2016: The Year Change Came to Social Media
To those who lived before this year, social media was that Internet thing that helped family and friends stay connected, helped in discovery of common interests, and spotlighted issues or problems. And then 2016 happened.
1. Fake News
An observable string of fake news -- invented or exaggerated news stories that were made to appear supposedly credible by falsely attributing it to an established news organization – preceded an announcement of the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, that his social media group would take concrete steps to rein in the fakery.
In his announcement about fighting fake news, Zuckerberg cited the need "to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful." And while he has said that much progress has been made on this front, he also acknowledged that there is still much work to be done.
While the biggest news publishers continue to attract the biggest audiences on and via Facebook, the social media giant has also been rife with fake news that are obviously targeted at smearing or attacking reputations.
In the past months, if Facebook is to be believed, Vice President Leni Robredo was impregnated by a married lawmaker, and Sen. Risa Hontiveros advocated banning tattoos on schools and churches.
"Saan ba tayo patutungo kung pati itong mga ganitong usapin (ay papatulan),” Robredo said as she denied the post.
Meanwhile, a fake news against Hontiveros had her saying she pushed a bill requiring those in school and churches to cover up their tattoos.
Another said the senator proposed a color coding scheme for riding the MRT and LRT trains.
Both reports were apparently too convincing for some people that Hontiveros had to clarify that she had filed no such bill on tattoos nor proposed a train color-coding scheme.
In a 1998 speech, then-North Atlantic Treaty Organization spokesperson Dr. JP Shea noted that one of the roles of media in society is to “inform democratic choices through the clarification of complex issues, particularly in an age when information is the driving force of economic advancement.”
Fake news spreading easily via social media is obviously the opposite.
Fake news can result to real consequences. A study published on the International Journal of Public Opinion research said fake news do have an impact on its readers, and that “exposure to news coverage of satire can influence knowledge, opinion, and political trust.”
2. Unsubstantiated/ Uninvestigated claims that wittingly/ Unwittingly promoted an agenda
A post published before the 2016 Philippine elections on how Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong supposedly endorsed then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte went viral around April. A photo of Lee, with a caption saying, “Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is the only presidential candidate that could make Philippines like Singapore” spread online.
Similarly, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, in the Papal Visit-Philippines 2015 Facebook page, had denied that Pope Francis declared support for Duterte’s bid for the presidency. The subject of the denial was text overlain on a poster-like square art that usually gets passed around as a meme, and which supposedly tells how the Pope admires Duterte for his honesty.
Peter Tiu Laviña, campaign spokesperson of President Rodrigo Duterte who was recently appointed head of the National Irrigation Administration, shared a photo of a nine-year-old girl who was raped and murdered, in what was an apparent effort to highlight purported misguided lack of support for the government’s war on drugs on the part of the Church, media, and human rights activists.
On his post on Facebook last August, Laviña expressed misgiving on people being more concerned with the country’s image abroad than expressing support for the government’s crusade to end the drug menace.
Turned out Laviña was wrong. The photo was taken in Brazil in December 2014, long before President Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs started. Another Duterte ally and former Cabinet Secretary Rafael Alunan III called out Laviña on this Facebook post, saying it was “selective reasoning [and] cognitive dissonance at work.”
However, the damage has been done. Some supporters of the administration believed the post, and directed their anger at the Commission on Human Rights and the church for allegedly protecting criminals instead of the victims. In the comments section of the post, netizens tagged Lavinia and asked him to “be responsible” and to “check [his] sources” before posting. The post is still available online, with more than 5,000 shares as of this piece’s publication.
Pro-Duterte-blogger Mocha Uson had erroneously posted a photo praising the Department of Social Welfare and Development under the Sec. Judy Taguiwalo for their quick response to the onslaught of Typhoon Lawin.
She also commended the “new” modernized repacking system, where the relief goods are placed in boxes instead of the previous ones which were packed in plastic bags.
In her post on Facebook last October 21, now taken down, she indirectly hit the Aquino administration by comparing it to Duterte’s, and by citing the lack of help for the victims of Supertyphoon Yolanda which struck the country in 2013.
But netizen Jit Sohal answered back, saying the mechanization of relief goods repacking started in 2015, in preparation for Typhoon Lando’s destruction in October.
The United Nations’ World Food Programme, in their Facebook account, also shared photos with then DSWD Sec. Dinky Soliman with the boxed relief goods.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was not spared from being mentioned in a fabricated news. A post on social media immediately went viral this August, a couple of months after President Duterte took office, when NASA allegedly called the Philippines’ president “the best president in the solar system.”
A video uploaded in YouTube by “PRRD realworld” said that NASA declared Duterte the best president after garnering a 91% rating. US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, China’s Prime Minister Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supposedly rated below the Philippine leader. The hoax also appeared in various fake news sites.
Earlier this year, at the height of the search for Senator Leila de Lima's security aide and alleged bagman and lover, Ronnie Dayan, photos allegedly of Dayan were circulated online. One such photo is that of showbiz reporter and LGBT community member Roldan Castro. He had to endure bad words from the mob as a result of the mistake.
At a time when media and journalism professionals have to deal with massive accusations of bias, prejudice, even ill-will, it is not only journalists and their profession that take a hit because of the damaged ability of practitioners to verify claims, disprove myths, or uphold the truth. The biggest casualty is the public who become either too uninformed or misinformed to decide on matters concerning their citizenship and to participate in democratic processes.
3. Hatred, Violence, Intimidation
A veteran journalist, Inday Espina-Varona is known for her hard-hitting commentaries, the most recent of which was on the divisive issue of the interment of former President Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Within a week of the controversial burial, Varona was locked out of her Facebook account, a verified personal page. Her access was restored, but she is not to be the last journalist whose Facebook account was compromised.
Reuters journalist Manny Mogato also lost control of his Facebook account. His profile and cover photos were changed into images carrying messages of support for President Rodrigo Duterte. Mogato regained control of his account, but not before the account acted like it had life of its own and posted odd things on Mogato’s supposed timeline.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) “deplored” the blocking by Facebook of Varon’s account, saying it was done “at the behest of what are clearly enemies of the right to free expression and of a free press.”
The NUJP also called on Facebook to “be more circumspect and engaged in determining whether an account is or is not liable for violating their community standards instead of relying solely on mindless algorithms.”
While noting that Facebook has given voice to the voiceless, the NUJP said its weaknesses have also been prone to abuse by those who seek to silence other people.
Earlier, blogger Renee Karunungan, who campaigned against voting for Duterte during the elections, filed charges after receiving more than 200 messages in her Facebook inbox, all with threats of rape. Karunungan’s account was subsequently deactivated temporarily after her post about the threats was reported for “violation of community standards.”
Meanwhile, anti-Duterte netizens, typically also rooting for either presidential contenders Mar Roxas or Grace Poe, also shot back by means of name-calling. The word “Dutertard,” a combination of “Duterte” and “retard,” quickly made the rounds and was thrown around as an insult to Duterte’s supporters. Many on both sides argued against the use of the word saying it uses a derogatory term for the mentally handicapped.
Those at the other side of the fence were, meanwhile, were touted as “Yellowtards” – a moniker formed from the mashup of yellow, the color of the Liberal Party, and retard.
4. On an election year, social media hailed some as heroes, but cast doubt on others.
Digital marketers in conferences have spoken about the phenomenon of a “social media veto.” But a “social media vote” was untested – possibly until this year’s elections, when people said social media changed the game.
Media analysts and political anthropologists said social media was a key player in the 2016 elections, in the Philippines as well as in the United States. Professor Chester Cabalza, a senior lecturer from the Department of Anthropology of the University of the Philippines-Diliman, said that social media “can make or break the chances of politicians because people react” – an apparent reference to how a post can spread quickly like fire, depending on how citizens respond to it.
There seems to be a ring of truth to this.
One month before Philippine elections, Facebook hailed then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte as the “undisputed king of Facebook conversations” after 64% of conversations and discussions on the social media site related to the elections featured the then-Davao City mayor.
READ: Duterte is ‘king’ of Facebook talk
Previously, former senator and now deceased Miriam Defensor-Santiago was the social media darling, whose most famous lines were carried on books like “Stupid is Forever” and “Stupid is Forevermore.”
No one quite remembers the exact time that the tide turned against Santiago and went the way of Duterte. All people can recall is that Duterte lorded over Facebook. And then he won.
Just as he did in offline polls, Duterte overtook every other Philippine candidate on Facebook.
But so what? Discussions on whether social media made or unmade election candidates, the conclusion on which almost always pointed to decimated and polluted conversations in the public sphere, led people to question whether social media conversations, especially during democratic exercises such as elections, were empowering or otherwise.
Duterte’s election to office paralleled pre-election surveys. This was not the case with the victory of business tycoon Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton during the November elections in the United States.
The Trump victory came as a shock because every reputable news organization and their pre-poll surveys in the US said Democrat Clinton would win. The unexpected turnout made these news groups take a step back and review where they could have gotten it wrong.
There are theories and accusations that Facebook, the biggest social media site in the planet, was able to change – or at the very least influence – the result of the elections because of its algorithm that tolerated proliferation of fake news, and the creation of a “filter bubble” that altered a user’s perception of the universe.
Facebook had taken steps to arrest both problems. But some technology watchers and communication experts are not yet totally convinced.
5. Did hyper-partisan Facebook accounts and pages 'filter bubble' us?
Hyper-partisan Facebook pages have cropped up in the Philippines largely as a product of a volatile election season that saw candidates heavily relying on social media for support and exposure.
Arguably the most popular of these pages, with a following of almost 4.6 million Facebook users, is the Mocha Uson Blog, run by singer-dancer-turned-blogger and broadsheet columnist Mocha Uson.
Another popular hyper-partisan page is Silent No More, which began as an unaffiliated Facebook page campaigning for former senator Mar Roxas and then-congresswoman Leni Robredo during the presidential and vice presidential elections.
Post-elections, Silent No More posts mostly protested the burial of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. It also criticized the present administration, and accused Duterte supporters of twisting facts.
Hyper-partisan pages, their fans, supporters, and critics appear to be constantly engaged in an endless debate. At best, discussions cite historical bases: the issue of the Marcos burial, for instance, ignited a big debate online as to whether or not he was as terrible a president history books say, or whether those history books spoke enough at all about the atrocities committed during martial law. At worst, these debates lead to threats and name-calling.
There have been fears that the rise of hyper-partisan pages and groups prevented users from seeing both sides of a story or a debate because Facebook builds on a users’ preference based on what one clicks or comments on, showing more of these in one’s feed, while filtering out others in the process.
The algorithm, technology reports have said, resulted in the so-called “filter bubble,” which showed content that aligned with a user’s views, and preferences, and hid posts and topics that may contradict these.
The result is an “echo chamber” where a user’s opinions and reactions are mirrored by posts they see and the content they read. Like-minded peers will tell each other what they already know, their thoughts will bounce back and forth, and they will echo one another while restricting contradictory opinions from reaching their feeds.
6. Alt + Journ?
There is an argument that goes this way: hyper-partisan Facebook pages, websites, and blogs restore balance in a conversation made lopsided by biased mainstream media. The argument further says the hyper-partisan social media is a product of the public’s growing distrust on mainstream media.
But can hyper-partisan forums on social media succeed where traditional journalism has supposedly failed?
Riding on an unprecedented and overwhelming popular mandate from the 2016 elections, then-President-elect Duterte - shortly after winning - called out Philippine media for being “corrupt and biased.” He has also lashed out at journalists, both here and in America for supposedly “spinning” tales about him.
Several websites and outlets have openly advertised themselves as alternatives to mainstream journalism. One such outlet, which has been around for nearly two decades, is GetRealPhilippines.com.
With its cynical view of the country and observable dislike of particular personalities (Vice President Leni Robredo, for instance), GetRealPhilippines claims to “seek solutions to problems that afflict human society.” But its writing appear to toe a particular line of thinking.
Another popular “alt-journ” website is ThinkingPinoy.net. On his official Facebook page, ThinkingPinoy positions himself as a citizen journalist and a source for “meticulously researched articles that appeal to the regular Filipino’s common sense.”
But ThinkingPinoy’s writing is selective in the information he uses. He broadcasts the achievements of his chosen candidates and politicians and the failures of those he dislikes.
The selective writing by these Facebook pages forces the question on whether they would be viable alternative to journalism – a craft that has traditionally positioned itself as an independent monitor of power and provider of vetted information.