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Media Reviews
Journalists, Bishops Battle Fake News
As the proliferation of “fake news” became the scourge of the social media in
the Philippines, two affected sectors, the bishops and journalists, have turned to
their moral and communicative powers to contain its spread. What underpins
their fight is the “truth” versus “lies” truism that is framed around moral
dictum and journalistic tenets. This review will examine how the Catholic
Church and the media shape their discourses on “fake news” phenomena and
how their interventions affect equally contested issues like dissent, propaganda,
and free expression in the public sphere.
The Catholic Church, which has 85% of the country’s population in its fold,
issued a pastoral letter on fake news through the influential Catholic Bishops
Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), an association of more than a 100 prelates. Since pastoral letters in the past discussed significant social issues like
human rights, climate change, natural disasters, extra-judicial killings and corruption, the inclusion of “fake news” suggests that the issue has turned into
some kind of a moral crisis. The CBCP’s letter was not explicit on what it meant
by “fake news” but it tried to scrape a definition by positing a binary: “Do good;
avoid evil,” with evil associated with falsehood, deceit, lies, and “alternative
facts” (CBCP, 2017, p. 1). Evil, as the prelates suggest, is the inability to grasp
facts and make informed judgment. “‘Alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ engender faulty decisions many times with disastrous long-term consequences to persons and to communities,” the letter went, and it closed by urging the faithful
to refrain from sharing fake news and to call out unverified items in news
media and social network sites (CBCP, 2017, p. 2). There were no specific fake
news sites cited by the CBCP pastoral letter but media referred to earlier pastoral
guidelines on social media that included a list of 29 news and blog sites with fake
and unverified content. Some of the sites are no longer live but many of the
active ones, judging by their names, are partial to President Rodrigo Duterte
(Esmaquel, 2017).
The partisanship of the news and blog sites has turned the issue of fake news
into a minefield because it demonstrates the mediatization of the acrimonious
national politics. Groups that attempted to define “fake news” ended up with
confusing criteria because they lumped together satirical news sites with spurious ones. The CBCP-endorsed list, for example, was criticized for labeling as
fake some sites that produce partisan news and pro-Duterte political commentaries (Tiglao, 2017).
DOI: 10.1111/aspp.12348
Asian Politics & Policy—Volume 9, Number 4—Pages 697–715
C 2017 Policy Studies Organization. Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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Asian Politics & Policy—Volume 9, Issue 4—2017
The term “fake news” now appears to be a floating signifier for satire, lampoon, parody, or propaganda written up in some recognizable news format or
opinion piece. The turn to humor and political punditry is what draws Internet
traffic to the sites although it is also true that some spurious items were presented as legitimate news. When accessed through their sites, a lot of the
“news” will be noticed as doubtful by a social media user. However, when the
same items appear on the news feeds of social media like Facebook and Twitter,
the posts have a semblance of regularity and newsworthiness. Moreover, when
shared across social media, they may look legitimate.
When fake news was an emergent issue in the Philippine media in 2016, the
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), a media watch group,
compiled a list of satirical websites whose contents were sometimes shared and
reposted as if they are “factually true.” The center concluded that “(m)any Filipino social media users cannot distinguish truth from satire” (CMFR, 2016).
Scholars have turned to Russian literary theorist Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin to theorize the possibilities of fake news on social media (Meddaugh, 2010;
Reilly, 2013). Among the Bakhtinian concepts deployed are “heteroglossia” and
“carnivalesque.” Heteroglossia refers to a discursive environment marked by
diverse language, jargons, and performances that break down all meanings
(Lachmann, 2004, p. 48), while carnivalesque is a mode of subversive jocular
representation in which hierarchies are inverted (Brandist, 2002, p. 139). In
medieval Europe, carnival is a time to break social norms and rules through
stylized cultural expressions; the laughter that ensued brings renewal. Applied
to parodic and satirical news and social media sites, the two Bakhtinian forms
of dissent could be the means to analyze, reflect upon and criticize reality. Fake
news, by imitating journalistic forms like news and opinion-editorial pieces,
also challenge journalism’s conventions, genre, and institutions. In other words,
fake news raise doubts on the hegemony of the journalism, its practice, and its
role in fostering democracy. Following Bakhtin (1994), the mockery of reality and
journalism could enable political agency among the masses with the “realization
that established authority and truth are relative” (p. 226).
A popular site that uses satire and parody is the multi-awarded The Professional Heckler that was inspired by the humor of American comedian Jon Stewart.
Heckler’s favorite targets are politicians and celebrities including their associates and hangers-on. Its Twitter handle @HecklerForever has a huge following
due to its humorous news, comments, video, memes, and even hilarious
weather updates. It can be argued that the site’s popularity may be attributed to
its novel punditry, suggesting that readers liked unconventional forms of political news and commentary not always available in mainstream corporate media.
For Philippine journalists, however, the issue with fake news is not the presence of satire and humorous hoaxes but the use of propaganda, that is, the kind
of information that promotes, confuses or discredits persons or ideas for political advantage. For example, online Duterte supporters have attacked groups
critical of the president’s policies like the campaign against drugs that, during
his first year in office, resulted in the killing of at least 7,000 drug users and
dealers (Human Rights Watch, 2017). A Rappler investigative report showed
how Duterte’s supporters used fake accounts and bots to “disregard truth and
manipulate emotions,” thanks to Facebook algorithm (Ressa, 2016). The
Media Reviews
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strategies, deployed in the 2016 elections to boost Duterte’s popularity, continue
to this day.
Journalism’s predilection for facts and truth has made fake news, in its many
forms, unacceptable to journalists. The latter believed that their practices, standards, conventions, and the violations thereof have revolved around the business
of truthtelling (Kovach & Rosentiel, [2001] 2014). The notion of truth is possible
when events are told through a fair, factual, and verifiable manner, as in the
positivism of news form. Fairness and accuracy can manifest in reporting that
validates information and its sources, provides diverse viewpoints and contexts,
and presents the story in a disinterested and impartial manner. Reporting techniques, as signifying practice, convey to the reader that the news story can be
trusted. Many journalists scoff at the idea of “reflexivity, engagement, subjectivity and relativity” (Zelizer, 2017, p. 165). Journalists believe that the attention to
rigor brings out the truth. This adherence to the notion of “truth” is often put to
good use in news stories that hold to account politicians, elites, and the like.
Thus it is no wonder that when besieged by fake news, journalists retreated to
the territory they knew best—verification or fact-checking.
A number of news organizations have started their external fact-checking
projects but the more consistent ones are Rappler and Vera Files. Rappler’s “Fact
Check” is often a story that points out inaccuracies, inconsistencies, or false
information from the government and its agents. The news organization mines
its database and the web to supply the correct information. Vera Files’ “Fact
Check” has similar objectives but it presents the story with an infographic,
which is a form of data visualization. It also provides links to relevant websites
and databases. The ease and speed with which news organizations subjected
government statements to verification was well proven when the state-run
Philippine News Agency released a story that 95 nations commended the
Philippines for its human rights record and the absence of extra-judicial killings.
When news media and social media users criticized the report for its inaccuracies
and bias, the news agency took it down and apologized.
The Internet, which is populated with partisan and fake news sites, became a
space where Duterte supporters maligned his critics, among them the Church
and the media. However, the same technology made it easy for journalists to
turn themselves into a counter-strike force, so to speak. The National Union of
Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), whose website had been subjected to
countless denial of service attacks, identity theft and hacking, had—together
with the CMFR—launched Fakeblok to guard against the spread of fake news
(CNN Staff, 2017, p. 20). Fakeblok is a Google-Chrome plug-in that blocks “fake
news” sites in Facebook newsfeeds. Then the social media user can report the
spurious site to the Fakeblok website where a team of journalists, presumably
from both media groups and their allies, will review it and, if found to be a
bearer of fake news, the site will be forever blocked from the user’s newsfeeds.
The NUJP believes that the two-step process of evaluating the reported fake
news sites would ensure that legitimate news sites won’t be taken down. However, the journalist group did not disclose the criteria for determining fake
news.
It remains to be seen if the intervention of the bishops, fact-checkers, and
journalists alike could stop the proliferation of fake news and the virulent
700
Asian Politics & Policy—Volume 9, Issue 4—2017
rhetoric on social media. The idea that they are there as guardians of public
morals and political discourses seems to contradict the openness of the Internet.
Moreover, using moral and journalistic standards to vet information narrowly
views the exchange of ideas in the online public sphere. The Internet, despite its
flaws, continues to provide a discursive space for those silenced and ignored by
the hegemonic Church and agenda-setting mainstream media in the Philippines. It is best to keep it open as a contested site.
References
Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1994). Carnival ambivalence: Laughter, praise and abuse. In Pam Morris (Ed.),
The Bakhtin reader: Selected writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev and Voloshinov (pp. 207–226). London:
Edward Arnold.
Brandist, Craig. (2002). The Bakhtin circle: Philosophy, culture and politics. London and Sterling, VA:
Pluto Press.
Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. (2017, June 21). Consecrate them in truth: A pastoral exhortation against fake news. Retrieved from http://cbcpwebsite.com/Resources/
CONSECRATE%20THEM%20IN%20THE%20TRUTH%20-%20A%20Pastoral%20Exhortation%20Against%20Fake%20News.pdf.
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. (2016). Knowing your source: Think before you click.
Retrieved from http://cmfr-phil.org/in-context/knowing-your-source-think-before-you-click/.
CNN Staff. (2017). Filipino journalist groups launch fake news blocker. CNN. Retrieved from
http://cnnphilippines.com/news/2017/06/07/journalists-launch-fake-news-blocker.html.
Esmaquel, Paterno, II. (2017). CBCP guide lists websites peddling fake news. Rappler. Retrieved
from http://www.rappler.com/nation/173832-cbcp-list-websites-fake-news.
Human Rights Watch. (2017). Philippines: Duterte’s first year a human rights calamity. Retrieved from
https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/28/philippines-dutertes-first-year-human-rights-calamity.
Kovach, Bill, & Rosentiel, Tom ([2001] 2014). The elements of journalism (revised and updated 3rd
ed.). New York: Random House.
Lachmann, Renate. (2004). Rhetoric, the dialogical principle and the fantastic in Bakhtin’s
thought. In Finn Bostad, Craig Brandist, Lars Sigfred Evensen, & Hege Charlotte Faber
(Eds.), Bakhtinian perspectives in language and culture: Meaning in language, art and new media
(pp. 46–61). Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Meddaugh, Priscilla Marie. (2010). Bakhtin, Colbert and the center of discourse: Is there no
“truthiness in humor?” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 27(4), 376–390.
Reilly, Ian. (2013). From critique to mobilization: The yes men and the utopian politics of satirical
fake news. International Journal of Communication, 7(2013), 1243–1264.
Ressa, Maria A. (2016). Propaganda war: Weaponizing the Internet. Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/nation/148007-propaganda-war-weaponizing-internet.
Tiglao, Roberto. (2017). CBCP campaign against ‘fake news’ targets pro-Duterte sites. Manila Times.
Retrieved from http://www.manilatimes.net/cbcp-campaign-fake-news-targets-pro-duterte-sites/
335260/.
Zelizer, Barbie. (2017). What journalism could be. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity.
Web Resources
@HecklerForever: https://twitter.com/HecklerForever
Fakeblok: https://fakeblok.com
News media and social media users criticized the report: http://www.interaksyon.com/pna-govts-officialnews-agency-may-have-recently-dabbled-in-fake-news-not-once-but-twice/
Pastoral guidelines on social media: http://www.cbcplaiko.org/2017/01/31/appendix-ii-partial-listof-web-news-blog-sites-in-the-philippines-with-fake-or-unverified-content/
Pastoral letter: http://cbcpwebsite.com/Resources/CONSECRATE THEM IN THE TRUTH-A Pastoral
Exhortation Against Fake News.pdf
Rappler’s “Fact Check”: https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/fact-check
The Professional Heckler: https://professionalheckler.com
Vera Files’ “Fact Check”: http://verafiles.org/specials/fact-check
Reviewed by Ma. Diosa Labiste
University of the Philippines Diliman, Philippines
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