Meet the fact-checkers in the age of disinformation

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The objective of disinformation is to pollute the public space to achieve a political outcome, a political analyst says. Illustration by JL JAVIER

"Fake news" has become a common term to describe spurious news or a report that is not based on verified and accurate information. However, the term that captures the systematic way in which it is spread is "disinformation,” defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as "false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) to influence public opinion or obscure the truth."

When multiple Facebook accounts posted images of the construction of a subway tunnel as part of the planned Metro Manila Subway Project, it only took Pauline Macaraeg, one of the fact-checkers of social news network Rappler, a few clicks using Google’s reverse image search tool to find out that the photos were of a tunnel in Moscow, Russia.

Fact-checking is a term in journalism that describes a reporter’s own investigation of an issue or a topic to verify facts.

Apart from news publications like Rappler, social-first publications like Media Commoner and Hacktibista are also sticklers for providing reliable information.

Scrolling through their Instagram feeds, tiles are like posters, or even slides that you can swipe through bearing quick factual information about a timely topic, say the limitations on vaccine storage and logistics, climate crisis as a cause for severe flooding in Cagayan late last year, or how to solve disinformation in the country. Media Commoner’s founder JP Campos, an advertising professional by training, explained, "Our pieces are more explanatory in nature and rely heavily on deep research and expert interviews. In this way, we can help people make sense of the issues they should know about."

Since their founding last year, the @mediacommoner Instagram account now has more than 23,000 followers. And while Campos doesn’t consider Media Commoner to be a “news agency” (to him, they are a nonprofit new media organization), fact-checking remains in their basic online habit. The production of their slides or video essays — which are often screencapped or forwarded in direct messages on chat apps and across social networks — involves conducting expert interviews as well as reviewing related articles and academic journal libraries such as Jstor, Cell, Tandfonline, Social Science Research Council, and Academia.

"We believe that we are no longer just vying for eyeballs; we are vying for trust,” Campos said. "Because of our formats, we cannot afford to commit mistakes. Everything has to be correct and contextualized before we proceed to the publishing part of the process.”

“Instead of focusing on individual events as they unfold, we wait until there is enough clarity to tell the entirety of the story. In this way, we can weed out the noise and focus on the truth. This is best exemplified in our slides about Christine Dacera," shares Campos.

The team, likely influenced by Campos’ background in video production where keyframes are crucial, decides on the best format to tell it: whether slides, article, video, or mixed media.

In their slide about the Christine Dacera case early this year, one user commented, "Great way of making a comprehensive rundown of the information that circulated on the case," while another one said, "Wow, [I] just discovered this page. This is just gold. To the person behind this page, good job!"

Slowing down the news cycle to make way for truth-telling is important to Media Commoner, as well as network journalists like Atom Araullo, who believes contextual reporting should be practiced now more than ever because merely presenting cold, hard facts is not enough anymore.

“In the age of social media, information and disinformation can spread so quickly and widely that from the get-go, it is important to provide the audience with a more complete picture of events,” Araullo says. He used to file stories from the field as a news reporter, but is now focusing more on long-form and documentary work with GMA. Given the long-form format, he now has "the privilege of using a longer running time to explore the different aspects of issues," something that he used in his previous documentaries on the plight of the Lumad community in Mindanao as well as learning access amid the pandemic, among others.

‘Nasa comments section ang totoong laban’

On the other side of the fence, Tonyo*, a social media manager who manages trolls for clients who decide to use them for their attack campaigns, started his trade sometime in 2013, back when he was working as head of the information office of his own province’s capitol. When his office learned that their governor was seeing a dip in ratings, Tonyo remembered his friend who ran a “PR office” that paid people to post false information and hate messages in comments sections to various social media posts on Facebook and Twitter to discredit their clients’ rivals. “’Yun ang target namin: comments section and shares,'' he adds, explaining that in his experience, Filipino netizens on Facebook and Twitter hardly read articles themselves, but just the comments section. “Nandoon ang totoong laban.”

Tasking about 10 employees from the information office to manage 20 accounts each “so nasa around 200 accounts lahat,” Tonyo said, he gave them all a “script” to copy-paste into different comments sections to spread a common message. “Hindi kasi sila pwedeng mag-veer away from their script kasi mas dadami ang questions than answers. So baka mawala ‘yung common message na ikinakalat nila, hindi na magiging successful ‘yung aim na mag-condition ng isip ng netizens, so dapat, stick to the script lang. ‘Yan ang bilin sa trolls.'' This is probably the reason why hate messages often feel like many dead ends, since once posted on one comments section, the trolls don’t stick around to engage in dialogue. They move on to the next.

One time, an LGU official from another province came to Tonyo to ask for his services. “Itong LGU Official 1, gusto niyang siraan ‘yung political ally niya, si LGU Official 2. May gentleman’s agreement daw kasi sila na papalitan na dapat ni LGU Official 1 si LGU Official 2 after the term. Kaso noong end of term ni LGU Official 2, ayaw naman niyang umalis in position,” says Tonyo, whose plan of action was to create fake procurement documents with the name of LGU Official 2. “Tinaasan namin ‘yung presyo ng relief goods doon sa fake procurement document na ginawa namin. Nag-viral ‘yun. Ang daming nagalit kay LGU Official 2.”

Now, Tonyo handles three politicians from different provinces, earning ₱70,000 pesos a month per politiko.

Which begs the question: Can the popular mind really be conditioned?

Bandwagon effect and the threat to democracy

Atty. Henry Michael Yusingco, a political analyst and senior research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center, defines disinformation in the landscape of politics as a strategy “to make election discourse more hostile and toxic.” It is often a tool used by political camps. He says, “This may come in the form of calculatingly abstruse communications, unfounded innuendo to cast doubt on the motives of political opponents, direct insults and other means of character assassination, falsehoods, and other forms of misrepresentation of facts to confuse and mislead [the public].” Generally, the objective of disinformation is to pollute the public space to achieve a political outcome, says Yusingco.

On Dec. 31, 2020, Pulse Asia released "Ulat ng Bayan" national survey, which showed that 26% of the 2,400 respondents said that they would vote for Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte for president, should elections be held during the survey period.

When the news about the survey results was released, there were comments saying that it was an “early mind-conditioning” to get voters to side with who is perceived to be the stronger candidate, a sort of bandwagon effect. For instance, in a Facebook post of CNN Philippines about the subject survey, the top comments include one from a certain Norman who said "They timed the release of this stupid survey on New Year's Eve for early mind-conditioning. Style bulok!" While a certain Akie said, "False Asia Survey. Maagang mind conditioning ah." Meanwhile, a certain Romeo commented, "Surveys' sole purpose is to condition the mind of bandwagoners." While these comments are not representative of the popular opinion, they still show that certain voters are doubtful. (Pulse Asia President Ronald Holmes also stressed in an email to CNN Philippines Life, “We are in no way connected to any partisan group and have been engaged by various non-governmental, governmental, and political organizations of various partisan persuasions.”)

CNN Philippines’s resident sociologist Nicole Curato said that using the term “mind-conditioning” in this context may be wrong. “This presupposes that individuals are unthinking beings who uncritically respond to stimulus offered to them,” she says. “I think the better concept that we can use is ‘engagement.’ How does the public engage with information they receive? What do people think and do when they see survey results? Do people uncritically behave in the same manner?” Most probably not, because if this were the case, then Jejomar Binay or Grace Poe should be the president now as they led the survey early on in the race.

For her, while surveys do not condition the minds of people per se, they provide actionable information. As in the case of Poe and Binay, given that they were leading in surveys months before the elections, their political rivals were able to act on this information. “The survey did not shift people’s preferences. It’s how people acted on the survey results that did,” says Curato.

Psychologist John Michael Kliatchko, who chairs the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Santo Tomas, says that the concept of “conditioning” is often used in psychology to refer to processes that elicit learning in individuals, rather than groups of people.

Talking about the recently released Pulse Asia survey, Kliatchko notes that whatever the results are can create a perception of what the voters prefer, which can eventually lead to what he calls the “bandwagon effect.”

“Hindi kasi sila pwedeng mag-veer away from their script kasi mas dadami ang questions than answers. So baka mawala ‘yung common message na ikinakalat nila, hindi na magiging successful ‘yung aim na mag-condition ng isip ng netizens, so dapat, stick to the script lang. ‘Yan ang bilin sa trolls.''

People who have not established a strong affinity to particular potential candidates are most susceptible to this bandwagon effect, he says, explaining that this is most probably because people would normally want to be identified with the winner. “It’s actually possible for people to change their opinions so that it matches that of the majority. They might think [that] the majority can’t be wrong.”

In the same way, trolls take advantage of the effect of rage on an individual. When a person sees in the comments section that everybody's angry, they might be primed to be angry too even without reading the article or understanding the issue completely.

To combat this echoing of sentiments, Kliatchko says, “The key to preventing disinformation is information.”

Disinformation in privilege speech

A problem arises when privilege speeches — protection against civil or criminal liability for statements made in the course of public officials’ duties — are taken to be valid and true. This poses a problem, especially because privilege speeches are often made on T.V., which 60% of Filipinos still watch to get their news, followed by Facebook (21%), radio (15%) and newspapers (2%), according to a 2019 SWS survey.

In the United States, when then-President Donald Trump said that disinfectant could be injected into the body to protect oneself from the coronavirus, several health patrol hotlines in some states reported receiving around 50 calls in the first few weeks of August alone, all related to ingestion of bleach and other harmful substances.

In the Philippines, President Duterte advised in a telecast to use gasoline as a disinfectant for face masks (chemists responded by saying this is not true, citing potential dangerous effects).

More recently, a now deleted-post by the Facebook page "Armed Forces of the Philippines Information Exchange,” listed 28 names that they claimed to be "UP students who became NPA." The people on the list are now either "dead or captured," according to the post. The list was released by AFP’s Deputy Chief for Intelligence Alex Luna. However, those on the list held a press conference later on to deny the allegations, essentially making the AFP intel chief’s list false.

"I think the red-tag list is a form of disinformation,” says Yusingco. “[It] is an example of spreading disinformation because it makes it appear that those who are tagged have committed a criminal act when, in reality, they have not. Being a communist, whatever that means, is not a crime. Believing in communism, if this is even possible these days, is not a crime.”

He goes on to analyze why law enforcement and national security agencies are so keen in painting communism as something criminal. "I’m not sure Filipinos even think negatively of the idea of communism. I think many are like me who have no clear understanding of what communism really is," he says. "And if [the government] thinks [red-tagging] endears them to the community, then they’re wrong. Filipinos still remember the brutal years of the Marcos dictatorship and this kind of strategy just reminds them of the AFP’s dark role in that period of our history. "

In a breaking news post by CNN Philippines posted after Luna's relief, the post garnered about 2,400 reactions (mostly the “LOL” reaction) and hundreds of comments, with some commending Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana for this action, while others are rather more skeptic. "Damage control. He'll be transferred to another position anyway," says a certain Alex. Another user named Elpee said, "Tapos ililipat ng pwesto. Yeah, yeah. Alam na namin ang kasunod."

“I also learned that being neutral on issues will do as much damage as supporting fake-news peddlers. That is why it is important that journalists take a stand especially in the face of injustice or oppression.” — Pia Gutierrez, ABS-CBN

Luna isn’t the first public official who released disputed or unverified information to the public. National Intelligence Coordinating Agency's Director General Alex Monteagudo also posts false information on his own Facebook account, including one tagging Makabayan bloc lawmakers as "communist terrorists" despite lack of evidence (he has said that the accusations against him are false). Another is Overseas Workers Welfare Administration's Deputy Executive Director Mocha Uson who early last year, posted a photo of four female state university graduates with an accompanying text, "STUDY NOW, NPA LATER," accusing them as members of the communist group New People’s Army. Netizens were quick to accuse Uson of targeted harassment, defamation, and dereliction of duty as Uson didn’t have any strong evidence to prove that the women were NPA members.

In 2017, she shared a photo of what she claimed to be Filipino soldiers who were fighting the Maute group in Marawi. Eagle-eyed netizens were quick to fact-check and find out that the soldiers were actually from the Honduras police force. She said she used the photo “as symbolism.”

ABS-CBN reporter Pia Gutierrez, who covers the Malacañang beat, says zero tolerance should be given especially to authority figures who use platforms to deliberately lie or mislead the public. She says, “I also learned that being neutral on issues will do as much damage as supporting fake-news peddlers. That is why it is important that journalists take a stand especially in the face of injustice or oppression.”

To show the government's initiatives in combating the growing threats of disinformation, Senator Vicente C. Sotto III introduced the Anti-False Content Act, filed in the Senate in July 2019, which seeks to "protect the public from the deleterious effects of false and deceiving content online,” “attain this objective by providing expedient remedies that would address this growing concern," and "promote the responsible use of the internet." The bill remains pending today.

Fact-checking culture

Apart from the fact-checking done by journalists — one of the most efficient ways to combat disinformation in the news media — citizen journalists, or just concerned news readers, have started to do fact-checking on their own.

At the news organization Rappler, which publishes #FactCheck posts on their social media, readers actually send claims that they see online and ask the news org to fact-check for them, says researcher and writer Vernice Tantuco. Rappler itself also hosts free fact-checking webinars almost every week, in hopes that when regular citizens learn the methods: 1) calling the necessary offices to confirm a claim, 2) doing their own research by reading only credible news and information sources, and 3) learning several online fact-checking tools such as Google’s reverse image search and hundreds of trusted academic journal libraries, among others, the attendees will also share them to their families, their peers, and their communities. Every webinar now gets more than 200 participants, and some of them also become volunteer fact-checkers who get to publish their own #FactCheck pieces on the site.

Add to this, the Facebook group “Fact-checking in the Philippines” also exists, wherein members post disputed or unverified claims mostly on Facebook, the main platform used by trolls, given the fact that most Filipinos treat it as a news source.

And what of the trolls themselves? Tonyo, the social media manager for hire, takes a fatalistic view. “Hangga’t may pulitika, may trolls,” he said. In divulging his practices, he has the confidence of someone with a steady job. “Tell me kung sino ang malinis," he said. "Sa gobyerno pa lang, Diyos ko! Sa media industry, sa ad agency, sa forwarding, sa communications, sa big companies — lahat naman halos ng work, may mga unethical at immoral diyan… hindi magsu-survive ang mga industriya kapag hindi sila gumawa ng unethical and immoral things," he answered with a laugh. "Lahat naman ng industriya, may issue ng pagiging immoral. Hindi lang kami."


*Respondent requested that his identity be withheld.