ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE: The Rise of Fake News and the Death Knell for Philippine Democracy

By | January 28, 2017

I rise on a matter of personal privilege and public interest.

As a freshman Senator and as the favourite whipping girl of the current Administration, I must say that I have learned a lot about myself in the last seven months. Talagang nakagugulat mapagtanto kung gaano karaming bagay pala ang hindi ko pa pala nalalaman tungkol sa sarili ko.

Mabuti na lamang at nandiyan ang Internet, lalo na ang social media, para ipaalam at ikwento sa’kin ang mga importanteng bagay at kaganapan sa buhay ko.

Halimbawa na lamang, nalaman kong nag-resign na pala ako bilang Senador.[1] Imagine that. I never even knew that I had tendered my resignation until someone showed me an article published online. Thank you, cnn-alive.com. No, not CNN as in “Cable News Network”, but ccn-alive as in “Carl Nixon Newton All Alive”, whoever that may be.

Maybe my resignation had something to do with the other (quote, unquote) news about my election as the new U.N. Secretary General to replace outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.[2] That’s really news to me, but maybe it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise because, as I also discovered online, I apparently have such a high profile on a global scale that world leaders like Queen Elizabeth II and then US President Barack Obama all felt compelled to comment on the status of my career and mental health. So much so that, back on September 19, 2006, Queen Elizabeth II personally expressed her “joy” and congratulations to you, my colleagues in the Senate, for successfully ousting me because, after all, as reported by the so-called news article, I “wanted to bring confusion in Duterte’s government” and, therefore, I obviously “should be dealt with”.[3] Former President Obama, for his part, is quoted by an article published on the site dutertemedia.com as saying that I must be “abnormal” for not appreciating the extrajudicial killings being committed in the name of the so-called “War on Drugs” as “the good thing leaders are doing to this world.”[4] To that, I could only respond, in the parlance of our times, “Eh di wow.”

Aside from those (quote, unquote) “news” stories about my career, I also learned some shocking “news” about my personal life. I apparently attempted to commit suicide. Thanks to a webpage that came complete with advertisements for an online shopping site and invitations to like and/or join “Pres. Rody Duterte Worldwide”, “Duterte-Marcos Tandem” and “Pres. Rody Duterte ‘The Real Change’Group” pages on facebook;[5] and another article published by dutertemedia.com, [6] I found out some interesting information about my suicide attempt. It’s starting to look like President Duterte’s supporters care more about my welfare than they let on, given how much information they know about me that I myself had no clue about! How so very touching.

Another that should have not surprised me was a headline that reads “DOJ Sec. Aguirre sinapak si De Lima, De Lima natulala.”[7] After all, it is well known that Secretary Aguirre has disrespected another Lady Senator at least once before in his legal career.

These are all fake news articles, of course.

I sincerely hope it wasn’t that hard to figure out because these ones are so downright absurd that, a few months ago, I would have simply laughed them off or waved them aside, believing that no self-respecting person would fall for them, let alone be associated with the embarrassing act of spreading them around. After all, I am far from being the only person, or even Senator, to be targeted by fake news.

For instance, back in the day, about 6 years ago – I don’t know if he knows this, but – there was a so-called “Ping Lacson Tracker” that was put up on the website of MosquitoPress’s tumblr page[8]. It asked and purported to provide the answer to the simple but nagging question that once preoccupied the entire Filipino nation’s mind, including yours truly’s, that is, “Where has Sen. Ping Lacson been hiding?” The site invited visitors to “Click through to use MosquitoPress’s Ping Lacson Finder!”, which consists of an interactive Google map view of the Philippines, with various locations marked up, along with the instructions to “Click on the blue pins to see details of the Ping Lacson sighting.” Eleven locations are pinned, with accompanying details that explain what Senator Lacson was supposedly doing in each. For instance, in Siargao Islands, he was “surfing”; in Albay, he was (quote, unquote) “playing with Mt. Mayon’s…” ahem, peak; somewhere off the coast of Donsol, he was “making friends with a butanding”; to the South, he was supposedly “riding Asia’s longest zip line” in Bukidnon and, I kid you not, supposedly “working for the Davao Death Squad”. My personal favourite, however, is perhaps his supposed skill for multitasking while in Metro Manila, where he was “partying” while, at the same time, “Hiding under Leila de Lima’s nose.”

At least that page was obviously meant to be a joke, and I am pretty sure no one tried to ask Senator Lacson to confirm or deny any of these alleged activities. The same, however, cannot be said about the satirical piece that once plagued Senator Jinggoy Ejercito back in November of 2013, when his camp was forced to acknowledge and deny the fake “news” that he was arrested in the US after he was caught trying to smuggle millions of pesos that were surgically implanted in his breasts,[9] after the article was picked up by mainstream media.

But things are getting much, much worse.

Kung ano-anong iniimbento nila laban sa akin, sa pamilya ko, sa anak ko, sa kapatid ko, kahit sa pamangkin ko.

“NBI confirms Leila de Lima is the Queen of all drug lords in Philippines and pork barrel,”[10] “Leila de Lima does pole dancing in front of Jaybee Sebastian in Bilibid,”[11] “Leila De Lima thrown out of conference hall in Berlin Germany,”[12] “De Lima’s sister Caroline De Lima arrested in China for drug trafficking,”[13] “De Lima’s son arrested at airport with 50kgs of drugs,”[14] “Bagman at pamangkin ni Sen. De Lima dawit sa kalakaran ng droga.”[15]

I am fortunate to have the strength to stand up and defend myself, but my relatives and family members who have done nothing to deserve being at the receiving end of these lies should not have to be obliged to even acknowledge these lies. More importantly, I will not stand here and wait for them to invent hurtful and damaging rumors about my special child, Israel, or my ailing mother. I am here to say, enough is enough.

And it isn’t just me or my family. The rush of fake news is complemented and sustained by spurious accounts, or the so-called “trolls,” who vigorously disseminate and promote fake news in social media, as if these are gospel truth.

Sila ang tagapagtanggol ng kasinungalingan at mga nang-aapi. Wala po silang pinapalampas: sa kababaihan nga, mas malala at mas matindi pa ang pambabastos at pagpapahiya nila sa social media.

Sinuman ang makipagdiskurso nang maayos, babantaan nila: “Mamatay ka na sana pati magulang mo,” “ma-rape ka sana at yung anak mo.” Di pa nakuntento, may nagkakalat pang isa kang prostitute, o babaeng nagpa-abort.

Have we lost our sense of decency and respect?

Fake news is also damaging political careers and serious advocacies that seek to protect the national interest by undermining the integrity of advocates like myself and Senator Trillanes, who one website accused of having received a P500 Million peso check from me, which he allegedly used to pay for political ads against the President during the election period.[16] The website claims this to be “viral news”, but is actually just a personal blog that lures people to click and visit it so that its owner can make money from the lies it publishes.

Even the Ombudsman has been the victim of fake news. Ayon sa isang headline, “Sabwatang De Lima at Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Nabunyag Na!!” May dalawang exclamation points pa! At nag-aanyaya pang “Alamin” ang istoryang naka-tag na “local news”, “news” at “video” kuno, pero wala namang video na mapapanood! That site even has the guts to hold itself out to the cyberspace public as a “social news” site publishing “breaking news”, but, curiously does not even state a date or time stamp for its article, or even the name of the author or contributor and, worse, contains a moronic disclaimer that it “cannot guarantee the legitimacy of some of the information” it publishes on its own site.

I bring these up in order to demonstrate a clear pattern of escalation here. Fake news went from being so absurd that it cannot be taken seriously, to something that is getting more and more indistinguishable from the real thing – so much so that netizens, public officials, and even seasoned journalists are falling for them. Even the conscious act of compiling fake news articles is becoming tricky because these fake news sites are not named satirically like “The Adobo Chronicles”, but are mimicking legitimate news outfits like BBC and CNN.

But what is most disturbing – and the reason why I am standing here today bringing it front and center of the attention of the Senate and of the nation – is the evident fact that this escalation is not happening by chance. Fake news articles these days are, in fact, deliberately being manufactured, delivered and spread around in ways that disguise their fakeness, with the clear intent to fool people.

We only need to ask “cui prodest”? Whom does it profit? Sino ang nakikinabang sa mga kasinungalingang ito? For he who derives advantage from these fake news is the one most likely to be actively working towards its proliferation.

If we even stop for a moment and think about it, it does not take a genius to know that these are all connected —

The so-called “war on drugs”, which is really nothing but a continuing shameless, dishonourable, cowardly and lazy act of serial killing and butchering of the vulnerable, the poor, our economically and socially challenged brothers and sisters by the very people who are responsible for their well-being;

The apparent downplaying, if not attempted whitewashing, of the apparent involvement of certain personalities in questionable, if not downright criminal activities, such as the alleged unsuccessful bribery attempts made by Jack Lam, or the fading into obscurity of the inclusion of Peter Lim in the President’s drug list;

The Duterte administration’s curious and suspicious cowering and kowtowing to Chinese authorities – even conveniently forgetting that, back in April 2016, when he was still a candidate courting the people’s votes, he claimed that, if China refuses to honor the arbitration ruling regarding the West Philippines Sea, he will ask the Philippine Navy to bring him to the boundary of the Spratlys so he can “ride a jet ski while bringing the Philippine flag,” so that he can plant the Philippine flag on the reclaimed land in the Spratlys[17]; and even denying inconvenient truths, such as the real source of the illegal drugs flowing into our country and, thus, the real identity of those who are reaping the economic benefits of the illegal drug trade[18];

Even the reality that the blind faith and license to kill that Duterte has given his police officers is not really solving our criminality problems or even really strengthening our law enforcement agencies, but is, in fact, creating a moral vacuum that enables corrupt and evil elements in the police force to prey on people – such as the rise of tokhang-for-ransom incidents – and, thus, further weaken the people’s trust and confidence in the police;

The murmurs and whispers about Martial Law that are growing louder and louder every day, and becoming more and more of an overt threat on our rights, freedoms, security and democratic way of life;

These are all connected to the proliferation of fake news.

Fake news, the outrageous, the half-truths, the outright lies, the misleading headlines, and even the crass jokes and the profanity that accompany the President’s every appearance on our television screens – these are all nothing but the sticks that make up the broom that this Administration and its supporters use to sweep under the rug their crimes, their incompetencies, their laziness, their lack of dedication to the public’s interests, their broken campaign promises that are, apparently, nothing more than empty boasts, and their betrayal of our independence in favor of their newly minted foreign BFFs (“best friends forever”).

And I am standing here today to say that I am not fooled, at hindi ako papayag na patuloy maloko ang mga tao.

That is what makes it a matter needing legislative attention from the Senate: because fake news has become, and has been for a while, a weapon that is being wielded against the Filipino people and their exercise of their rights, freedoms and the enjoyment of their democratic way of life. Hindi po ako nagiging eksaherado. This is serious business.

Democracy is the power of choice; and that power belongs to the Filipino people.

The true value of that power of choice is its ability to address and solve the real conditions, problems and challenges that are facing our people. Anong uri, kalidad at klase ng mga desisyon sa buhay at pagpapalakad sa Estado ang magagawa natin kung puro kasinungalingan ang ipinapalunon sa atin? In other words, the power of choice must be based on accurate information, and it is useless if it is based on false information. Need I remind my colleagues in the Senate that our role as lawmakers and, indeed, as one of the safeguards against grave abuses that may be committed by the other branches of government, including an arbitrary, whimsical or capricious declaration of Martial Law, heavily relies on the accuracy of the information we know to be true or factually established?

Now, we are faced with the situation where there are elements in our society who are deliberately poisoning the well of information that is readily available to the Filipino people and to us, their public servants.

Certainly, fake news is old news. We’ve known it all our lives, albeit by different names: some may call it a joke, some may call it speculation or rumors – but if it is used to subvert the Rule of Law, the mandate of the Constitution, the true welfare of the people, and is being used to perpetuate a false idea of the status quo, then it is something more sinister, and one that has been in existence since the dawn of society: it is nothing more, and nothing less than propaganda. Puro pagpapaganda sa sarili, at puro paninira sa kapwa.

As the saying goes, it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. With this fake news epidemic we are experiencing, we’re in a very real danger of not just losing eye, limb or even life, but of gouging out our own fundamental rights and freedoms, the safeguards from abuse and authoritarian rule and all the other benefits of democracy that we once secured for ourselves through our Constitution, but now seem to take for granted.

Ika nga, ang katotohanan at demokrasya ay parang pag-ibig, you don’t know what a great thing you have until you lose it. Our rights and freedoms are like the devoted girlfriend, boyfriend, best friend, parent or family member you always took for granted: you know how good they are for you, and how your world will crumble without them, but you neglected them because you never thought they’d ever leave you.

But leave you they will.

Every lie, every piece of fake news, every form of propaganda that is manufactured and shared by people is like a disease or a poison that will kill everything that is good and just about our beautiful nation. It does not matter that not everyone is fooled. It only matters that there are people being fooled. Ano ang silbi ng tahasan at paulit-ulit na pagtanggi kung napakadaling magtahi ng kwentong bubulag sa tao.

Kung noon ang paniniwala natin ay may dalawang klase ng tao sa mundo: iyong nanloloko at iyong nagpapaloko, sa kasamaang palad, hindi na ganoon kasimple ang problema. Hindi lamang kamangmangan o katamaran ang problema. The ugly and shameful truth is that the bigger, more insidious and more destructive problem we are facing is truly an unholy trinity made up of: (1) the power-hungry who have no scruples about lying to people’s faces in order to destroy and silence their critics; (2) the money-hungry people who are willing to sell their services in order to help them achieve that goal by manufacturing, delivering and perpetuating those lies in exchange for profits or influential posts in government; and (3) an unchecked medium that not only makes it easy to spread these lies to the most number of people in the shortest possible time, but is also driven by the mentality that being “first!”, “viral” or “famous”, and having the most “likes”, “shares”, “follows”, “re-tweets” and so forth are more important than being “right”, “credible” or “truthful.

Make no mistake, the worst form of cancer afflicting our society are the people who fall under the first category. But what enables them to do what they want is the fact that it is profitable to assist them, as reports by the Washington Post[19] and The Straits Times,[20] have indicated, through paid services and advertisement money. People get paid to troll and to spread discord. People’s integrity now has a going market price.

Blood money is what that is.

Some people might not think that there is anything wrong about making money by making up stories, but they cannot be more wrong.

People’s morals are degraded by fake news, some of which thrive on plain salaciousness o kabastusan at kalaswaan. Nothing is off limits. The personal life, good name and reputation of women, and even men, are fair game. It’s open season for anyone who dares criticize this government, and it’s severely skewing the moral compass of our people, not to mention our youth. People die from false information. How many news stories have we heard of people killing people because of tsismis? How many of those killed because of the “war on drugs” were victims of unverified accusations? And, yet, there is an even bigger public safety and security aspect to it, not just because hate crimes are committed because of propaganda that thrive in sowing divisiveness in an otherwise civilized society, but also because how can we protect ourselves adequately against real threats, while living full and normal lives, when we have lost the ability to tell what is real from what is fake?

Nations are weakened by false information.

External forces gain footing in domestic affairs through false information.

I would like to think that, though we are not a rich nation, we are, at least, a proud nation. Proud of our independence. Proud of our freedoms. Proud of our ability to determine our own fate through the exercise of our basic and constitutionally guaranteed rights. Tayong mga Pilipino ay mga tunay at lubos na mga tao, hindi parang mga palakang may tiyan, walang sikmura.

We must break up this unholy alliance. Or, at the very least, make them feel that crime does not pay – and, yes, lest people forget rumor-mongering was declared a crime under our laws, particularly Presidential Decree No. 90.

Some of us may be well-versed about the nuances and differences between “fake news”, “satire”, “fiction” or “yet unverified information”, but not everyone is. And, worse, there are elements who cowardly hide behind the alibi of “satire” and deceptively worded and/or located disclaimers, while actively dressing themselves up in the clothing of real “news”, hoping that there are enough people that they can fool. Such exploitation must be stopped.

After all, if we have laws that protect against intellectual property right infringement, and consumer protection laws that protect against false advertisement, fraudulent products and product-labeling, and protecting the people against products not fit for human consumption, there is all the more reason for Congress to protect the people from misleading or outrightly false information that contaminate the very life source of our nation: Truth, from which everything else, including Justice, flows.

Therefore, I call on our people not to believe everything they hear or read; but, instead, to be critical and to be inquisitive. Magtanong. Magmatiyag. Magsaliksik. Mag-isip. Ika nga, chew before you swallow and, as one children’s safety public service announcement goes, “Don’t Put It in Your Mouth” until you’ve checked what it is, and know where it’s from. Hindi ka si Snow White. Sabi nga ng Eraserheads, “May mga kumakalat na balita/Na ang kaligtasa’y madaling makuha/Bago maniwala/Mag-isip-isip ka muna/Marami ang namamatay/Sa Maling Akala.” Remember, fake news is like a drug: it makes you feel good by making you see or hear things that you badly want to believe are real; but, in reality, it is a form of poison that will destroy from within. The virus that will bring about a zombie apocalypse in form we least expected.

To my colleagues in the Senate, I implore to all of you – whether you feel personally invested in combating fake news or not – to support, as I wholeheartedly do, the Senate Resolutions no. 259 and 271 of Senators Sonny Trillanes and Kiko Pangilinan, respectively, calling for the conduct of an inquiry on the spate of fake news in social media, in order to find legislative measures to stem their proliferation, such as imposing stronger requirements for websites to take effective responsibility for what they publish, such as by limiting the legal effect of disclaimers, especially those that are inadequately phrased or positioned to give their readers sufficient notice of the nature of what they are publishing, and the imposition of severe penalties that will make it financially burdensome to spread false news, as such, for profit. These are but some legislative measures we can look into in order to address the problem of proliferation of destructive fake news on the purveyors’ end.

But I am also calling for an inquiry on how we can strengthen the fight against fake news and propaganda on the other end: the recipient’s or the receiver’s end. I believe that a strong foundation in critical thinking, established as part of free basic education, will help our nation achieve its goal of establishing a strong and productive citizenry, who will not fall for the tricks of conmen and cult leaders so easily. There comes a point where we can only do so much to protect our people from fraudsters, beyond that it falls upon them to protect themselves. But our duty is to adequately equip them to make the distinction and to think for themselves. That is the least that we owe to ourselves, our children, and to the future of our nation.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society.”

Our present leaders have already given lawless elements the guns, the license, the impunity and the opportunity to butcher us. Let us not make it easy for them to kill us by willingly and submissively swallowing the poison they feed us.

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