People sit in an Internet cafe

‘Disinformation fills the gap’

February 5, 2021
Faced with low trust and high competition, media needs to win its audience back

(Internews' report on Information Dystopia and Philippine Democracy is cited in this article on democracy and disinformation.)

News earlier this week was filled with the coup in Myanmar and the state of emergency declared there, but not as much in the country itself, where there was hardly any.

"They restored the internet but not the television. On Facebook there is no legitimate news verification, there's no accountability, so now misinformation is growing dangerously. There is a lot of hate speech, a lot of fake accounts," Rest of World quotes activist and broadcaster Thinzar Shunlei Yi as saying.

"Civil society is geared to expect misinformation coming from the new junta, since the military has a history of using false claims and doctored or out-of-context videos and images to deceive the public, as well as hate speech against minorities," it also reports.

While the situation in the Philippines is not as dire, we also have to contend with misinformation and false claims.

Citing an Internews survey with 19,621 respondents, UP Journalism Professor Yvonne T. Chua notes that 85% of respondents "acknowledged the spread of incorrect information on important issues such as health, laws, and elections as a problem," with 57% considering it a serious problem. (Chua’s "Media and disinformation in the Philippines: Trends, perceptions, and challenges" is the first chapter in "Information Dystopia and Philippine Democracy," the new report published by Internews.

THAT REPORT, HERE: Information Dystopia and Philippine Democracy

"The seriousness of disinformation is not lost on Filipinos. Its effects on national elections, still a good two years away at the time they participated in the Internews survey, already had them worried," she writes.

Despite that, "only a third have picked up the habit of always verifying the news they get," with most saying they do not have time to do so (33%) or don't know how to (20%).

That's fine, media practitioners might say self-assuredly, since verifying information is our job.

But that is a job that has had to be done while, according to Reporters Without Borders, “state troll armies use the weapon of disinformation on social media” against journalists.

The media has also had to weather attacks against the smallest community at a time when access to verified information is vital because of the upcoming elections and because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic itself has also hit media, with local newspapers having to stop publishing during the lockdown in 2020; those that have resumed printing have had to reduce their staff and circulation. Many communities are now underserved with the loss of regional ABS-CBN stations.

"In the absence of verified information, disinformation fills the gap," Chua writes, quoting a warning from a 2020 UNESCO study on digital disinformation.

Media isn't the only source of news, either, and as Chua warns, non-media sources—people respondents know, political and public personalities, and religious leaders—offer stiff competition.

"Not only do close to half of the respondents in the Internews survey seek them out, a sizable number of them also consider these sources reliable—even more than the media for some," she says. Respondents don't even seek media as a source because of reliability, with 37% saying they follow media because of ease of access.

The survey found that 85% of respondents consider media unbiased but, "paradoxically...only a little more than half (55%) of the respondents describe their reporting on government as fair." Of the rest, 24% said the media is "too positive" while 21% say it is "too negative."

While a majority of respondents, 51%, agree that "fake news" means untrue information, Chua notes that "[c]uriously as well, a portion of Filipino internet users not only consider negative news about the government as unfair, but also define such types of reports as 'fake news'."

While it doesn't help that "fake news" has become a standard defense for officials, neither does trust in news, according to the 2020 Digital News Report. It is at a low 27%; for news on social media, it is at an even lower 22%.

A separate index by communication firm EON Group found that trust in media was at 69% in 2019, down from 88%.

This mistrust, according to Cleve V. Arguelles of the Australian National University and Jose Mari Lanuza of the University of the Philippines Manila, has led people to use social media as sources of news and information themselves.

"These are then taken advantage of by disinformative actors, who try to exploit regulatory deficits and loopholes in the production of disinformative content. While we can view the more horizontal orientation of information production as democratizing, the lack of an editorial process now inspires a greater influx of low information quality in the public sphere," they write in "Linking Media System and Disinformation Vulnerability in Southeast Asia," a research paper presented last December.

But media can still regain the public’s trust. Chua writes that most survey respondents (45%) said validating information from several sources is the most important thing that media can do to be trustworthy.

Another 29% said media outlets should report complete details while 14% said they should get as many perspectives as possible.

This, Chua writes, may be because of the public’s inability—for lack of time, skill, or inclination—to verify the news themselves. 

Another 12% said media should also be open to audience feedback.

"Without a doubt, all four suggested courses of action are congruent with the journalism principles of truth-telling (verification), justice (fairness and balance), and accountability and community engagement (stewardship)," she says.

Harder to address is the oligarchic nature of media ownership, which Arguelles and Lanuza say “undermines the otherwise high degree of independence that journalists enjoy in this environment.”

“If there is abuse of power, whether done by political or economic elites, people are expected to run to the media to help make the responsible actors accountable,” but journalists may not, at times, be able to perform this role because of business interests.

“Rather than along partisan or ideological lines, what is most likely to dictate what issue gets coverage and what gets ignored is business capital.” 

That interest can also allow the entry of "profit-driven disinformation" to boost ads and traffic.

"Thus, some disinformation thrives primarily to simply generate buzz which in turn generates profit," they write.

Faced with all these, Chua says journalists have no choice but to do a better job.

“They need to retrace their steps and wholly embrace the profession’s fundamental norms and principles—lest an internal crisis exacerbate the unenviable situation they are already in.”