“A large part of the struggle to keep democracy alive in this country—in any country—will be the struggle to keep our campuses free.” Such were the words spoken by University of the Philippines Visayas (UP Visayas) Chancellor Clement Camposano at the 3rd National Conference on Democracy and Disinformation, hosted this year virtually by UP Visayas.
For Camposano, colleges and universities, particularly UP, have become the subject of disinformation campaigns on social media. He characterized the attacks on the platforms as a vilification campaign, which not only poses a challenge to members of the university community, but also to the country’s democracy at large. “The University is under siege because there is a campaign of vilification against it, a campaign intent on portraying our campuses not only as breeding grounds of radicalism. . . but also as safe havens for enemies of the state,” he added.
Speaking to an online audience largely composed of the academe, particularly campus journalists, the chancellor underscored the role of campus journalists in challenging disinformation, particularly among members of the university community. “To keep democracy from breathing its last, we need to keep our campuses alive. Alive with ideas, with disputations, with political dreams of all sorts. Alive with politics, broadly construed,” he said.
Disinformation and government accountability
Speaking of campus journalists, Senator Risa Hontiveros underscored their role in the fight against the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos. She particularly highlighted the Philippine Collegian and its editor Abraham Sarmiento, Jr., quoting his words, “kung hindi tayo kikilos? Kung hindi tayo kikibo, sino ang kikibo? Kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa?” which were a challenge to fellow students to stand for freedom of speech and democracy.
Hontiveros also recalled how the Marcos dictatorship immediately closed down media organizations after proclaiming Martial Law, resulting to the growth of clandestine media organizations which would later emerge during the 1986 People Power Revolution. “The role of the media in protecting our democracy cannot be understated,” she said, mentioning its role as providing check and balance of government, acting as the virtual 4th branch of government.
The former broadcast journalist also paid tribute to local media organizations all over the country, including regional newspapers in the Visayas and Mindanao, whose relentless reports on the pivotal moments during Martial Law aided in the fight against state-sponsored disinformation and the restoration of democracy. “The Filipino media’s courage and ingenuity paved the way for more and more Filipinos to know the truth. For more Filipinos to wake up from a deep, deep slumber,” she added.
The senator also emphasized how the media plays an important role in providing the public with information which serves as the baseline of facts, from which people of different persuasions can have a rational discussion. “Without media, and if all we’re fed is propaganda or dis- and misinformation, this can polarize societies and skew public debates,” she said. She said that this lack of a common set of evidence-based facts will not only mean distortions of reality, but it will also make government accountability impossible.
Speaking likewise on the accountability of government, Rappler Chief Executive Officer Maria Ressa said it was important for people to have accurate information from the media, as it will enable them to demand accountability and transparency from their government. “If we don’t have facts, we can’t have a shared reality and we cannot hold government to account, protect our rights, and protect our democracy,” she said.
Ressa, who has been the subject of several law suits regarding the ownership of Rappler and a supposed libelous news article against a businessman, views the charges against her as harassment of the media by the Duterte administration. She has been the subject of disinformation efforts by trolls on social media with the use of memes, altered images and misquotes. She has also been threatened by dubious social media users via messages and comments. “We have been demolished. We have been attacked, like Leila de Lima. Like Leni Robredo. We have been ridiculed. We have been dehumanized,” she said.
Aside from threats against journalists, Ressa also highlighted how social media platforms in recent years have been used to disseminate false information on the Marcos dictatorship. Coupled with constant attacks on journalists and media organizations, these are intended not to disprove what one already knows and has learned from studies, but to sow doubt. “The goal is not to make you believe something, although they seed a metanarrative for it. But the goal is to make you doubt everything. Because if you don’t trust anyone, then you’re not gonna do anything,” she added.
Citizen journalism and newsrooms
Also speaking on the role of citizens in exacting accountability in governance, the former head of ABS-CBN Bayan Mo iPatrol Mo, Inday Espina-Varona, said social media have over the years, become platforms where aside from personal rants, users can share issues of public concern. She is however careful to distinguish a citizen journalist from an ordinary social media user. “When you say you are a citizen journalist, you may not be a professional practitioner of journalism, but you report with the basics of journalism,” she said. That would include sharing accurate information and unadulterated multimedia materials like videos, audio materials or photos, to news organizations.
Emphasizing the importance of facts, the veteran journalist said one does not need to be a journalist to have the obligation to respect the truth. She even highlighted how one well known pro-administration blogger excused herself from being factual in her online postings by saying she is not a journalist. “You don’t need to be a journalist to be able to appreciate the need to be loyal to facts,” she said.
Aside from respecting facts, Varona said social media users, particularly citizen journalists, must also adopt journalism ethics in posting information online. This, along with loyalty to facts and training from news organizations, would be important skills in documenting and reporting social and political events. And speaking from her experience, she shared how enthusiastic ordinary citizens were in learning about the basics of journalism, enabling them to share stories of their community. “The citizen journalist does not make stories based on assignments, like us professional journalists; rather they report on the important things that matter to them, their communities, their lives. So, it is even more important for them to get the skills right.” she added.
Speaking of the role of citizen journalists in newsrooms, ABS-CBN Desk Editor and Producer Israel Malasa recounted how their newsroom broke the story of the Maguindanao Massacre in 2009, after they received information from a Bayan Patroller.
Malasa related how in November 2009, they received a photo from a Bayan Patroller of what were the bodies of the victims of the massacre. Working as the desk editor for the broadcast company’s Regional Network Group, based in Quezon City, he and his colleagues had to verify the information. “There was this photo that was sent to news by a Bayan Patroller. So, what we did was vet it. We called the authorities. The editors and reporters called up their various sources. And then it was confirmed that it was the massacre site,” he said. Without that courageous citizen journalist, he added, news of the horrendous incident would not have been known.
Tracing the roots of citizen journalism, Malasa illustrated how it began long before social media, when viewers of news programs such as TV Patrol, would send them information on community concerns such as ill-maintained roads and ditches, defective electricity posts and others. These stories were featured in a segment called Citizen Patrol. What made a difference between then and now was that the newsroom still needed to send a crew for these stories. “Back then what we would do is send a crew to the community. The crew would then engage the resident, the Citizen Patroller or citizen journalist, as how we call them now, get the facts and go to the authorities, interview, and then a solution about a particular problem is reached,” he said.
For Malasa, citizen journalists have contributed much to newsrooms, particularly with stories in different communities all over the country, which could not have been covered if information had not been provided to news organizations. “Citizen journalism, or information from the public, is in a way valuable, because it shows that it is not only the reporter who has knowledge of what is happening in society. If people on the ground are helping, if they are providing the facts, as long as it is substantiated, it is vetted, checked, it is an enormous contribution to a news organization,” said the UP Visayas alumnus.
Much has changed since then, as citizen journalists now can record their own materials and send their own information to the networks. For National Union of Journalists in the Philippines Chair Nonoy Espina, anyone can be a journalist as long as the person has the motivation, proper training and ethics. “[Ordinary] people can be very, very good journalists, if they have the motivation, and if they are given the skills to do it,” he said.
For Espina, training remains an important aspect of journalism which both citizen and professional journalists must have, as these are essentials in news gathering and crafting a story. “Putting a story together is not that easy. We might make it seem easy, but it actually isn’t. From gathering the facts to actually putting the story together,” he said.
And while citizen journalists may have undergone training, Espina, like Malasa, still suggests newsrooms must vet stories coming from the communities, as those in news organizations are more steeped in the professional standards of journalism and the legal regulations which affect the practice should there be lapses. Newsrooms, he also said, are liable, should libel cases arise from erroneous reporting. Referring to journalists and editors he said “If a story gets past you, especially an erroneous story, then you didn’t do your job. That is your fault. Then, you have to take responsibility for that.”
Espina however is quick to add that the collaboration between citizen journalists and professional journalists has been beneficial, particularly in situations which made it necessary for both to work together. “Actually, the best combination is the citizen journalist and the journalist. They should always work together. If one is separated from the other, then there is a disconnect [in the story they are working on],” he said.
Fact-checking vs disinformation
For investigative journalist and UP Associate Professor Yvonne Chua, one of the avenues where the public and journalism professionals best intersect in the age of disinformation is in fact-checking. As an educator, she has been teaching courses in fact-checking in the UP College of Mass Communication. “Fact-checking is increasingly becoming an important component of media literacy initiatives. In journalism education is an essential component,” she said.
Emphasizing journalism as a discipline of verification, Chua said the concept and practice of fact-checking in journalism has quickly evolved in recent years. In the past, the task of the practice of fact-checking in a news organization was undertaken by editors, who ensured the factual accuracy of the stories submitted by reporters before these were published. “The fact-checking we now refer to, has expanded to include verifying, and often debunking textual and visual claims, especially falsehoods, made by individuals, groups or institutions, ranging from our public officials, public figures, to netizens that produce user-generated content,” she said.
Sharing some notes from a recent study she was part of, Chua illustrated how the majority or 57% of the 19,621 respondents they had from all over the country, said disinformation is a serious problem. About 28% see it as somewhat of a concern. While 15% see no problem at all with disinformation. Among the age groups, she said those between ages 18 to 24 were more likely to view the proliferation of false information as serious.
The same age group also viewed disinformation as having possible effects on the elections. Despite these reactions, the respondents revealed they don’t verify news as much as they should. “Despite being aware that disinformation is a problem and could affect elections, the proportion of young Filipinos who have never verified the news or information that reaches them, is significantly higher than the 7% national average,” she added.
Also with regard to the results of the survey she and her colleagues conducted, the respondents defined ‘fake news’ as news which are bad for the president or the country, with a significant number of respondents from the 14 to 17 age group, agreeing. “It’s a sentiment that we know is often spouted by populist authoritarian leaders including our own,” she said.
Aside from concerns on disinformation, Chua said the study also revealed the lack of know-how among the respondents in how to verify news and information they came across. “This self-confessed gap in knowledge and skills certainly needs to be addressed,” said the journalism professor.
Viewing fact-checking as an invaluable tool for aspiring journalists, Chua views the course as essential in journalism education, particularly in the wake of the massive proliferation of disinformation and misinformation. The skills can either be included in teaching journalism ethics or as a stand-alone course. In recent years, she and her students have been involved in several projects where they verified the claims of political candidates and leaders. Among these are Tsek.ph and Factrakers.
In the interest of keeping fact-checkers safe from possible threats and intimidation from those who may dislike their findings, Chua said it is important that those involved in these projects refrain from posting unvetted fact checks on their personal social media accounts. They must also process negative feedback on their stories. And they must also consider whether their stories should have bylines or not.
Campus publications and democracy
Discussing threats and intimidation of campuses, UP Associate Professor Diosa Labiste talked about how in recent years, disinformation has taken the form of hate speech and red tagging, particularly against the UP community. Citing studies she did with Chua, she illustrated the similarities between hate speech and red tagging and how these contribute to the proliferation of disinformation online.
For the former community journalist, red-tagging, much like disinformation, is made up of false or fabricated accusations disseminated by trolls online. It has from minimal to almost no basis in fact. It also vilifies activists, critics of the administration and journalists. And similar to hate speech, it uses threats, harassment, some even resulting to arrests and deaths. Labiste believes the vilification of the university community while serious, can be met with stories coming from campus journalists who continue to provide accurate stories of issues and concerns confronting its members.
Underscoring the need for news reports that are fact-checked and verified, Labiste said campus journalists can fill gaps left by mainstream media in the exigencies of day-to-day news reporting. These means, young journalists-in-training can provide content which cannot be found in the commercial media. “Some news are not so sexy for commercial media or mainstream media to cover. But campus press has been covering these issues,” she said.
Labiste said that aside from providing unique content on news events, campus press can pursue stories which provide differing perspectives, diverse issues and more vigorous discussions and debate. It also provides students with the capacity for citizen-witnessing, which blurs the line between news producer and news consumer, as well as that between a journalist and an advocate. “Campus journalism is a form of counter speech because it intervenes to help citizens and communities make sense of information amid lies and ‘fake news.’”
For John Nery, a journalist, columnist and educator, campus journalism remains a strong pillar in the struggle against disinformation, not only in colleges and universities, but also in society at large. “Yes, we should use our campus publications to discuss school concerns; but at the same time, we have to realize that we actually occupy a position of privilege, and that our campuses are surrounded by what we call communities at risk,” he said.
School publications, according to Nery, act not only as hubs for public discourse of those in the academic community, but they can also function as public spaces for discussions of social issues which confront a community. Using UP Visayas and other higher education institutions in Iloilo as examples, he said their publications can serve as venues for conversations. “Why shouldn’t the school publications of UP Visayas, of the University of Iloilo, of PHINMA, and other Iloilo-based schools, talk about what’s happening in Iloilo? And by doing so, turn their school publications into their own version of the public square,” he added.
Emphasizing the dynamism of the youth in campuses, Nery underscored their capacity for reinvention and innovation, particularly at a time when there is a need for stories and voices from various communities in the country. Highlighting the potentials of campus journalists and publications, he said they could “very easily turn our campus publications from campus loudspeakers into community megaphones. We can use our campus newspapers, our campus news websites, into a forum where we can talk about the concerns of the people who live around us, literally.”
Summing up the conflict between disinformation and democracy in the country, a veteran human rights lawyer, Chel Diokno, said that the country was already suffering from an epidemic even before the onset of the novel Coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19. “This is a different kind of epidemic. It did not affect our human bodies. But rather, the human body politic. And that really was what we experienced, the last few years. An epidemic of extra judicial killings. An epidemic of abuse of power. And an epidemic that uses fear and violence,” he said.
According to Diokno, the current health pandemic has only served to exacerbate the difficulties ordinary Filipinos face. But in the same breath, he also highlighted how social media platforms have also served to condemn some of the questionable actions of public officials in the implementation of regulations of the public health emergency. He quickly added how sadly enough, the situation has also illustrated how the law is implemented differently for different groups of people. “We saw how poor people who violated quarantine regulations were given the full brunt of the law. While those who were connected or associated with those in power, just got a pat, sometimes even a mere reprimand, or not even that,” he said.
Affirming his belief in the power of the people, the chairman of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) said citizens must always: speak truth to power; remain vigilant even in difficult times; call out falsehoods particularly those disseminated online; and, ultimately hold those involved accountable for their actions. He was also quick to add that all these actions necessitate the involvement of individuals and communities from different backgrounds.
Expressing faith in the transformative power of the right to suffrage, Diokno said it is important for citizens to choose the right leaders for the country. And for that to happen, those in colleges and universities must call on everyone to properly exercise the right to vote. “At the end of the day, given the way our situation politically is run, we will have a golden opportunity, especially you, young people, to choose our future leaders, our next leaders, and to determine the future of our country, when the next elections come along.”
Aside from Diokno, Nery, UP Professors Labiste and Chua, the journalists Varona, Espina and Malasa, and Senator Hontiveros, former UP Student Regent and Youth Act Now Against Tyranny National Convenor Raoul Danniel Manuel also gave a talk on the role of the youth as defenders of press freedom. A UP alumna and ACCRALAW Associate Lawyer Kate Aubrey Hojilla also talked about press freedom and the Philippine Constitution.
Another UP alumna, Dr. Beverly Lorraine Ho, Director for Health Promotion of the Department of Health and Special Assistant to the Secretary for Universal Health Coverage, shared her experience in handling the department’s information campaign on the COVID 19 pandemic. Endy Bayuni, Jakarta Post Senior Editor and member of the Facebook Oversight Board, also talked about Campus Journalism and how the social media platform tackles disinformation.
Aside from the speakers, presentations on the proliferation of myths and misinformation on the Marcoses were also given. Miguel Reyes and Joel Ariate, Jr. of the UP Third World Studies Center talked about publications. While Dr. Earvin Cabalquinto of Deakin University, and Dr. Cheryll Ruth Soriano of De La Salle University Manila talked about revisionists videos online.
The 3rd National Conference on Democracy and Disinformation was hosted by UP Visayas on February 22, 24 and 26, 2021 as a project with the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation. The consortium is a network of academics, journalists, bloggers and civil society groups. Among those which support the network are the University of the Philippines, the Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle Philippines and Holy Angel University. For more information on the consortium, visit https://fightdisinfo.ph/.
The conference was also held in partnership with MOVE.PH, Daily Guardian, UPV Division of Humanities, UPV Information and Publications Office and DYUP 102.7 FM. For videos of the conference, please visit https://www.facebook.com/DandD2021.