[OPINION] Beyond disinformation: Confronting political tunnel vision

Anthony Lawrence Borja

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[OPINION] Beyond disinformation: Confronting political tunnel vision

Raffy de Guzman/Rappler

'We can start by simply assuming that the ordinary Filipino, though vulnerable to bias, tribal tendencies, and aggression, remains a bearer of political ideals'

In a recent article, Gideon Lasco argues for a need to go beyond the simplistic disinformation narrative that pins the political rehabilitation and legitimacy of the Marcoses on the effects of fake news and troll farms. He then points to the examination of political values and the real concerns of ordinary citizens by asserting the need to connect with voters along these lines. To elaborate on these insights, we must flesh out the minds and interactions behind Filipino politics, especially in relation to disinformation. 

Challenges to building a public

How should we proceed? From a practical perspective, we need to actively listen to those with opposing views. The challenge, however, lies with how easy it is to condemn others instead of understanding them. Confronting this all-too-human tendency, we must give due attention to the “why” that underpins all sorts of apologetics and mental gymnastics. Political discussions should become a matter of analyzing someone’s belief system based on its merits and rationale instead of immediately brushing it aside as mere false consciousness or plain nonsense. 

In other words, engaging with our fellow citizens requires empathy. Furthermore, discussions among them must be a matter of exploring questions together rather than insisting on predetermined answers. Through this, an authentic public can be built wherein citizens are more open to compromise and not confined within tribes. It becomes a public founded upon and driven by pakikipagkapwa and pakikiramdam instead of blind toxic aggression and dogmatism. 

How can we apply this approach to the issue of disinformation?

Tunnel vision online and offline

We must first admit that fake news and troll farms constitute but one side of the equation. This compels us to engage with the more complicated matter of processing and interpreting facts. 

In the age of social media filters, an ordinary citizen can suffer from tunnel vision online. Without dismissing the impact of algorithms, this condition reflects how many can resolve or even avoid cognitive dissonance by simply doubling down on pre-existing judgments. That is, for the sake of maintaining a coherent worldview, citizens can easily fall to the temptation of rejecting or avoiding anything that questions their deeply-held convictions. In other words, disinformation feeds on both a need for a stable worldview and an aversion to confusion and contradiction. Consequently, portraying the ordinary Filipino as gullible and ignorant – the premise of the most simplistic form of the disinformation narrative – ignores the more complicated issue of political intolerance as this sustained aversion to opposition and diversity.

Instead, we can start by simply assuming that the ordinary Filipino, though vulnerable to bias, tribal tendencies, and aggression, remains a bearer of political ideals. Regardless of their political alignments and behavior, they have dreams for the nation as a whole. The fact that we have comparatively high voter turnouts attests to the presence of public-mindedness among Filipinos. How this public-mindedness is related to their individual lives, however, must be the subject of future inquiries.  

For now, it would suffice to say that in relation to disinformation, it is plausible that since online filters are, at the very least, partially based on what we want to see (e.g. our search histories), citizens can end up getting stuck in online political bubbles that are meant to feed pre-existing prejudices. If we want to go beyond the issue of disinformation, then we must grapple with the causes behind such prejudices. We must look at shared political ideals and attitudes, and how these end up in shared habits of thought and behavior among citizens.

But why though? If they are from the opposing side as avid consumers of disinformation, do we even need to know what they want for this country? Why should we even care about their understanding of politics? If these questions passed your mind, then we are again confronted by the problem of political intolerance

Facing political intolerance

This aversion to contradiction is the greater challenge lurking behind the disinformation narrative. Nevertheless, simply saying that we need to promote inclusion and tolerance is easier said than done. Listening to others defend their idols and profess a different political creed can be too exhausting and frustrating, especially if their arguments are way beyond what one accepts as true and reasonable. Patience as a virtue is certainly hard to acquire in political discussions.

Moreover, finding common ground, as cliché yet necessary as it is, is more difficult to achieve because of leader-centrism. Even if some general agreement over an issue can be established, loyalty to tribal leaders can hinder agreement over more specific issues especially if those leaders are keen on feeding tribal tendencies to gain political support for their policies. Simply put, the fragmentation of a public is not merely due to the supposed stubbornness or ignorance of ordinary citizens. 

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Recasting civic-political education

More can be said about these issues surrounding political intolerance, and pondering on them allows us to see the troubled spirit of the Filipino citizenry. These I leave for future analyses. However, at this point, we can see that beyond the disinformation narrative is a long and arduous road for civic-political education. To conclude, what I can offer at present are some objectives that could help us cultivate our public-mindedness beyond online and offline political tunnel visions.

First is promoting political tolerance through a more concrete sense of unity based on shared struggles and grievances. This involves the cultivation of a collective mindset that upholds the nation, not as an abstract entity built upon narrow ideals or upon the character of specific leaders. Instead, it must be based on collective efforts to confront concrete challenges ranging from economic inequalities to the lingering rule of oligarchs and selfish politicking. 

Second, we must accept that the challenge facing us is not merely about informing people. Rather, it is a matter of making them less averse to contradictions while being capable of both active listening and transcending tribalism. Consequently, fact-checking, important as it may be, is but a part of a more comprehensive struggle for the political psyche of the Filipino – a struggle that we can characterize as an attempt to free the minds of Filipinos from the crippling effects of tunnel vision and the lingering reliance or obsession with leaders. – Rappler.com

Anthony Lawrence Borja is an Assistant Professorial Lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Development Studies in De La Salle University.

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