World’s eyes on PH as ‘ground zero’ for disinformation—Robredo

Published November 29, 2022, 9:38 PM

by Raymund Antonio

Former vice president Leni Robredo on Tuesday, Nov. 29, enjoined international and local foundations and civic society movements to fight disinformation in the Philippines, which she described as a “ground zero” for fake news and influence operations.

Former vice president Leni Robredo speaks at the KAS Solutions Conference of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Philippines in Makati City on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (Photo from Atty Leni Robredo via Facebook)

Speaking before the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Solutions Conference, which was attended also by the Stratbase ADR Institute, Robredo expressed hope for everyone to address the root cause of disinformation and expose those who benefit from it.

“So ang wish ko (my wish is), that this conference will result [in] that: all of us agreeing that this is a problem shared by everyone, no matter our political color, and we should all work together to combat what we already have,” she told the audience.

And while fact-checking is necessary, Robredo lamented it as “inadequate.”

“Instead of engaging in hyper-politicized debates about individual issues, lies, and myths, we must pull back and situate each lie within the bigger process of disinformation—we must expose, so to speak, how the sausage is made, and talk about who is benefiting from disinformation, who is benefiting in every story, in every lie that is being said, and what is the agendas, what are the motivations,” she said.

She offered solutions, which are grounded in the best practices of other countries, to the issue: Taiwan’s “Fast, Fair, and Fun” strategy; Maria Ressa’s suggestion to view disinformation as having an impact on human rights and protect data privacy and banning the surveillance advertising; and reforming social media platforms.

The former vice president, who lost the 2022 presidential elections, is in a short vacation in the Philippines after spending months in the United States to attend speaking engagements in Harvard University, where she was one of the Hauser Leaders, as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Democracy Forum of the Obama Foundation.

She was also recently in Zurich to speak at a conference hosted by the Asia Society Switzerland.

She will fly back to the United States on Friday, Dec. 2, to deliver a series of talks—at the Asia Society New York, The HOW Institute in New York, Princeton University, Tufts University, Northeastern University, and Bentley University.

Cornell University and Georgetown University have also extended invitations to her, but she is yet to confirm if these will fit her schedule.

“And the reason why I’m telling you this is that these invitations are a clear indication that the eyes of many around the world are on the Philippines,” Robredo said.

“Those whom we have engaged have shown particular interest in disinformation and influence operations in the Philippines. We are, after all, considered—unfortunately—ground zero for such a phenomena,” she added.

The former official shared that the Philippines is considered a “petri dish” for “those who weaponized social media to spread lies, control the flow of information, erode our trust in each other and in our institutions, polarize society, and dismantle the structures for meaningful public discourse.”

She explained that during her speaking engagements, she realized that people “want to understand how we arrived at the situation we are in right now, and why.”

“They want to see what lessons can be learned from our experiences, and from there perhaps apply the same lessons to their own contexts. They are asking if we see a way forward, and to show them this way,” Robredo, one of the most victimized by fake news in the country, added.

She described the purveyors of disinformation as being “organized” with a “set strategies and objectives.”

“They are well-funded. And they have shattered social media as a space for political discourse in the Philippines,” she lamented.

Robredo addressed for the first time the “Len-Len” videos, which are supported by President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s sister, Senator Imee Marcos.

It is not only disinformation that the Philippines is fighting against, but “influence operations,” a term coined by Professor Jonathan Ong, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who wrote a groundbreaking study about disinformation in the Philippines.

“Yung (The) number two ang tawag niya dito sa (he calls in the) research ‘senator satirist’, pero tatawagin na lang natin na (but we will just call) satirist, often in a position of access and power, who delivers coded attacks that can transcend fact-checks,” she said.

“Kaya siya hindi nafa-fact check kasi satire nga. Pero familiar naman kayo dito, ‘di ba? ‘Yung mga “Len-Len” videos (They are not being fact checked because they are satire. But you are familiar with these, right? The “Len-Len” videos),” Robredo added.

The former official, however, shared hopes of a future free from disinformation.

“While more work remains on the horizon, the outcome—even when narrow—holds promise that the tide can be turned, when actions are rooted on promoting transparency and accountability in government and social platforms,” she said.