[OPINION] Fake news, bad views, and society’s loss

Dean Tony La Viña

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[OPINION] Fake news, bad views, and society’s loss
'How should fake news be regulated? Are new criminal and civil laws needed to address this problem?'

First of two parts

The issue of fake news is personal and political for me. As an individual, I like my freedom and would want to be always free to express my opinion. That includes promoting my version of the facts as I see it.

As a law and philosophy professor for many decades, I have seen how freedom of thinking and speech, which includes the freedom to have the wrong opinion and to make mistakes in appreciating events, can lead to much growth.

As a practitioner of governance and politics, I have also witnessed how the ability to speak, write, and publish freely is so important for dialogue and consensus. This ability is also important in the search for the truth.

In addressing fake news, defined as deliberate fabrication and dissemination of false facts, my overriding concern is that we do not throw out the baby with the dirty bath water. Fake news and their promoters would have won if we sacrifice in any significant way the great freedoms of speech and press.

In my view, the valid test for taking action against fake news continue to be the classic clear and present danger test. What is the harm created by fake news? How serious is that harm to society? What is the least intrusive (to personal freedom) approach to prevent that harm?

In my view, the best practice is still bad speech (fake news, wrong opinions) should be countered with good speech (the truth, better arguments).

Some speech, whether fake news or bad views, can be very harmful however and this we must figure out how to suppress or hold people liable. For speech that is libelous and that causes a threat to individuals, for example troll attacks that encourage violence, there are already existing laws that can be used to go after the perpetrators. But speech that incite hate and violence is a new phenomenon and is something we need to grapple with.

Fake news is harmful

This is not to say that I am unaware of the dangers and the damage that are the consequences of fake news. Senator Grace Poe, in the hearing held last October 4, laid down the case against fake news persuasively in her opening remarks.

Poe observed that we are “churning out fake news in an industrial scale that it seems that while manufacturing is down, only fake news factories are booming. And that while agriculture output is low, that of troll farms is high.” She likened fake news as the e-version of the budol-budol con which many of our people, unable to distinguish fact from fiction, fall victims to. It is not even farfetched that in the future fake news will trigger wars.”

While broadband should have made us broadminded, Poe observed that “thanks to fake news it has kept many of us imprisoned in our own narrow political beliefs”, “it is being weaponized to enslave people to certain dogma”. Poe points out, and this I agree completely with that, “while the internet also promotes connectivity, it has sadly been used to erect firewalls within and among us that prevent dialogue and the free flow of ideas.And when conversation does not happen, the forging of consensus so essential to democracy is affected.

Poe laments: “If unchecked, fake news cultivates a culture of lying. If purveyors are allowed to get away with their lies,  they embolden government  officials to also lie in order to escape accountability, crush dissent, and commit illegal acts with impunity. If fake news is not challenged, it will create lynch mobs  out of certain people, turning them into an army of character assassins, who can be unleashed, with just one meme, to destroy an idea, a person, or an institution.”

Finally, Senator Poe asked good questions at the beginning of the hearing:

“Has fake news doomed civilized debate, turning it into shouting matches, instead of a collective search for what is good for the society?

“Has fake news created a cynical citizenry, distrustful of authority, negligent of their duties, and pessimistic in their outlook in life?

Has it embroiled us in a permanent state of cyberwar, the kind which gives no quarter to other ideas, and is intolerant of other views?

We also have to ask that while it is the role of each individual to vet sources and check facts, what is the role of the government in addressing the lack of news literacy? Should news literacy be required by schools?

To these questions, I would add what is in the back of many minds: How should fake news be regulated? Are new criminal and civil laws needed to address this problem? Should we set up a regulatory body that will decide for society what is fake news or not and take steps to prevent such news from being disseminated and to punish the guilty?

Distinguishing news from opinion

To answer these questions, one must first distinguish news from opinion. Unfortunately, we have conflated fake news from bad views and that has added to our confusion.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines news as “information or reports about recent events” while fake news are “false stories that appear to be newsspread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke”.

News is distinguished from opinion, which the same dictionary defines as “the ideas that a person or a group of people have about something or someone, which are based mainly on their feelings and beliefs, or a single idea of this type”.

Both news and opinion should be based on the truth, but there is usually more conflict in the latter precisely because of the fact that one’s opinion is based mainly on feelings and beliefs.

One must however recognize that there is a gray line between news and views. While there might be only one set of facts that could be reported, there could be different interpretations of these same facts. One could have different witnesses; for example, bystanders would see things differently from participants in a violent altercation. Regardless of how objective a reporter may be, she or he brings her own biases in writing her or his stories.

Two examples illustrate this gray area: the story of the 7 senators who did not sign the minority led resolution on extrajudicial killings of minors and who were subsequently accused of Pinoy Ako Blog (PAB) of being pro-EJK and more recently the visit of European activists to the Philippines that caused President Duterte to once again hurl insults to the European Union, even going to the extent of ordering their Ambassadors to leave the country in 24 hours.

In both cases, there were facts that was the basis of the reaction but those facts when communicated by a blogger (in the case of the 7 senators) and as understood by a President who does not seem to benefit from complete staff work were interpreted through their respective biases. PAB is decisively anti-Duterte and Duterte is already angry with the Europeans; understandably, they would interpret facts from this perspective.

Going back to an earlier point I make, we must not conflate fake news and bad views. Fake news must be countered by the truth, bad views with better arguments.

Fake news is old and new

Fake news and bad views are not a new phenomenon. We always have had them, motivated by politics, self-interest, for fun or even for no reason at all. But in the past, the established media platforms controlled the flow of these news and information.

While not perfect, traditional media did have common and accepted journalistic methods of fact checking and verification, editing of content and language, procedures for getting the other side of the story, allowing for publication of replies, and procedures for issuing erratums and apologies. Some newspapers even have ombudspersons and reader’s advocates that monitor the work of their reporters and writers.

In the Philippines, to implement the right to reply, the Philippine Press Institute, with most newspapers as members, established the Philippine Press Council as a self-regulatory body. I have been chairing this body, being a representative of academe, for more than five years and we have had very few cases.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, founded and led by the veteran journalist Melinda Quintos de Jesus, promoted journalistic ethics and monitors media coverage, never hesitating to call out media excesses and failures.

While these internal and external systems have been helpful in the past, the advent of the 24/7 news cycle, the internet, and social media has rapidly changed the situation. News organizations need to be more agile now and the old system has to adjust to that. In addition, everyone theoretically has the ability to released news, fake or true, and views, good or bad. The ordinary Facebook or Twitter is still probably harmless but some clearly have a wider reach than others. In the case of the latter, most are one person operations and, even if motivated by good intentions, certainly would not have the same resources as traditional media would have to fact-check, verify, edit language, etc. – Rappler.com

Part two: Confrontation at the Senate

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