The problem with fake news: UP experts speak on the impact of disinformation on politics, society and democracy

| Written by Khalil Ismael Michael G. Quilinguing


Video by KIM Quilinguing, UP Media and Public Relations Office

 

“It used to be that we could have a civilized conversation about political ideas. We used to have civilized conversations about disagreements in terms of issues, in terms of values, in terms of ideologies. What makes democracy work is that we can look across the aisle and have a decent conversation.”

But much has changed since the proliferation of what is commonly called fake news on social media platforms. That’s the lament of Professor Clarissa David of the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines.

In an interview early this year, David said that while academics try not to use the term “fake news,” it is still used in situations where they need to discuss the phenomenon because the term is widely used and understood by more people. “We try to avoid the term now because it puts together into one category many different kinds of harmful content that’s online,” she added.

David said that communications or media scholars have recently categorized  fake news into two types: misinformation and disinformation. According to David, misinformation is false information which is unintentionally disseminated on online platforms. “There is no propaganda intention; mostly there is no political intention,” she said. Disinformation, on the other hand, is intended to convince online users to favor a group or individual political perspective. “Disinformation is orchestrated, it’s funded, … it’s planned. In politics, it’s run by professionals,” she added.

For Associate Professor Danilo Arao of the Journalism Department of the College of Mass Communication, it could be because the journalist is not able to properly gather all the information necessary for a story or properly comprehend what is gathered from different sources. “The major mistakes would have to do with crucial data. As well as analyses that would tend to disregard other aspects of the data that are gathered,” he said.

A journalist, he said, must have a good understanding of the issue being reported and the materials gathered from various sources; otherwise,  the reporter risks providing wrong information to his superiors and the unwitting public.

Arao also said journalists who may have reported the news by mistake must be quick to admit fault and rectify their errors, especially at a time when information is disseminated at a rate faster than it used to be when news stories are were aired and published only via traditional platforms such as television, radio and newspapers.

 

Assoc. Prof. Danilo Arao. Photo by KIM Quilinguing, UP MPRO.

 

On the other hand, Professor Rachel Khan, former Chairperson of the Journalism Department and now Associate Dean of the College of Mass Communication, thinks misinformation can also occur if a journalist is given wrong information by his or her sources; in which case, the journalist may not know that he or she is reporting false news.

With various online resources now available, Khan said journalists may be able to verify and authenticate information given to them by a source, thus reducing the possibility of publishing inaccurate or wholly false news reports.

At a time when some governments frequently accuse the media of disseminating fake news, these academics see the need for the public to be informed on how fake news is generated and disseminated and how media practitioners can enhance their capacity to verify information prior to publishing or airing their news stories on TV, radio, print and online.

 

Social media use among Filipinos in the latest report from We Are Social and Hootsuite.

 

In recent months, the social media platform Facebook announced the deactivation of several accounts which were found to have dubious identities and activities on the platform. They said that some of the accounts were even involved in the promotion of select politicians and political interest groups.

Facebook remains the social media platform accessed by the largest number of people in the country. In a recent report from We Are Social and Hootsuite, studies showed that about 76 million Filipinos out of 107.3 million have access to the Internet. About 97 percent of these netizens access Facebook, while only 54 percent use Twitter. About 96 percent watch videos on YouTube and 64 percent post photos on Instagram.

The report said 63 percent of social media users in the country belong to the 17- 34 age group, with females comprising a little over half of that number. About 13 percent belong to the 35-44 age group, while about 11 percent are teenagers in the 13-17 age group. Users over 45 years old comprise only about 12.3 percent.

For communication educators like Arao, David and Khan, social media plays a key role not only in the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation, but also in the fight against the spread of the same troubling phenomenon.

With a doctorate in Communication Research from the University of Pennsylvania, David teaches political communication, journalism and public opinion, research methods, and mass media, government and society at the UP College of Mass Communication, where she also took up a masteral studies in Communication Research. She earned a Bachelor in Communication degree from the Ateneo de Manila University.

Aside from her time in the academe, David has also worked with The World Bank, the Philippine Institute of Development Studies, the Human Development Network, the Social Weather Stations, and the Philippine Competition Commission.

A frequent resource person for media organizations, David has been actively giving her insights on the impact of fake news on media and society. Several of her interviews have been made available by the online news outfit Rappler.

 

Prof. Clarissa David, PhD. Photo by KIM Quilinguing, UP MPRO.

 

According to David, one of the hallmarks of fake news on social media is how these supposed news stories try to agitate readers or consumers. “If it’s screaming at you. If it’s trying to rile you up. If it makes you angry, if it has curse words, if it has exclamation points, the odds of it being not disinformation are very low.” Consistently used as a format, this style is very much the opposite of what comes out on legitimate news organizations, which are supposed to avoid sensationalizing news stories.

Given the consistent efforts of individuals involved in disinformation to pass their work off as legitimate news, Arao sees the identification of such stories as a challenge. “The problem with fake news is that it mimics the reportage of more established news media organizations, especially the ones that are identified with the dominant media,” he said.

This mimicry of established news media organizations even goes beyond how stories are written. In some cases, these purveyors of fake news mimic websites with similar web addresses or uniform resource locators  (URLs). On a list compiled on Wikipedia, they incude: “ABCnews.com.co” passing itself of as abcnews.go.com; “Bloomberg.ma” mimicking Bloomberg.com; “cnn-channel.com” for cnn.com; “aljazeeranews-tv.com” for aljazeera.com; and, “gma-tv.com” masquerading as gmanetwork.com/news.

 

Distribution of social media users in the Philippines according to We Are Social and HootSuite.

 

Arao said it is disturbing that a significant number of Filipinos believe stories from fake news websites and dubious social media pages. It is also troubling that there are those who actively promote and disseminate these stories as well. He said that if people start believing in fake news more than they should news from legitimate sources, they will tend to make decisions that would not be based on reliable information.

“If you fall for the lies, then you tend to fall for the purveyors of such lies,” he added.

Arao teaches Journalism, Media and Communication courses. Aside from teaching in his home college, he has also taught courses on global studies for the UP Center for International Studies. He is also the former Assistant Vice President for Public Affairs of the UP System and the former Director of the UP System Information Office.

An advocate of alternative media, Arao is member of the Board of Editors of Bulatlat.com, as well as a columnist for the online opinion website, The Lobbyist. He was also the managing editor of the Philippine Journalism Review of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and a member of the Board of Critics for the ABC 5’s Dokyu. He also headed Ibon Foundation’s research programs and was the editor-in-chief of the foundation’s publications.

He is currently finishing a dissertation for his doctorate in Journalism at the Technische Universitat Ilmenau in Germany. He earned his Master of Arts in Philippine Studies degree from the De La Salle University and his Bachelor of Arts in Communication, major in Journalism, degree from UP Diliman, where he had also been news editor of the Philippine Collegian.

In the recent elections, Arao, as convenor of the election watchdog, Kontra Daya, urged people to be vigilant on social media and be careful with fake news. He said some groups might resort to deception and misinformation.

Recognizing how false stories online are also fueled by political beliefs and ideologies these days, Arao said people should be more discriminating about new information and stories which can be picked up online, especially if these were picked up from dubious online sources. “We cannot just accept everything, hook, line and sinker, because the problem with fake news is that it is out there, particularly in social media, along with the truth.”

For Khan, the impact of disinformation on democracy particularly in the Philippines, is something which everyone must seriously consider. “The horrible thing about fake news is it undermines democracy. Especially because social media is supposed to be a platform where the ordinary citizen can have a voice.”

With fake online accounts and the machinery which produces and disseminates these false stories, Khan said it is possible for legitimate concerns and problems of ordinary citizens, minority groups and various sectors to be silenced by their ideological or political rivals. She said that these groups will manipulate public opinion to favor the political, economic or ideological interests of a particular group, sector or politician. “They drown out the legitimate voices in favor of paid voices that want to skew public opinion,” she said.

 

Prof. Rachel Khan, DPA. Photo by KIM Quilinguing, UP MPRO.

 

Khan teaches several undergraduate and graduate courses. A former print journalist, she earned her Bachelor in Economics degree from UP Diliman and her Master of Science in Journalism degree with concentration in New Media, from Columbia University in New York, as a Fulbright scholar. She later earned her doctorate in Public Administration from the UP National College in Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG).

Khan was the former deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. She was a finalist in the 1998 Jaime V. Ongpin Award for Investigative Journalism for her story, “Comelec: Weighed but Found Wanting”. She was also first runner-up in the Citibank Pan-Asia Journalism Award for Business Reporting for an in-depth story on the 1995 inflation crisis. Active in the promotion of responsible journalism, she is also affiliated with the Asian Congress for Media and Communication, the Philippine Studies Association of the Philippines, and the Asian Media and Information Center.

A strong advocate against online disinformation, Khan has been very active in events which discuss the impact of fake news on Philippine society and governance. In the recent elections, she was the project leader for Tsek.ph, the collaborative election initiative intended to fact check claims made by candidates.

Composed of academic and media partners, Tsek.ph verified dubious statements made by candidates, their supporters and online accounts favoring or opposing specific candidates in the May elections. Their findings were published on the website and disseminated via social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

On a personal level, Khan said that everyone can help in the fight against disinformation. “If we are going to combat fake news, we can all contribute by making sure that we do not share fake news,” she said. It was important, she added, that people verify the information they see online before disseminating it further by sharing it on social media. “For me it’s an obligation, especially these days. Don’t add to the proliferation ng fake news.”

For these experts,  the proliferation of disinformation online, while worrying, serves as a challenge for media scholars and practitioners to collaborate and find ways to promote media literacy and responsible journalism. It has also become an opportunity to appreciate the important role the press plays in societies like the Philippines, which remain experiments in nation-building and representative democracies.

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