Curbing Fake News

By Luis V. Teodoro

THE DANGERS to free expression and press freedom of Senate Bill 1492, which would penalize any person, group or media organization that deliberately spreads “fake news,” are so apparent one wonders if its sponsor and supporters in the Senate have seriously considered its Constitutionality–or, for that matter, its potential impact on the free discussion of public issues in this alleged democracy.

Filed last June 22 by Senator Joel Villanueva, SB 1492 criminalizes the dissemination of false information and penalizes with stiff fines and prison terms ordinary citizens, journalists, government officials and media organizations that are in violation of its provisions.

The fines range from an incredible P100,000 to an astounding P5,000,000 for erring  private-sector individuals, twice that for government officials, and up to P20,000,000 for media organizations. The bill also mandates prison sentences of a year to five years and more and forever bars erring officials from holding public office.

It defines fake news as information that “either intend (sic) to cause panic, division, chaos, violence and hate, or those which exhibit a propaganda (sic) to blacken or discredit one’s reputation.”

Deciphering that definition, which seems to have been written by a high school drop-out, is problematic enough, but determining intent in the media and in much of human affairs is even more vexing.

False and misleading information can be spread either unintentionally and in good faith, or maliciously for a predetermined purpose. Whether a news report was meant to sow hatred, panic, chaos, etc. can be extremely difficult if not impossible to establish. If in the aftermath of a news report in print, or a Facebook entry, a series of violent incidents occurred, how certain can anyone be of a causal connection between those incidents and the reports themselves?

Equally problematic is the question of who, or what authority or agency will decide that a report, a news analysis or commentary in print, radio, television, in social media, a blog, or a news site, is fake news.  Will it be a government agency such as, say, the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) which seems to be the “logical” State instrumentality for that task?

In addition to  the question of whether PCOO functionaries have the necessary expertise–which has become increasingly questionable given that agency’s many gaffes and its own propensity, when it suits its purposes, for spreading the  fraudulent information it would itself be tasked to curb–would it have the skilled manpower to monitor every Philippines-based newspaper, television and radio station, social media account, blog and news site,  since literally thousands of items on issues of public relevance are generated by these sources daily?

If it is indeed a State agency that will be charged with the task of determining what information generated by individuals, groups and the media is fraudulent or not, it is likely to result in selectively monitoring only critical publications, news sites, etc., and suppressing information contrary to the interests of whatever regime is in power, while stamping those supportive of regime policies and actions with the agency’s seal of approval.

Once passed into law, SB 1492 will in short result in censorship rather than the elimination or even minimization of fake news. The likelihood is that government itself will be the principal source and disseminator of false and misleading information in furtherance of the creeping authoritarianism Filipinos should be more concerned about.

Fake news is not the new phenomenon most people–and apparently, some senators–think it is. Its proliferation is driven by popular misunderstanding of the responsibilities of communication and its value in human affairs. But it is also the means through which human perceptions of the most crucial issues of public concern and interest are manipulated by forces whose interests are contrary to mass understanding.

The new information and communication technologies, such as the Internet and mobile telephony, have made possible unprecedented access to means of communication, enabling anyone with a tablet, a laptop or a smartphone to receive false information and to share it with others.

Anyone with a malicious communication agenda, whether public relations practitioners who use the media to cast their clients in a good light or to put down the latter’s rivals, or politicians and business interests engaged in the effort to control the public mind to their advantage, share with online trolls the common objective of shaping public opinion in behalf of a predetermined purpose.  Journalists and media personalities in the payroll of this or that interest are equally accountable. So are media organizations that knowingly print, air or upload false information.

But accountability in the exercise of the universally recognized  right to communicate is best enforced, not by the State, but by the media community itself  as well as by a public media-literate and responsible enough to detect and not to share false information.

Government regulation is in fact the least likely to result in curbing the spread of fake news. Media self-regulation and a media-literate people are the most likely to assure the public of getting to the truth of those issues and events that concern it.

SB 1492 is as eminently unnecessary as it is dangerous. Some media organizations and media advocacy groups are already enhancing the capacity of their staff to monitor the issuances of social media users, bloggers, and news sites as well as to fact-check the claims of their sources of information and their own reports. They’re also identifying those bogus sites that have been created to spread fraudulent information for or against individuals, groups, policy proposals, ideas or issues relevant to the life of the citizenry.

Meanwhile, understanding how the media operate, knowledge of its values and standards, and a critical eye and ear are among the necessary attributes of an informed public so it may not be victimized by the purveyors of disinformation.

Fake news can never be completely eliminated in a media-saturated world. But it can be curbed through the self-regulatory regime journalists and media organizations are already familiar with. It is a long and continuing process government regulation can address only at the graver risk of making the problem worse rather than eliminating it.