Social media became witness to last year’s significant turn of world events. From #Brexit, the United States elections, the Aleppo crisis, the impeachment of South Korea’s President, to President Duterte’s anti-American streak, our news feeds have been fueled with stories that have spread like wildfire. The democratizing power of networked spheres spur easier citizen participation in political affairs through simple liking and sharing of posts.
But while social media is good at documenting important happenings, it’s also good at documenting stories that did not even transpire. Fake news and websites have been seen as threats to national democracies due to misleading the public. Not only do they misinform, but also cause polarization of views leading to vehement and, sometimes, violent expressions of disagreements.
In the Philippines where ‘social networking’ was recently indicated as its strongest suit by a published data map that shows what every country is best at, the abundance of fake news sites and online troll accounts is making people wonder whether it’s high time for a stricter regulation of social media in the country.
On fake news
“It’s apparent how these fake news sites have influenced people’s perspectives on a wide range of topics, with the highlight on politics and social issues,” explains Professor Jocelyn Navera of the English Department.
She supposes that ‘netizens’ may have the tendency to rely on social media outlets the same way people trust the accuracy of traditional media reportage. “Hence, they carry the same mindset when viewing any online article. They often forget that access to information is no longer limited to media outlets, who can and will lie, and that ordinary people, who can lie just as much, are now producers of news and not just consumers,” she continues.
In the time of free Facebook data where most people rely on posts and shares for their scoop of daily news, proliferation of fake news sites is a big problem, shares Communication Arts graduate Aaron Sumayo.
Justin Gorospe (II, IT) further explains that “because of this issue, the masses would be fed false information which would lead them to think, act, and react in an uneducated manner.”
Efforts made by traditional media outlets such as GMA News’ #HindiTama project, which seeks to stop the flow of faux-journalism and misleading memes through crowd-sourcing and producing articles that combat false information, are easily overpowered by attempts to demonize traditional media.
Legal aspects of regulation
The aforementioned social media predicament has even led to some countries taking extreme measures in terms of scrutinizing peoples’ Internet activities, with China and Zimbabwe being good examples of the fact. While their governments each have their own different reasons for enforcing such laws, with China for deterring harmful information to enter the Communist Party and Zimbabwe for combating hackers, their common denominator is the surveillance and censorship of what the people do, see, and say online.
While it is considered an invasion of privacy, their governments justify it as a means of preventing the spread of misinformation, since it could still ultimately lead to crime. In the local context, however, the Philippine Cybercrime Law focuses more on penalizing computer hackers and spammers, and does not penalize those who seek to misinform and “troll” the general public.
In a 2012 Philippine Star interview with Senator Edgardo Angara, the main proponent of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, he emphasized that since over 30 million Filipinos have access to the Internet, “some form of regulation must be put in place in order to prevent abuses by some users.” He added, “The Internet has become so pervasive that it is already an essential component of many people’s lives. But as the technology evolved, so has the opportunity expanded for real harm to be done.”
On the other hand, former Senator TJ Guingona criticized the Act, and has said that it sets us back due to restraints on the right to freedom of speech and expression. “I feel that as legislators, we have no right to dictate what people should or should not see,” he said.
“Regulation of social media is tricky because its content falls under what most would consider as self-expression. Therefore, regulating social media is like regulating free speech, which is somewhat an oxymoron,” Professor Navera points out.
Perhaps nothing underscores this issue more than the recent online petition to put down Mocha Uson’s blog. “Some say this is justified given the false news she spreads, but others, even her detractors, say that she should not be penalized for exercising her freedom of expression.”
How social media shapes public opinion
Instead of being a vehicle for a collective voice and healthy democratic discourse, social media outlets have increasingly become tools to polarize and divide the nation when it comes to current issues, promoting an “us-versus-them” mentality.
“I will go as far as saying that currently, social media scatters rather than shapes public opinion on socio-political and cultural issues to a point where we are just left bickering instead of solving any of the problems that plague our daily lives,” shares Professor Navera.
She adds, “It’s not helping illuminate these important issues; in some cases, it muddles them even further. Because trolls and fake news deliberately discourage critical thinking amongst social media users, online discussions involving them do not serve any other purpose than to just voice out opinions.”
When asked how he thinks social media is shaping public opinion, Nheil Ghan (III, ENT) replies, “It has become a breeding ground for hate, division, and blind obedience.”
For Sumayo, the presence of online trolls has actually provoked many people already, resulting to a lot of fights online. But Ghan further notes, “ [I think] online trolls and fake news aren’t the only causes of this problem. Rude, educated people who prefer to humiliate rather than educate are also part of the problem.”
Laws may be in place and enforced, but nothing can change the fact that it is the people’s code of ethics that cannot be regarded in terms of them posting misinformation or not. A post containing misinformation could easily be attributed to someone’s own opinion, and to penalize them for speaking their mind would be a direct violation of their right to freedom of speech.