OPINION: When our justice secretary acts like a troll

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Last week, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre made public an image insinuating a link between opposition senators and the Marawi crisis, alleging that they met to plot the tragedy. Later on, the photo was found to have been taken two years ago, in 2015. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Nicole Curato is a sociologist. She is a research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra, and provides regular commentary for CNN Philippines. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I find value in holding politicians to the highest ethical standards. It is our duty as citizens to demand better. We may be used to politicians taking us for a ride, but we must not tire of calling them out. 

Last week, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre made public unverified reports insinuating the link between opposition senators and the Marawi crisis. He showed an image of some of President Duterte’s high profile critics posing for a photograph together in a café in a press briefing.

“I don't understand why after they went there, there was mayhem after two weeks,” he said. When it was found out that the photo was taken at the Iloilo airport in 2015, the Secretary backtracked. He blamed the media for misquoting him.

"I did not give, release, or send to anyone any picture of any Marawi meeting,” he said, even though there are video footage showing that he did.

Trolling the nation?

Senator Grace Poe is right to label this as troll-like behavior. Trolls thrive on inflaming passions and curtailing reason. They try to provoke an emotional response by disrupting on-going conversations.

If we have the energy to ask “anong ganap” when our colleagues engage in petty fights, there is no reason why we cannot ask the same to find out what’s really going on in Resorts World.

The Justice Secretary, as Senator Poe suggests, “willingly exploits and amplifies such fake news.” He does so “without a modicum of effort to at least verify the same just to malign political opponents.” Instead of promoting calm and providing clarity, our Justice Secretary is sowing confusion.

This is troubling for democracy. Fake news can easily evolve to become hate news. In South Sudan, we have seen how fake news has incited ethnic hatred which led to bloodshed. When passions are high and societies are divided, misinformation can spark violence.

It would be a tragedy if the country is headed to this direction.

Ways forward

What are we left to do?

There are two approaches to this. One approach focuses on technological solutions. Remember the time when hoax messages about a Nigerian prince bequeathing money reached our inbox? Today, these types of email go directly to our spam folder.

Tech companies and media outfits are teaming up to do something similar to fight fake news. Recently, the National Union of Journalists for the Philippines launched Faceblok, a Google Chrome plug-in that flags news reports from dubious sites. This plug-in is useful for citizens who are mindful of the sources of information but have no time to double-check sources.

But technological solutions are never enough. IBM’s Watson Group created a fact-checking app but this project did not go far. Why? It’s not because the app could not spot a lie, but because users do not like to be told what the truth is. People prefer to make judgments themselves.

Which brings us to the importance of fostering democratic cultures. Skepticism is key to safeguard today’s democracy.

Trolls thrive on inflaming passions and curtailing reason. They try to provoke an emotional response by disrupting on-going conversations.

Millennials already have the vocabulary for this. “Weh, di nga?” may be an expression used in friendly banter, but can go far when we use this as our default frame of mind when reading the news. If we can be skeptical with a brokenhearted friend’s claim to never fall in love again, there is no reason we cannot be skeptical about an image made to look like two senators are holding hands. If we have the energy to ask “anong ganap” when our colleagues engage in petty fights, there is no reason why we cannot ask the same to find out what’s really going on in Resorts World.

Fake news used to be limited to that drunken uncle who talks about following the Yamashita treasure trail in family reunions. Now, that drunken uncle is everywhere, posting a Vietnam war photo from Wikicommons to characterize urban warfare in Marawi or hurling accusations at the former Human Rights Chief of supporting terror groups.

May this period in our nation’s history soon find its rightful place — the spam folder.