Fighting ‘digital wildfires’


Dr. Florangel Rosario-Braid

“Digital wildfires” refer to unreliable information, one of the biggest threats facing societies and governments all over the world today. It has done considerable damage to freedom of expression and democracy.

We had seen how fake news had misled people’s voting preferences during the US presidential elections in 2016, the Brexit referendum in the UK, and in our last two presidential elections. It played an important role in awakening radical behavior and extremism among the youth in Hong Kong. Even the credible HK Red Cross was attacked with fake news.

The sudden drop in media trust worldwide had likewise become much more noticeable since 2021 with a decline by eight percent from previous year. The highest media trust was recorded in Europe where effects of fake news were not so visible in countries like Finland and Netherlands. The US was at the bottom in media trust together with Hungary, the Philippines and Taiwan.

These findings by several media organizations showed that the social media were the least trusted among news sources.

When it aligns with their beliefs, 56 percent of Facebook users can’t recognize fake news. In 2020, there were 1.8 billion fake news exaggerated on Facebook which removed seven million posts that contain fake news.

Fake news was shown to be more powerful than truth on social media as it spreads six times faster and 10 times deeper than true news. Then there are stories that have some truth but are not entirely accurate. But the factual elements in the story lend it some credibility, thus making them more believable.

Here at home, the recent Pulse Asia Survey had shown that nine out of 10 Filipinos or 86 percent see proliferation of fake news as a great problem. Aside from social media with 68 percent and TV with 67 percent as leading sources of fake news about government and politics, respondents also cited the following sources: Radio, 32 percent; friends, 28 percent; family, 21 percent; leaders in community, four percent; newspaper, three percent; and religious leader, one percent.

Among those mentioned as possible spreaders of fake news are social influencers, bloggers and vloggers, journalists, national level politicians, local politicians, civic leaders, businessmen, academics.

Two Senate Bills against fake news has been filed to respond to the growing threats of disinformation – SB 547 by Sen. Grace Poe, which seeks to amend the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees to further promote professionalism in information dissemination among public servants by ensuring that they do not become sources of misinformation.

S.B. 1296 by Sen. Jinggoy Estrada seeks to criminalize the creation and dissemination of fake news by amending the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. A similar measure, H.B. No. 2971 was filed at the House of Representatives. H.B. 862, seeks to penalize all forms of fake or false news with violators facing a fine of not less than ₱500,000 and imprisonment of not less than 10 years.

I too doubt whether these would be the right approach and agree with Senator Nancy Binay’s observation that “outlawing” fake news through legislation would curtail our constitutional right to freedom of expression.

But there are ways by which legislation can be applied. One remedy would be legislation that would support “alternative” media and other information platforms that could mitigate the influence of social media and commercial TV. Perhaps the people behind the creative industries, cultural organizations, cooperatives, peace and environmental groups can get together to put up an alternative to social media and commercial television.

Since research shows that most people seem to possess a general lack of ability to examine information critically, these initiatives must include media and information literacy that would develop critical thinking. This, as well as data management systems that would enhance the development of credible websites where accuracy of information can be validated.

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