Wenceslao: Masters of the word

YEARS before fake news became a global issue, a friend gifted me with a book that Guardian (UK) described as “an engaging mix of theory, fact and enlightenment from across the millennia.” “Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet” written by William J. Bernstein was a good summary of an important chunk of world history: from “the invention of writing to the World Wide Web.”

As we journalists confronted the social media sweep in the country in the past couple of years, the urge to re-read the book and refresh my mind with its insights enveloped me. In the book’s last chapter, Bernstein was obviously agog over the democratizing power of the internet. But his narrative no longer included the phenomenon of the past years when tyrants and would-be tyrants advanced not democracy but tyranny by weaponizing social media.

“Clearly,” Bernstein noted, “the Web and social media have greatly empowered citizens all around the world. In despotic states, leaders can no longer easily suppress, imprison, torture, and slaughter their people free from the gaze of the outside world; their corruption can no longer be hidden; and citizens can organize and resist with enormously powerful communication tools.”

“Yes,” he continued, the Internet has also given despots the power to spy on and suppress their citizen, but on balance, the ground has shifted in favor of the latter. Before 1995, the foes of dictators brought a communications knife to a gunfight. Now, both sides have guns.”

The “gun” Bernstein mentioned indeed helped citizens of some Arab nations to topple despots in what is now known as the “Arab Spring.” But tyrants soon realized that they can also get hold of that “gun” and turn it on the citizenry. In Russia, Vladimir Putin used social media to influence the thinking of peoples in and outside his country. In the Philippines, the Duterte administration is using social media to prevent the citizens from objectively assessing its rule.

It is in this sense that Bernstein’s attempt to link the institution of robust democracies with the level of economic growth a country. “As powerful as the Web, Google and Facebook are,” he wrote, “they cannot bring democracy to poor, traditional, religiously dominated societies…” Which brings me to my point that what we are seeing now in social media in the Philippines is a reflection of the backwardness of our economy.

We often pride ourselves in having a good number of internet users in the country. But that is merely the quantitative aspect. What about the quality of those internet users. The truth is, the overall quality of internet users in, say, rich countries is different from the overall quality of internet users in economically backward countries like the Philippines.

This was proven in a 2017 Perils of Perception survey that showed that the Philippines is among the “most ignorant” countries on “key issues” and yet are the “most confident” of their wrong perception of those issues. That partly explains why the Mocha Usons and Thinking Pinoys of the world have acquired a big following and why they eagerly lap up fake news.
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