordinary citizens.

“This is a natural consequence of social media, where a single person has the ability to hold the attention of more people than ever before,” Disini said.

Global phenomenon

The same is happening across the world. Comparatively, in 2013, Thomson Reuters reported that in the United Kingdom, defamation cases against media decreased by more than half in 5 years. In the same report, they observed that defamation cases involving private individuals increased, because email, blogs, and web forums made it easier to defame personal or business contacts.

In Ilano’s confession video, Reyes’ lawyer, National Union of People’s Lawyers’ (NUPL) Krissy Conti, pointed out what these private individuals might not have realized: that a social media post can be damaging, not only to victims of cyberlibel, but also to those accused.

She said in Filipino: “First of all, [Ilano’s Facebook account] spread wrong information, gossip, and because it was shared to a lot of people, it hurt not just a reputation but a person. There were threats that, from the point of view of some people, would have eventually come true. So at this point, when you are already stepping on the rights of others, in fact you are violating and stepping on the right to due courtesy and respect as accorded to every other person, you can be sued.”

Building trust

Those accused of cyberlibel may cry freedom of speech, while accusers like Reyes cry “fake news.” But Disini points out that fake news is an old problem – urban legends or propaganda – with a new name.

Disini spoke to Rappler through email and Conti was giving a message to Reyes’ Facebook followers. They both said the solution to “fake news” is more speech.

“Stifling fake news probably won’t stop it from proliferating. In the end, people will believe sources that are credible and learn to disregard unreliable and untested voices – including propagandists and political operators,” said Disini.

He said we must accept that spreading malicious rumors and believing in them is attractive to political operatives and those whose world views are affirmed by these. He remained hopeful that not everyone would believe claims like those made on Ilano’s account.

“Perhaps the problem of fake news is a temporary one,” he said. “When people start to leave sites that have or lead to fake news, then there will be a drive towards building trust from information sources. That process is ongoing and we do see many sites and organizations who hold themselves up to a higher standard when it comes to truth-telling. In the end, they will prevail.”

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Vernise Tantuco

Vernise Tantuco is on Rappler's Research Team, fact checking suspicious claims, wrangling data, and telling stories that need to be heard.