WATCH | Spread of fake news aims to silence dissent, says chief of embattled PH site

January 30, 2018 - 6:18 PM
Rappler CEO Maria Ressa visits the NBI in this January 2018 file photo. REUTERS FILE

MANILA – The head of a Philippine online news site battling revocation of its license on Tuesday said some governments have sought to “silence dissent” through the proliferation of fake news, flooding social media with hate messages.

There is now state-sponsored “patriotic trolling” designed to harass and intimidate, Maria Ressa, the chief executive of the news site, Rappler, told senators holding an inquiry into the spread of fake news in the Philippines.

“Social media provided cheap armies to potential authoritarian and dictators to control and manipulate public opinion,” Ressa said, citing a study in which Rappler participated that is set to be released in the next few months.

She did not provide details of the study, but said it mirrored the findings of a survey of 65 countries released last November by a US-based group, Freedom House, that showed China and Russia were flooding social media with lies and disinformation, rather than seeking to control them.

Ressa also demonstrated for the senators how fake news was manufactured by false accounts and spread in Facebook, the top social media platform in the Philippines, with nearly 70 million users.

Governments have “weaponized the internet” to push propaganda, she said, but joined other journalists, bloggers and even the government’s communications office, to resist senators’ plans for measures to rein in social media.

In Southeast Asia, the media fear authoritarian leaders will use new laws to target legitimate news outlets critical of them, rather than focus on false stories published on social media, as they tighten clampdowns.

“There are existing laws,” she said. “I don’t believe that we should have more legislation but I think we should impose existing laws on this and demand accountability.”

The courts can deal with false information maligning people, said Roby Alampay, editor in chief of the BusinessWorld daily and InterAksyon online news site of TV5, asking lawmakers not to legislate controls on free speech, expression and the press.

“The important thing is to use our rights, to use your laws and to fight back,” Alampay added. Watch video clip below:

No laws will be passed to suppress freedom of the media and expression, said Grace Poe, head of the Senate panel on public information, adding that senators were only interested in how to regulate the spread of false information on social media.

In her closing statement, Poe said: “With fake news threatening our daily realities, I believe that legislative solutions exist. Isang mainam na solusyon ang edukasyon at patuloy na kampanya para sa tamang partisipasyon sa [Education is an effective solution, along with a continuing campaign on correct practices in] cyberspace. Media literacy is the best long-term solution but it should not just be the government. We are grateful for all the private entities, particularly those coming from the media, that teach the netizens how to distinguish real from false information.”

Poe added, “It’s also time that we encourage people to use the existing laws and institutions like the NBI Cybercrime Division already in place. With technology, we can fight back abuses in technology.”

Rappler has invoked freedom of the press in its appeal to the Court of Appeals in the Philippines, challenging a decision of the Securities and Exchange Commission to revoke its license for violations of foreign equity curbs on domestic media.- With additional reporting from InterAksyon