[RESEARCH] ‘Patient Zero’ Fights Back: A Look at the Philippines’ Counter-disinformation Initiatives

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[RESEARCH] ‘Patient Zero’ Fights Back: A Look at the Philippines’ Counter-disinformation Initiatives

Written by Juan Felix of Active Vista Center, Inc. and Ferdinand Sanchez II of University of Canberra

‘Fake news has no place in society,’ said President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in his speech highlighting the steps undertaken by the government to fight disinformation. 

This statement comes as concerns on misinformation and disinformation in the country continue to intensify.

Dubbed as ‘patient zero’ in the global fight against disinformation, the Philippines has been in the forefront of experiencing digital platform weaponization. Surveys indicate 70% of Filipinos consider fake news a serious problem and over 51% find difficulty in identifying false claims. 

The growing disinformation problem in the Philippines can be attributed to its dynamic production and reproduction over the years. Since 2016, the forms and agents of disinformation have drastically changed.

For instance, as fact-checking efforts countered the spread of explicitly fake content online, lies were embedded in enduring myths that go beyond truth-telling initiatives and even evade platform policies. 

New disinformation actors emerged in the recent electoral cycle. During the 2022 elections, knowledge influencers, AFAM reactors, and even incumbent politicians took the spotlight from community-level fake accounts and mega-influencers.

Akin to a virus, disinformation displays its capacity to rapidly evolve and survive its host’s attempts to cure itself. We now ask, how has ‘patient zero’ responded to disinformation?

Filipinos across sectors reacted to disinformation in diverse ways. Their efforts bring their respective strengths, but these are not enough to keep pace with disinformation.

Legal accountability is among the direct avenues of addressing fake news, but risks backfiring on civil liberties like politicians’ filing of libel cases against identified bad actors. There are also ethical approaches focused on institutions entangled in disinformation such as Maria Ressa’s ten-point plan to regulate social media companies globally.

Some groups fight disinformation circulation by arming the public with information through digital literacy initiatives. Fact-checkers produce quick correction of falsehoods, others use prebunking to train audiences to counter fake news themselves, while media literacy groups strengthen people’s critical thinking via educational modules.

There are whole-of-society approaches using coalition-building to mount a collective effort against disinformation like #FactsFirstPH which uses a multi-layered approach that produces and distributes fact-checks, generates disinformation research, and provides legal aid to coalition members.

Journalists and scholars produce investigative reports and academic research studying different aspects of disinformation which can inform efforts of concerned groups, civil society organizations, and policymakers.

Creative responses by artists demonstrate their potential to connect hard facts mired by political conflicts with audiences’ lived experiences. Innovative efforts include Martial Law film screening forums with survivors of the era, and a media literacy comic series featuring different artists educating audiences on disinformation.

In fighting off a virus, the body must learn how it operates to cleanse it from its system.

Similarly, actors conducting counter-disinformation efforts must reckon with its evolving nature by being responsive to the shifting landscape and shifting to approaches by combining long- and short-term interventions.

Our report is one contribution in the many efforts against disinformation.

By continuing the conversation, we hope to foster a collective understanding that enables us to learn from the past, be more critical of the present, and take forward actions together as we confront the evolving nature of disinformation eroding our shared spheres.

Indeed, fake news has no place in our society, but doing so requires us to reclaim and share more spaces for truth.

Access our latest report here

This piece is based on a collaborative research project funded by Internews under the Six-Track Engagement Against Disinformation Initiative (STEAD-i). Monitoring of disinformation narratives was based on reports lodged on TotooBa.info. This piece does not reflect the views of Internews.

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