SOMEBODY wrote me that my saying in my previous column that so-called netizens being unleashed by demagogues on the media is also a threat to press freedom is rather weird because social media is supposed to be a democratizing agent. But my point is that if I consider irresponsible and corrupt journalists a threat to press freedom, why not irresponsible and corrupt users of social media also? As they say, with new technology comes great responsibility.

In the May elections, all presidential candidates and their supporters had a presence online, with social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram the most utilized platforms. They also created blogs and websites that were visited by their supporters and their contents, which partake of propaganda, shared by their people and their supporters on social media. Their presence brought the toxicity of the country’s politics online.

Sharing of information and opinion is good, but the problem is that the internet does not have borders. There were those who upped the ante, sort of, by using cyberbullying as their weapon of choice and presenting lies and half-truths as facts. The bashing of traditional media outlets, which came only in trickles in the past, became a flood. The toxicity came to a point that social media account holders “unfriended” many of their followers for posts they consider objectionable.

I don’t know how many legitimate media practitioners chose to mellow esthe views that they publish or broadcast to evade being ganged online by the mob, many of them called “trolls.” That is self-censorship, the same one practiced by the select media outlets that the regime of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos allowed to operate after he declared martial law on Sept 21, 1972.

I am not saying that all sectors and personalities, including traditional media outlets and journalists subject of the ire of fanatical mobs, are innocent of the accusations hurled at them. Some may have erred, intentionally or not, but many are being unfairly bashed. And I have observed that the target does not matter, rather the overall intention is to shape public discourse to prop up the influence of the person or persons they are supporting.

What is frustrating is the increased amount of lies and half-truths that are spread online. I would like to believe that the number of local satirical news websites and sites that manufacture information, together with blogs created by members of political groups concocting propaganda, have grown considerably in number on the runup to the last elections and are continuing to operate to promote the agenda of either the administration or the opposition.

They give social media a bad name in much the same way that irresponsible and corrupt journalists give a bad name to traditional media. The practice invites a backlash on the freedom of expression that traditional media nurtured through more than a century already.

In May 2013, the Pacific Media Centre of New Zealand’s AUT University marked the 20th anniversary of Unesco World Press Freedom Day with an event highlighted by the lecture by Prof. Mark Pearson titled “Press Freedom, Social Media and the Citizen.” I found the lecture interesting and so surfed it in the Net and eventually found it on YouTube. Here’s an interesting quote that is relevant to what I am pointing out here:

“The printing press spawned free expression’s offspring—the right of ‘press freedom’—as pamphleteers fought censorship by governments in the ensuing centuries. Events are unfolding much more quickly now. It would be an historic irony and a monumental shame if press freedom met its demise through the sheer pace of irresponsible truth-seeking and truth-telling today.”

( twitter: @khanwens)