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Spotting lies: Truth telling not the monopoly of journalists
Inday Espina–Varona

It is the year 2118. The children of the children of our children have stumbled on a knowledge artifact from 2016, a story about a man dubbed as the world’s best President.

The kids try to dig up the meaning of “president,” try to learn about the Philippines. But mostly, they try to decode a puzzle: How the United Nations Economic and Social Council’s (Ecosoc) “first annual review” of leaders proclaimed Rodrigo Duterte, barely a month in power, as the world’s best President in August 2016.

The Council is real. One of the UN’s six principal organs established in 1945, Ecosoc coordinates the work of 15 agencies.

The story, posted by “Dugong Maharlika” on Facbeook, is false. How many of almost 500 sharers of its good news are real people, is anybody’s guess.

A few months before this stunt, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines had to issue a denial on another viral paean to Duterte.

More than 700 accounts on Facebook shared “Even the Pope Admires Duterte,” posted on the Mayor Rodrigo Duterte for President page. It detailed Pope Francis’ admiration for Duterte’s “honesty” after the presidential candidate cussed him for the monstrous traffic jams spawned during a visit to the Philippines.

The Pope-and-Duterte show became more surreal in October 2017.

“Pope to Filipinos: Duterte is your son, chosen by God” screamed a headline of the Facebook page of “Pres. Rody Duterte Worldwide Supporters.” It garnered a thousand shares.

Blobs of lies

By then, the phenomenon called “fake news” had grown so ubiquitous that Collins dictionary chose the phrase as its “word of the year” last December.

What had initially seemed as comedy had morphed into sinister and malicious blobs of lies, with government officials among the perpetrators.

Peter Laviña, long-time Duterte aide, was already ensconced in Malacañang when he used his Facebook page to slam Philippine human rights advocates for ignoring the rape and murder of a young girl.

It was a false claim, an exploitation of a Brazilian crime victim to taunt opponents of Duterte.

At the start of this year, Sen. Manny Pacquiao confronted Communications Usec. Lorraine Badoy about a 2016 Facebook post.

“Guess what I saw when I went on a run this morning in my village? Manny Pacquiao’s campaign car in front of his mistress’ house,” said Badoy in a photo caption.

Turns out, the supposed first-person account was an amalgram of unvetted gossip drawn from village guards and taho vendors.

The irony wasn’t lost on the thousands tuned in to the Senate hearing.

Badoy, in the same venue, called Vice President Leni Robredo one of the “primary purveyors of fake news.” She slammed Robredo for painting “a gloomy picture of the country at a time in our history when all the important numbers for our country are looking up, fantastic numbers in fact.”

Some “important numbers” were, indeed, up at “fantastic” levels.

Some 4,000 poor suspects had by then died in police operations under Duterte’s drug war. Double that number had fallen across the country in what cops dubbed as “deaths under investigation.”

Technology and gatekeeping

Journalists consider “fake news” an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory words.

By tradition, news is material reported in a newspaper or on a newscast.

The American Press Institute underscores journalism’s purpose: “To provide people with verified information they can use to make better decisions” through “a systematic process – a discipline of verification.”

Given that elaborate system, faking the news – the output of journalists – seems like a hard task.

Not too long ago, journalists monopolized the gathering, production, and dissemination of news. This was largely by default; industry production costs were prohibitive.

Professionals decided what was news, depending on a hierarchy of values or elements, under the constraints imposed by print space or available airtime.

The audience could write letters or send in press releases to lobby for what it deemed important issues. But the newsdesk had the final say.

Since the 1980s, and more swiftly in the coming decades, social media has challenged more traditional platforms for the news agenda.

Affordable tools, like smart phones and electronic cameras allowed people to capture – and share – events in real time.

A merger of revolutionary digital technology and pent up desires by media’s traditional audience tore down the old gatekeeping model.

The audience became producers with the capacity to challenge the definition of “newsworthy.”

Citizen journalism

I left print journalism in 2010 to head ABS-CBN’s citizen journalism arm, “Bayan Mo I-Patrol Mo” (BMPM).

The challenge then was to meet the market demand for real-time information, with greater emphasis on the audience-producer’s voice.

BMPM then had some 700,000 Bayan Patrollers. Our unit gave hundreds of citizen journalism workshops to patrollers, who showed a deep thirst for learning communications skills, starting with vetting information thrown up by the Internet, processing what they documented first-hand, and presenting this in a lucid manner.

They learned fast.

Bayan Patrollers on the unit’s Facebook page soon echoed lessons, proactively correcting false information spread inadvertently by their peers.

They were eager to hone reporting skills, seeing a powerful tool to show the world the problems their communities faced. They knew that competent story telling improved the odds of getting these problems solved. And they wanted to learn how to spot lies because they knew it harmed people and contributed to the spread of ignorance.

Dirty politics

I left BMPM in 2013. Five years later, “fake news” has become a political issue.

It has become a weapon against press freedom and freedom of expression.

In the current context, the products dubbed “fake news” can be slotted into two categories: misinformation or disinformation.

Both present false facts or claims.

Misinformation stems from mistakes, either by journalists or news sources or netizens.

It can be corrected by education, as shown by the BMPM experience, and among journalists, with a hefty dose of ethics and humility.

But like many other complex industries, media is also vulnerable to fraud and errors.

Disinformation is the deliberate use and spread of false or inaccurate information. It is an act of deception, the manufacturing of untruth.

The architects of lies specialize in creating a program of disinformation.

Their victims are only guilty of misinformation.

It is important to make that distinction.

The tendency for victim blaming only fuels the crisis of misinformation and disinformation in the world.

Victim blaming deflects attention from an important truth: That disinformation is as old as time; that the political, economic, and social elite have always peddled lies, have always tried to manipulate publics.

Fake news has become a catch-all phrase, a dangerous one. 

Duterte’s opponents scream “fake news” when his claims slip and slide.

Duterte likes hurling that phrase at reporters and news outfits for critical reportage even when they’ve gotten the government’s side on controversial issues. The President even used it as one of the reasons for denying access to journalists.

Nobody is more enthusiastic attacking critical journalism than Duterte’s chief screech echo, Asst. Communications Secretary Mocha Uson. 

Yet the assistant communications secretary also justifies her track record for spreading disinformation as the privilege of a blogger, a non-journalist.

Spotting lies

The social media has its grave limitations, caused not by technology but the way we are as people.

We are all vulnerable to disinformation, potential peddlers of misinformation.

People dream. People believe in causes. People want to change the world, for better or worse. Above all, people want to be right.

Our passion is both strength and weakness.

Face to face, we question each other. We do not take each other’s claims at face value. We stop each other mid-conversation, to get a better sense of the actors in the stories we tell. Who?

We try to understand the context of events. What exactly happened? When? Where?

What are a child’s favorite words?

Bakit. Why? Why do things happen?

And, How.

Learning how things happen, the chronology of events, of cause and effect, is a critical part of human beings’ real-life education.

These are not questions limited to journalists.

Our ancestors were asking these questions back when they huddled in caves. Questions were their way of understanding a dangerous world. Questions were the medium that provided answers to the challenges of survival.

Our days are full of questions. We ask them; we are asked to answer.

Why are we so eager to give up this basic human ability once we log on Facebook?

Asking questions is the key to spotting lies and minimizing the harm they do.

Here are some tips:

Follow reputable news sources

Journalists can get things wrong, yes, but the entire news process minimizes the odds of errors. News outfits pay attention to social media but take pains to vet reports by citizen journalists.

If a “viral” post is shared by tens of thousands of netizens but does not appear in reputable news websites, chances are that it is false.

Peddlers of lies rely on people’s dependence on social media newsfeeds as source of information. Get out of that trap by subscribing to or following the social media accounts and websites of news organizations.

Click before you share;

read or watch beyond the headline

More than 60 million Filipinos are on Facebook. Most rely on a promo called “Free Facebook.” It allows sharing and posting but data charges apply once you click on links, an important part of reviewing “news.”

Clicking is important because some applications or programs allow pranksters to change the “cover” of genuine news post, turning legitimate reports into sensational lies.

“Is that your video/photo?”

Ask this when friends post “breaking” news – damage from earthquakes or typhoons, a shooting, etc. 

If they say, yes, ask for details the same way you would in a face-to-face chat.

A photo or short video post usually focuses on the most dramatic moments of an event. Try to get the chronology or the flow of the action before and after that captured moment so you do not fall for sensational but false accusations.

If they say it’s just a share, try to track down the source.

You never know if someone has stolen a photo and manipulated it to peddle a lie. Even big news outfits like the BBC and CNN fell victim when they failed to exercise due diligence in stories about an alleged massacre in Syria (where the photos were actually from Iraq, 10 years earlier) and the effects of Hurricane Sandy in the U.S. East Coast.

Do a reverse image check

Google allows you to check the origins of a photo. That’s how Peter Tiu Laviña (then an official under the Office of the Cabinet Secretary) was found out using a photo of a Brazilian rape and murder victim to claim that Philippine human rights activists were ignoring victims of crime. That’s also how netizens discovered Uson’s use of a Haiti photo to falsely create an image of support for martial law in Mindanao.

Consider the source; check the author

You know Uson does not think she has a duty to vet the things she shares. Why trust her with the truth if she doesn’t care about it?

Partisan interests do not mean a charge is false. But it should make you aware that a person’s perspective of events comes from a particular direction. Often, same facts will prompt different interpretations.

Review that URL

(Uniform Resource Locator)

Dirty tricks specialists like to imitate credible news sites. Have a list of genuine news sites and their URL and check these whenever something using a news outfit’s brand (BBC or ABS-CBN, for example) pops up with something unusual.

Check the date

If a headline screams, ask the “When” question.

Propagandists like to resurrect old versions of “breaking news” that have already been resolved to create a negative wave of public opinion against targets.

A headline could read, “Plunder raps filed against politician A,” and be true (if the charges are new) or false (in the court already dismissed the case filed eight years ago).

Recognize your bias

A belief system is a good thing. It makes you more involved with the world. Just recognize that it could make you read the same sources and people again and again and prevent you from a more rounded appreciation of events and trends. Sometimes our friends and organizations can fall for misinformation or fail to double check or update initial data from the field.

Check supporting documents

Most credible news sites want to educate their audience. Digital space allows us to share hyperlinks and offer netizens additional knowledge outside of the constraints of traditional media.

Supporting documents are important for your education. Read them to see if your favorite journalist or news outfit did the math right and interpreted data correctly.

Also, peddlers of lies will try to stuff their work with links and footnotes, hoping for a more authoritative look. It’s all too easy to become an “expert” today by crowding a report with links and attributions.

Take up the challenge and do a review of their source documents. Some links just lead to more dubious articles. Beware of authors who use this tactic.

Is it a joke?

Satire, farce, and parody are time honored communications styles. But they are not “news” because they deliberately tweak the truth or embellish on it. If it sounds too good to be true, check the “About Us.” The Adobo Chronicles is a satirical site but many netizens will share its output as real news.

How’s the writing?

A post full of “splling erors,” exclamation points and ALL CAPS, or dramatic contradictions of verb and tense are probably sharing lies.

All those “news” with fantastic quotes – are the quotes traceable? If there are no clear personalities quoted, ignore. If some known names are quoted, check the links – some are news stories that reflect the opposite of the fake claim.

At the very least, you can be sure the authors have not done proper research or vetting.

Check the list of fake news sites and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has a good list.

Follow fact-checking websites

After ceding too much algorithm magic to peddlers of lies, Facebook has contracted fact-checking media outfits like Vera Files and Rappler for its Philippine audience. Also visit good fact-checking sites like FactCheck.org, International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), PolitiFact.com, or Snopes.com.

Remember, we cannot demand for change and yet be complicit in the distortion or fabrication of facts, images or data.

FIGHTING FAKE NEWS -- The Let’’'’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity-Baguio or LODI organized a forum on truth telling in the time of fake news at the University of the Philippines Baguio recently with speakers Tonyo Cruz, veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona, and theater actress Mae Paner (Juana Change) urging students to stand up for the truth in the time of misinformation and disinformation. -- Ofelia C. Empian

 

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