By Karol Ilagan

HE LASHES OUT at reporters and calls the false and misleading information that he dishes out as jokes or “traps.” Yet while his diatribes can be described as unbecoming of his office, President Rodrigo R. Duterte remains widely popular, enjoying consistently high trust ratings in surveys.

But public-relations practitioner Ron Jabal says that to understand why Duterte is winning the so-called information war requires going beyond the soundbites and personalities and looking into the motives and interests of both the source and interpreter of the message.

Speaking at a panel in the Democracy and Disinformation conference last week, Jabal said that journalists need to look at Duterte’s public appearances as a ritual or a performance. Duterte is not just a disseminator of information, he said, but a source of drama. This, according to Jabal, is how the President’s supporters interpret his message – that he is performing, not just providing information.

Organized by news organizations and universities, the two-day event held at the Ateneo de Manila University in Makati gathered over 40 media experts to discuss why “fake news” and other forms of disinformation threaten freedoms, and how people can fight back.

Jabal said that while shedding light on the truth through reporting and fact-checking is of course essential, the campaign that needed to be done is not only about communication but also behavioral in nature.

“Fake news, misinformation, disinformation, or even ‘malinformation’ could be a strategy,” he said. “So we need to look at it from that way.”

When viewed from a PR lens, Jabal said, what is happening indicates that disinformation might be part of a strategy because of a structure that seems to be followed. He said that this is why the media and other institutions need to look at the issue with the elements of a campaign in mind to understand why there has been so much support for Duterte.

Check out Jonathan Corpus Ong and Jason Vincent O. Cabañes’ study titled “Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines,” which found that disinformation production is a professionalized enterprise in the country.

“We need to look at the source or the agent – who are speaking, who are producing this content,” Jabal said. “We need to be able look at it from the point of view of the message itself – how is the message being crafted?”

These need to be addressed because the messages and the images being developed use shared belief as a base. This goes back to Jabal’s point that understanding Duterte’s supporters – who they are and how they are interpreting his messages — is an important part of the equation as well.

Jabal noted that Duterte’s supporters, when they post or share information online, could be performing as well just like the president. This rests on his observation that every time people publish something on Facebook, they almost instantaneously check whether their friends are liking or sharing it. The tendency is to share because the idea is people believe in that information.

“We’re performing also for our followers, for those people who like us,” he said.

This could be a reason why the supposed strategy is winning because the information given is packaged and repackaged in a manner that appeals to the base of the base, Jabal said.

Hong Kong Baptist University journalism professor Cherian George, another speaker at the conference, meanwhile put forth another perspective. To be sure, the media being able reach out to the audience using the right communication tools and social media skills is important. But George said that this is not enough because the truth, in the current context, is a much harder sell than the lie.

“The truth is if you’re looking at the economic problems of any country, there are simply no easy answers,” he said. “How do you go out and tell the people, ‘Well, the truth is, looking at the state of the world, of our country, it is in fact not possible for any politician to guarantee you a job or a high salary’.”

The fact that sacrifices need to be made in order to ensure some basic decent living is a hard sell. Making empty promises, like how politicians do, meanwhile, is much easier to do.

For instance, with human rights, the easy sell is to tell people that they are first and foremost Filipino, Muslim, or Hindu, and that other people do not count, George said. In short, asking people to look at themselves in terms of their most obvious and salient identity is easy. It is harder to ask people to consider the obligation they owe to strangers simply because they are members of the human race.

The problem requires deep civic education, which is more than a job for the media. The solution cannot be captured in a clever tweet or soundbite.

George pointed out that this is why demagogues like Donald Trump go for the easy sell — not because they are ideologically attached to white nationalism for example, but because these are effective, easy political stances.

“If it was easy to promote democracy and human rights, Donald Trump would be doing, championing that,” he said. “He is not, because it is a hard sell.”

The often easy answer, George noted, is to blame it on the people “because it lets us off the hook.” The more challenging question is how the system let down people so badly that they are willing to overturn norms and rebel against expertise. This is a much harder question because media, academe, and other institutions across society end up pointing fingers at each other.

“We have failed the people over a long time such that they are willing to opt for easy but wrong answers.” George said.

Jabal, though, said that reporters can do more in presenting facts and data by using real-life experiences and doing more investigative reporting in the mainstream. Beyond content itself, the PR practitioner also emphasized the need to study how information is distributed. He finds a problem with Facebook giving users just one side of the story, as an effect of echo chambers and filter bubbles.

Social networking service Facebook uses an algorithm that provides content to users that it deems the user wants. This is based on user activity, when he or she engages with like-minded friends or screens out content that does not conform with his or her existing preferences. The result is a virtual bubble that reinforces the user’s biases, insulating him or her from opposing viewpoints.

George, however, sees a problem in looking at filter bubbles from the lens of social media seen as a new form of media. He said that the media must also look at it as a new form of conversation or social interaction. In truth, he said, people tend to interact socially with people they like, and with whom they share the same values.

“We don’t then think about what society should do to penetrate our conversations or gate-crash our party,” he said. “In a crowded, in a very intrusive environment, we have the power retreat into our spaces where we get to chat with people we care about, people we share our values, our religion.”

George said that while this reality offline is not alarming or wrong, it turns out to be a dilemma online. Rather than seeing it as a problem on Facebook, however, George said that journalists must ask whether they are doing enough to create media experiences where people get to confront other points of view. — PCIJ, February 2018

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