Senate Hearing on “Fake News:” Getting Back at Trolls and Other Trivia
THE SENATE hearing on “fake news” on October 4 contributed little to the public’s understanding of the term and its meaning. It has become a buzz word, used to mean different things to different people. In holding such a hearing, the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chaired by Sen. Grace Poe should have had a clearer logic to their line of questioning, focusing perhaps on a search for a working definition and clarifying the different forms of fake news prevailing in the new as well as old media.
But the Senate is not known for such logical inquiries.
The committee invited a mix of what they call resource persons in these proceedings: current and former Malacañang communications officials, senior journalists and lawyers, as well as pro-administration bloggers—some of whom are now working in government office. One could not expect much clarity from the resulting exchange.
Taking up nearly six hours, the hearing did not give experts, lawyers and journalists enough time to clarify critical points: the constitutionality or wisdom of legislation as a way to check fake news, the difference between blogging and journalism, the obligations of those who work in a news organization, the responsibilities of those who are paid from public funds as communications persons.
Clearly, these issues raise ethical questions, which are different from the legal; and yet, no senator seemed to wish to discuss media ethics and professional values. If the hearing was to benefit the public, then Senator Poe should have asked the kinds of questions that could draw out the purpose of government communications.
Members of the Senate seemed more interested in prosecuting bloggers who had offended them. The only benefit perhaps of the extensive grilling of those working in government who are also bloggers was to demonstrate their arrogance and lack of awareness of the responsibilities of public office.
Inviting public officials to a hearing should involve the Senate in clarifying exactly what these officials are hired to do, perhaps, their qualification for the jobs or consultancies they hold. But the line of questioning seemed blind to the issue deserving investigation: can government communication be based on false premises, on outright lies, on defamation and scandal mongering? Why was there no effort to examine exactly the purpose of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) and how well their budget is spent to serve the information that the public needs about benefits and services of government programs?
CMFR reviewed news reports in the newspapers (Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star), primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon) and select news websites from October 4 to 6, 2017 and found little that could help the public appreciate the problem caused by fake news and the difference between journalism and those keeping personal journals, sharing their views and their opinions.
Media aired all six-hours of the hearing live, as expected.
Media reports however highlighted the colorful and the controversial, and picked up choice sound bites. Unfortunately, what salient points were made by some of the resource persons were not as interesting as the verbal tirades between personalities present in the inquiry. If in aid of legislation, both the hearing and media coverage should have focused on steps recommended to address the problem at hand.
Representatives from mainstream media, whom bloggers accused of bias against the Duterte administration, shared their insights and constructive criticism of the use of social media for fake news. Sadly, these inputs were sidelined by the sensational and mentioned only in passing.
If the Senate could not keep its eye on target, perhaps, the media should not be faulted for just following the flawed lead.
The efforts of certain media programs deserve to be cheered. Is legislation the way to address the problem of fake news?
In a phone interview with DZMM’s S.R.O. (Suhestiyon, Reaksyon at Opinyon) former UP College of Mass Communication (UP CMC) Dean and CMFR Board of Trustees member Luis Teodoro stressed the dangers of passing legislation against fake news as it may infringe on Article 3, Section 4 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution which protects the right to freedom of speech, of expression and of the press. Such a law would be dangerous, he said, as it is unclear who would decide what fake news is, exposing the law to abuse. Teodoro also called out the government for being one of the sources of fake news.
As for the issue with bloggers, Teodoro said that those who do the work of a journalist—analyzing news and reporting on public issues—must be judged based on professional standards of truth, accuracy and accountability.
UP CMC journalism professor Danilo Arao echoed Teodoro’s views in an interview with ReAksyon. According to Arao, the proposed measures—Senate Bill 1492 and House Bill 6022—are problematic as it may also affect people who are merely using the internet to express their opinion.
Arao also warned against President Duterte’s proposal to impose stiffer penalties for libel, slander and other similar offenses as it can result to a chilling effect, not only to the press but also to the public. Libel will also become a convenient excuse to harass journalists, he said.
Asked what could be done, the professor believes that media literacy and media education, as well as effective implementation of self-regulatory mechanisms are the best solutions against fake news.
In an interview with DZMM’s Kabayan, veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas tackled the concept of “fake news.” For Tordesillas, the term is a misnomer, saying fake news should be referred to lies. She also reminded bloggers to be responsible and provide accurate information. Tordesillas argued that anybody in the business of communication, regardless of whether they are journalists or not, should abide by journalistic elements of truth, balance, fairness, humaneness and accountability. “The more power you have, the more responsible you should be,” she said.
ANC’s Headstart invited Tordesillas, along with Trixie Angeles who works for the PCOO as a social media strategist under Asec. Uson. Angeles and Tordesillas shared their thoughts on the outcome of the inquiry, with both agreeing that the hearing failed to clarify what fake news is, and that new legislation is not necessary to address the issue.
The episode’s discussion was mainly on the concerns about the impact of bloggers in information dissemination, as well as the conduct of government officials, including bloggers who now work for the government in relation to the proliferation of false information.
Tordesillas repeated the points she made during the Senate hearing and in the interview with Kabayan, reiterating that the more worrisome problem are government officials who themselves are sources of false information, with the pro-administration bloggers merely acting as the vehicles of so-called fake news.
The veteran journalist also questioned the competence of Asec. Uson and emphasized that she has a huge burden as a government communications official who is paid with taxpayers’ money.
Angeles, for her part, fervently defended the actions of pro-administration bloggers in government, arguing that there is no law prohibiting the behavior they exhibit in social media. When asked what should be done in instances where false information was allegedly disseminated, Angeles encouraged that such matters be taken to court.
She also reiterated her call for an agreed definition of fake news to “level the discussion.”