US warns disinformation, COVID-19 could undermine PH elections, democracy

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 15) — With less than eight months before the 2022 elections, the United States government is warning that the "tsunami of disinformation" and the pandemic "dampening voter enthusiasm," could threaten both the conduct of the polls, and Philippine democracy in general.

"Democracy is called into question - (with) informed voting undermined by disinformation (and) voters potentially opting out because they are afraid for their own health," said John Groch, incoming public affairs chief of the US Embassy in Manila. "This is where the media comes in - because journalists play a crucial role in ensuring the conduct of safe and credible elections."

"All over the world, including in both of our countries - both the Philippines and the US' long-standing commitment to democracy are being challenged by appeals to authoritarianism," Groch, speaking from Washington DC, told an online media forum on Wednesday. He is due in Manila later this month.

"So it's not just candidates who are running in the elections, but it's actually democracy itself that sometimes seems to be on the ballot these days," he added.

Groch cited the challenges faced by the US presidential elections last year, where voters were given the option to mail in their ballots. As a result, counting of the votes took longer than usual.

And while American news organizations "made the deliberate point of explaining to voters" the extended electoral process while managing poll outcome expectations, Groch said the "message did not get through to everybody" since the public was also heavily bombarded with disinformation.

But through "correct and transparent" reporting, media outlets "helped stabilize our democratic system," he pointed out.

"Those challenges to democracy are actually being abetted by deliberate attempts to undermine not just the truth, but in fact, deliberate attempts to undermine our very ability to ascertain what is true," Groch said.

He cautioned that the Philippines may go through the same challenges next year.

The US Embassy gathered select representatives from print, digital, and broadcast news organizations nationwide in a pre-2022 elections webinar, in a bid to boost Filipino journalists' role in filling the gap on voters' access to proper education and information, while the polls are being mounted amid the unprecedented restrictions brought about by a raging pandemic.

"From the point of view of a fellow democracy, it's important to us to empower the media to accurately and freely report on election-related issues because elections are a hallmark of a democratic process," Groch said.