FAKE news—a neologism that has come to mean many things other than the original concept—threatens the democratic space by which citizens acquire and exchange information.
By stereotyping journalism as a purveyor of fake news and highlighting the incivility of online discourse, the fake news phenomenon strengthens counter-initiatives that pose a greater risk by proposing to curtail through government regulation the freedoms of expression and of the press.
During the Oct. 25 “Brownbag” session sponsored and conducted by the College of Mass Communication (CMC) of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman in Quezon City, UP academics argued for self-accountability and -regulation as a more democratic approach to countering fake news.
The public form presented four papers focusing on the theme, “Take back democratic spaces: Fake news, trolls, and incivility.”
CMC professors Clarissa C. David, Maria Diosa Labiste, Ma. Rosel S. San Pascual, and Yvonne T. Chua defined fake news as “mis-, dis-, and mal-information” to distinguish this from other labels that lump fake news with opinion pieces that oppose the reader’s biases or propaganda, for instance.
“To define fake news in such a broad manner, then seek to regulate it through law or executive action, threatens basic freedoms of expressions,” observed David.
Government regulation—based on contested definitions of what constitutes fakery and given the government’s conflict of interest in controlling the media—may lead to censorship, a punitive measure that sweepingly harms all content producers for the dubious social good of sieving fake information from “truth,” she pointed out.
While the initial data of her research team supports the “multi-dimensional construct of political incivility” in social media, San Pascual argued that government regulation is a greater evil, threatening the freedoms of speech and of expression.
She said that online incivility is unnecessary and undermines political discourse; however, Netizens can regulate this behavior either by contributing through rational and reasoned discussions or restraining from “feeding” the trolls and contributing to the hate speech, uncivil comments or other forms of online negativity.
Concurring with David, Labiste observed that the initiatives taken by politicians—such as the “craft(ing of) a law to criminalize fake news”—is “worrisome” as it may target legitimate dissenting opinion expressed by organic political communities.
Fake news has become a “floating signifier” that includes, aside from “mis-, dis-, and mal-information,” online political discourse that is one of the “avenues where counter discourses are conveyed,” she wrote.
Labiste recommends instead the counter-initiatives of civil society, such as the media, the church, and the academe. For instance, the church has disseminated through pastoral letter guidelines to enable Catholics to detect fake news.
Civil society’s exercise of “democratic accountability” to counter fake news is preferable to political regulation, she said.
Chua emphasized that as a stakeholder of democratic space and as a profession implicated in the controversy surrounding fake news, journalists have taken measures to improve the accuracy of its reportage.
“‘Post hoc’ fact checking among journalists and civil society across the world has rapidly gained ground in the past decade in response to the ease and speed with which mis-, dis- and mal-information are purveyed these days, abetted by the internet, social media in particular,” she wrote.
One of the founders of Vera Files, Chua discussed the fact-checking done for the news website’s articles, which includes those fact-checked by her CMC undergraduate students. To counter “false claims,” “misleading statements,” and “flip-flops” or inconsistencies made by politicians, the Vera Files journalists crosscheck and debunk the wrong information with “factual evidence” so that the public will not be misled.