■ Laurice Sy
“I invoke my right to self-discrimi… incrimination”, said blogger and government official Margaux “Mocha” Uson. On October 4, Uson pleaded victim of fake news in the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media hearing on the proliferation of fake news, misleading news, and false information online.
Despite the plea, she has admitted to posting multiple falsehoods from other websites, saying that they are symbolic and that veracity is beside the point. Her post about drug killings had a picture of a Brazilian girl who was raped and murdered. In asking for prayers for Filipino soldiers fighting in Marawi, she posted a photo instead of Honduras Police.
Her ‘mochausonblog’ has more than four million followers and can engage 33,000 social media users in heated arguments. She also has the steadfast support of President Rodrigo Duterte who appointed her as Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Assistant Secretary for using social media to forward the president’s agenda.
The agenda is set by the double-edged sword of media to either benefit by informing or to harm by misinforming.
Determining the agenda, the hearing investigated Uson’s claim that Jaemark Tordecilla, editor-in-chief of GMA News Online, did not get her side before publishing an article criticizing her. The official GMA statement clarified that they were quoting someone else’s criticism and tried to get Uson’s side.
Uson’s credibility is tied with the reputation of her blog which praises President Duterte and is active in defending him against criticism. This defense often comes at the expense of truth and logic for the belief that Duterte cannot be wrong.
Economists Hunt Allcott of New York University and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University define fake news as news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false which could mislead readers. However, Journalism Associate Professor Danilo Arao argues that this term should not even exist.
“’Real news’ is redundant and ‘fake news’ technically refers to a ‘fake real,’” he said. There is an idea of fake news as a tool which certain interest groups use to gain something from the resulting social division and confusion.
Online attacks are why Uson was upset that her side was not heard. Although Arao affirms that she was a victim of fake news and cyberbullying, he says that it does not excuse her from being irresponsible in social media and beyond.
Social media platforms allow broader reach for information systems which bombard the public with information from various sources.
When asked about her right to demand fairness when she fails to exercise it herself, Mocha responded with “blogger ako, hindi journalist.” Uson differentiated being a blogger, who primarily states opinion, from being a journalist, whose job entails fairness and fact-checking.
Since blog posts become part of the public domain, these can reach various audiences, just as journalism can. This power comes with the responsibility to use that influence mindfully. Professor Arao says that journalism has the objective of shaping public opinion by providing relevant information to people, while blogging is more dynamic as it entails the use of a Content Management System (CMS) to write articles, upload graphics, and other media files.
Uson’s reply to Binibining Pilipinas International Mariel de Leon’s tweet about extrajudicial killings shows misuse of influence. De Leon’s criticism on the normalization of violence was met with Uson’s defense that criminals, not innocents, are the ones being killed.
“There is a segment of the marginalized sectors of society who would look up to her [Uson] because they think that she belongs to them and not to the elite they despise,” Arao said. Her Facebook posts seem credible as she cites legitimate news sites as well. She knows how to engage and enrage her followers with provocative questions and scathing replies.
Furthermore, Uson gives the administration a sense of legitimacy—a rightfulness or binding character transforming power into authority, as defined by political scientist Andrew Heywood. By rationalizing extrajudicial killings as something criminals deserve, Uson downplays the attack on human rights and rallies Filipinos behind a fascist regime.
“After exposing herself in the last Senate hearing, more and more people realize why staunch defenders of lies should be heavily criticized and not be given any position of power and privilege”, said Out of the Box (OOTB), a non-government organization campaigning for media literacy in the Philippines.
Such realizations cast doubt on media institutions. Philippine Trust Index reports that 73.4 percent of Filipinos trust media institutions while 87.3 percent trust social media. Though generally satisfied with media performance, Filipinos have come to trust social media more than media institutions.
Arao explains that this is because corporate structures subject media to conflicts of interest. The content presented is thus seen as a questionable source. On the other hand, social media gives the audience a false sense of empowerment and warped idea of freedom of expression.
The question of media credibility comes as a challenge for media today at a time when truth is systematically distorted by the state and the regime’s supporters.
As the PCOO Asec, Uson should promote communication, yet her misinformed posts only perpetuate miscommunication. Her spreading of fake news and active defense of the president serve to legitimize his actions and desensitize masses to plights of the masses and the casualties in the war on drugs.
But just as media can be a tool to suppress, it can also be a tool to combat oppression. Free media with conscience and public interest at heart adheres to truth. Ethics dictates a commitment to arm Filipinos with a clear image of the world instead of catering to commercial, political, or economic gain of a privileged few.
Accountability ensures that public figures cannot hide. Republic Act 6713, the “Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees”, states that citizens are to hold public servants at a higher standard of ethics and accountability. Uson then cannot excuse her actions as those of a private citizen.
There is a growing interest in media literacy from NGOs, individuals, and mainstream media outlets themselves. In the end, the choice to be critical falls unto the masses. Until media and the masses unite in the fight against fake news, the double-edged sword of media will continue the disservice to and misinformation of the people. ■
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