Defeating the trolls

Professors Jonathan Corpus Ong, associate professor of communication at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Jason Cabañes, lecturer in international communication at the University of Leeds, released last February 2018 an interesting and excellent report entitled Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines (Ong and Cabanes, 2018). The findings of the report were based on a 12-month research project that involved in-depth interviews with disinformation architects and online observation of the fake accounts they operated. In my Ramon C. Reyes memorial lecture, I quoted liberally from the Ong-Cabanes report to suggest ways we can defeat trolls and fake news that has poisoned our political discourse.

As articulated in its executive summary, the Ong-Cabanes report outlines the motivations and strategies of people it labels “the architects of networked disinformation”— “a professionalized hierarchy of political operators who maintain day jobs as advertising and public relations executives, computer programmers and political administrative staff.” The report “explains how strategists set campaign objectives based on input from their political clients, then delegate political marketing responsibility to a team of digital influencers and fake account operators. These operators infiltrate online communities, artificially trend hashtags to hijack mainstream media attention, and disseminate disinformation to silence enemies and seed revisionist history narratives.”

Corpus and Cabanes points out an important fact: While it is people like Mocha Uson that many are upset with, because they are seen to incite political divisiveness and harass journalists, “the real chief architects of disinformation are hiding in plain sight—wearing respectable faces as leaders in their industry while sidestepping accountability.”

Are we helpless before this architects of disinformation?

Ong and Cabañes does not think so. After consulting with some of us who work on this from the media or policy point of view, they suggest         policy-driven solutions to industry, government and civil stakeholders and calls for new collective interventions to the systematic production of disinformation. These recommendations include self-regulation measures in the digital influencer industry and legal reforms for campaign finance transparency.

Indeed, as I have suggested to Senator Grace Poe in the hearings on fake news, Congress  does have options with respect to the platforms that allow fake news and hate language to proliferate. In Germany, it has been reported that laws will be passed imposing heavy fines on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms for failure to take out fake or hate content within specified time frames. Laws are not even necessary for this as consumer demand might be enough.

Pope Francis suggests ways on how we can defend ourselves, and expounds, among others, on the role of journalists:

“The most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth . . . To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose . . . An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful. We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.” (Pope Francis, 2018)

I find this exhortation by Pope Francis intriguing. Some journalists I know will object to  this, believing that truth sometimes necessarily hurt people and cause conflict. But I am with Pope Francis here. One must always speak truth to power but there is still a difference between cruel and kind, unfair and fair, and inciting and enlightening. I go for the latter option with these pairs.

Pope Francis continues: “The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language. If responsibility is the answer to the spread of fake news, then a weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news. In today’s world, theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission. Amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons. Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives. That is why ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.”

As I have written in this column before, it’s time for all of us to look at ourselves and how ugly we have made our society. For sure, it did not start under the Duterte government but this disregard of the truth for political gain has intensified.

If we do not like how we have become, it is because we have detached ethics from politics. it is because we have allowed politics to determine the truth for us, how we see things is reduced to our political views, and as long as our aspirations for the country are noble, we sacrifice the truth and disregard ethical norms. That’s a formula for tragedy.

In my last column on my 2018 Ramon C. Reyes Memorial Lecture, I will propose that the categorical imperative to do the right thing the right way in all circumstances is the only way forward if we are to recover the moral bearings of our country and veer away from the political and ethical anomie that plagues us now.


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