Why can’t many Filipinos tell truth from satire?

Marguerite de Leon

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Filipinos' inability to grasp satire might be a clue to a bigger problem

On November 4, local satire news site SoWhatsNews (SWN) came out with the article ‘Jinggoy Estrada Arrested After Trying to Smuggle Money Inside His Breasts to US.’ The piece poked fun at the Senator and his suspicious Stateside trip amid the pork barrel brouhaha, of which he is allegedly a key player.

What should have just gotten a few chuckles, though, prompted a social media circus.

Many Filipino netizens took the article for the truth and started sharing the piece. Others wondered out loud whether the report was legitimate, and some even contacted Rappler just to confirm whether the “news” had actually happened. Social media was abuzz with speculation, and it had to take an official denial from Estrada’s team to calm everyone down.

Just kidding

This would have been understandable if the article’s satire was too subtle. The Philippine government and its motley crew of misfits has generated many uncanny moments, from ‘wheelchair defenses’ to day-long diatribes on the sanctity of embryos. However, many parts in the article clearly screamed satire, such as:

“We asked him what it was,” said SFIA Head of Security Trevor Philip Ogg. “The cocky son-of-a-bitch answered me by asking ’Don’t you know who I am?’” (Lest he risk his job, a head of airport security wouldn’t dare call a senator an SOB in his official media statement.)

Or this:

Estrada apparently introduced himself as “THE sexy senator from the Philippines,” and that the bulge on his chest was the result of intense [sic] workout regimen he undertook months prior. (The odds that this came out of Jinggoy’s mouth in all seriousness are slim to none.)

STUMPED BY SATIRE. How could so many people take this silly scene for the truth? Image by Mara Mercado/Rappler.

The idea that Jinggoy would dare to smuggle cold cash in his chest through US airport security is ridiculous in itself, and should elicit doubt in anyone hearing about it.

Plus, the upper right corner of the article page clearly displays a disclaimer, stating that SWN is satirical and fictional. It doesn’t take much to figure out that the report was fake.

Fool me once

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a satirical article has fooled Filipinos, including columnists. Mosquito Press, another satire news site, came out with the piece ‘Harvard study finds that Filipinos are the world’s most gullible people.’ In a moment of sheer irony, Philippine Star columnist Carmen N. Pedrosa wrote about the piece thinking it was real, even referring to its bogus statistics.

In another example, secularist group Filipino Freethinkers came out with the satire piece ‘CBCP trademarks the term Catholic,’ featuring the fictional CBCP Commission on Franchising and Life, or COFAL. Tabloid Abante Online soon came out with a copycat story, unwittingly presenting satire as truth. Abante even contacted retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz for his reaction, which Cruz readily gave.

Screengrab from http://www.abante.com.ph/issue/jun1611/news01.htm

Guessing game

Why do many Filipinos mistake satire for truth so easily?

It seems that other cultures are no longer as boggled by satire, and now accept and enjoy the form for what it is. The US has The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report; the UK has Monty Python; Germany has the Heute Show; and Japan has Torijajiira Hoso.

The Philippines, however, has yet to have a popular site or show that is unabashedly satirical, without having to fall back on cheap laughs. It is still in a state where putting out a single piece of satire can keep a senator’s communications team up at night.

In the case of the SWN piece, many netizens reason that people think so lowly of Jinggoy, they’d believe any negative thing said about him. The real reason, however, may go far deeper than this need for schadenfreude.

It’s possible, through a flawed educational system, that many Filipinos were not taught to think critically enough. And if you can’t think critically enough, grasping satire may be more difficult than it should be.

Cutting classes

According to the Philippine Education Sector Assessment Project, the state of Philippine education is worrisome. The overall quality of education has deteriorated; there is a shortage of qualified teachers; children dropping out and remaining out of school is fairly common, etc. Furthermore, the 2009 World Bank Philippines Skills Report states that university graduates are lacking in foundational skills, including critical thinking.

The local school system isn’t exactly churning out smart cookies.

This trend may worsen in the next generation of students, due to recent policies and suggestions given by the Department of Education (DepEd).  The new K to 12 program implemented by the DepEd squeezes in more subjects in less time. Learning how to read can’t be rushed; education, in general, isn’t something to be doled out piecemeal. How can you be sure that a student has properly grasped a text if the bell has already rung?

Education Secretary Bro. Armin Luistro has even admitted that jejemon, a local slang rife with grammatical errors, may be used in teaching pre-schoolers if deemed necessary. A faulty foundation in language will spell trouble for students in the long-run.  

Moreover, the K to 12 program also lacks a proper science subject, with science and health concepts merely “integrated” into other subjects. This is troubling, as a solid understanding of the scientific method goes hand in hand with critical thinking.

With the teaching of reason, logic, and language compromised, how can a child develop into someone who can easily read a piece of satire – which relies on spotting absurdities in the text?

Get smart

A population that can read and absorb satire properly is, at the heart of it, one that enjoys the benefits of a good education. Thus, the fact that satire continues to be received so naively here is a sign – however unusual – that education is not being valued enough, or being valued correctly, by those who manage it.

We need to change how young Filipinos are taught. We need to change how we see the act of educating others. 

A Philippines made up of confident, critical thinkers is a Philippines that knows how to tell fact from fiction, chooses between right and wrong, and, ultimately, unburdens itself of the people who steal power and abuse it. Not only will proper education prevent Filipinos from mistaking satire for truth, but it will also prevent the unsavory events that inspire satire to begin with. – Rappler.com

Marguerite de Leon is a Social Media Producer for Rappler, and editor-in-chief of the Filipino Freethinkers’ website. 

iSpeak is a parking space for ideas worth sharing. Send in your contributions to move.ph@rappler.com.

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Marguerite de Leon

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Life and Style, Entertainment, and Opinion sections. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for six years. She is also a fictionist.