Developments in cyber technology and advancements in telephony have permanently altered the role of the mobile phone from a means of personal communication to a sophisticated multi-media device. Electronic news once confined to radio and television are now regular features in so-called “smart phones.”
Social media sites have also proliferated in cyberspace. Many of these sites host “bloggers” – personalities who disseminate their views to anyone and everyone in cyberspace who care to read or watch them.
At first, the comments found in these social media sites seemed like legitimate criticism of government officials and other public personalities. Later on, the sites began featuring personal opinions, even unfounded or baseless ones, about anything under the sun. The remarks at these sites eventually took the form of libel and outright character assassination.
When these social media sites began to host so-called “cyber bullies,” Congress had to step in and enact legislation against cyber crime. The penal statutes had an additional entry: Cyber libel, or libel commited through the use of a computer or similar electronic device.
To deter the use of cyberspace for libel, the law increased the penalty for cyber libel by one degree. This means that while one who is convicted for ordinary libel is entitled to probation and may not even see the inside of a prison cell, one who is convicted for cyber libel must spend time in prison.
Despite the latest law against cyber crime, the number of new cases involving cyber libel filed in the courts of law is ever increasing. During the 2016 national election, “trolls” proliferated on the internet. Trolls bashed anybody who expressed any sentiment against their preferred candidates.
The real bad news is that many bloggers have begun using cyber technology to disseminate fake news and they have shown extraordinary skill in this objectionable pursuit.
In essence, the dissemination of fake news on social media consists of spreading false information as if it were a fact. This is often done by including the false information within a brief narrative appearing at a blog site. Readers of the blog who like what they read eventually pass on the baneful material to others. Soon, the false information spreads like wildfire. Because of the sheer extent of its dissemination, the false information takes on a superficial veracity of its own, and is believed by everyone.
It is disturbing to note that this phenomenon seems to confirm Nazi German ideology—repeat a lie a thousand times and the people will take it to be true.
Bloggers who disseminate fake news invoke the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and free speech—which are patterned after the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. They have American jurisprudence on their side because the United States Supreme Court has ruled that “there is no such thing as a false idea under the First Amendment.” As every student of Constitutional Law in this country knows, American jurisprudence has persuasive influence in Philippine jurisprudence.
Those who engage in the dissemination of fake news have a convenient excuse—they honesty believed that what they were disseminating was true. That excuse is well-nigh very difficult to refute, especially if the one engaged in the dissemination is, as the euphemism goes, “mentally challenged.”
Since it is very easy for anybody to feign an honest belief that the fake news he or she disseminated was true, then government officials who also engage in the dissemination of fake news by way of personal blogs can likewise avail of that defense.
In simple language, therefore, no law exists penalizing the dissemination by anybody of fake news on cyberspace, and even if there were such a law, its constitutionality will be very difficult to defend if it were challenged in the Supreme Court. So far, all the credible legal minds in town have expressed serious doubts about the constitutionality of a law penalizing the dissemination of fake news.
A solicitor general during the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III recently suggested to the Senate that a law be enacted creating a government office which will standardize all information to be disseminated to the general public by the national government.
Although the suggested measure is well meant, it will only create needless regimentation in news dissemination by the national government, as well as inordinate delay in doing so, thanks to the bureaucracy characterizing all government offices. If such an office were really needed, then that office should be the existing media bureau of the national government. So far, the existing media bureau is suffering from a credibility problem owing to the erroneous public announcements attributed to some of its line agencies.
Besides, the suggested measure will unduly expand the already bloated government bureaucracy. Because the measure is limited to government sources of information, it does not solve the problem of fake news disseminated by private bloggers.
The ethical standards which govern the traditional news media make it very difficult, if not virtually impossible for newspapers, and the radio and television media to willingly and deliberately report fake news to the general public. Traditional news media may not be perfect or ideal sources of news and vital information but, unlike bloggers and similar social media commentators, the traditional news media are bound by time-tested ethical restrictions designed to protect the public from disinformation.
Considering that the old fashioned way of news dissemination worked well against the dissemination of fake news, there seems to be no reason not to encourage a return to the old practice.
At the end of the day, the solution against the proliferation and dissemination of false news cannot be found in legislation or regulation, but in urging the general public to personally verify the authenticity of the news and information they receive, or get their news directly from the traditional news media, like they way Filipinos used to before the nightmare of fake news began haunting the country.