May’s election will be a test of press freedom and efforts to fight fake news in the Philippines

Photo Credit: ECOO EDP/Wikimedia Commons

Rappler CEO and co-founder Maria Ressa has been arrested again, putting the Philippines’ record on press freedom back in the spotlight. With elections approaching, how well are voters prepared to combat the spectre of viral misinformation?

Editorial

Maria Ressa, the prominent Filipino journalist and co-founder of Rappler, has emerged as the face of press freedom in the Philippines. She was arrested on March 29, 2019, shortly after landing in Manila. She had just returned from a public event in San Francisco where she called out President Duterte for abuses of power.

Maria Ressa, CEO and co-founder of Rappler.
Photo Credit: Paul Papadimitriou/Flickr

The latest arrest is a result of legal action against her independent news outlet, Rappler, for allegedly violating a set of Filipino ownership laws meant to prevent foreign entities from managing domestic media organizations. Specifically, the charges allege that Rappler allowed a U.S.-based investment firm to intervene in its management decisions in 2015. She was previously arrested in February 2019 over digital libel accusations.

Although Rappler officially denies the charges, it increases the total number of outstanding cases against Ressa to seven. The allegations cover a range of transgressions, including tax evasion and securities fraud. She was released on bail a few hours after her arrest.

Duterte has a history of engaging in online disinformation

Ressa claims attacks against her outlet ramped up considerably after a 2016 Rappler exposé demonstrated the Duterte campaign knowingly spread inauthentic content over the Internet in the run-up to the election.

The piece described how the Duterte campaign extensively used fake social media accounts to spread false information an undermine rivals. As the campaign wore on, regular election rhetoric became interspersed with aggressive, insulting, and sometimes violent content.

Meanwhile, Facebook downplayed or outright ignored evidence of fraud.  A month before the election Facebook dubbed him the “undisputed king of Facebook conversations.” Post-election, they deepened their relationship with the new president by offering tips on how best to use the platform in office.

After an intense public backlash, Facebook is looking to change its policies. On March 28, 2019, the company took the linked Duterte’s 2016 social media manager to a network of fake pages. 200 pro-Duterte pages were taken down for engaging in ‘inauthentic behaviour’, corroborating Rappler’s coverage.  

May’s elections are shaping up as a testing ground against fake content

With upcoming national elections in the Philippines scheduled for May, a concerned coalition of civil society groups, news outlets, and universities is emerging to mitigate the impact of misinformation in the public discourse.  They launched a website under the name “tsek.ph”. On the site, the group will provide updated fact-checking services on election content doing the rounds on social media.

Likewise, as part of Facebook’s global response to stem the tide of viral misinformation, the social media giant set up an election monitoring centre in Singapore to monitor regional election content. Despite the welcomed increase in resources and attention to this issue, an uphill battle awaits in the Philippines.

For starters, it’s doubtful that Facebook will be able to sustain a meaningful pushback against misinformation on its platforms. Connecting bad actors to fake content is a positive step, but it’s much harder to stop the spread of that information once it’s in the ether — and that’s just on its public systems.

The encrypted private messaging system WhatsApp is even harder to control. On this front, Facebook has unveiled messaging forwarding limitations, controls on who can add users into group chats, and a fact-checking service. While the new security features could mitigate the spread of fake content, the onus is still on users to use the platform in a responsible way.

Despite the barrage of attacks, Rappler continues to fight

Ms Ressa, she maintains that her organization will continue to use social media platforms to engage with the public on critical issues. Rappler is contesting all charges, including the most recent.

She maintains that social media can be a force for the common good, but only if “they twist the dial [toward] community and involvement.”

Regulatory standards are taking shape. With an eye on reigning in social media in 2019, the Philippine Commission on Elections introduced a new set of rules that all campaigns must follow. The list includes mandatory registration of social media pages, divulgence of advertisement revenue sources, and the submission of content reports.

At this juncture, however, the basic infrastructure of social media remains largely unchanged. Without fundamental changes to the norms and policies that underpin these, weeding out false information will largely remain on the shoulders of the electorate.

As such, Filipinos will have to stay vigilant in order to get the most accurate sense of both the players involved and the issues at stake in next month’s elections. Rappler will no doubt offer a sanctuary of truth in the storm of fake news. But only if it can weather the legal charges.