Manila, Philippines– Fake News has become a global phenomenon and a hot issue of the times. The island-nation of the Philippines has not been spared.

With the widespread use of social media and the ease of putting up blogs and websites, anyone or any group can easily become a peddler of fake news. But what is fake news? How does it differ from opinion blogs, political commentary or satirical posts? Strictly speaking, fake news is completely made up and designed to deceive readers to maximize traffic and profit, to influence readers for political or economic gain or to sway public opinion towards a desired end. But the definition is often expanded to include websites that circulate distorted, decontextualized or dubious information, especially through click-baiting headlines that don’t reflect the facts of the story or has undeclared bias. Humour and satire blogs, too, are oftentimes taken at face value by gullible browsers who cannot always differentiate them from news sites, especially if they touch on current events or politics and if they appear free of context on social media. Memes are widely circulated that help make fake news believable.

With nearly all online media motivated to some extent by views, content doesn’t have to be written by teenagers in Macedonia to perpetuate misinformation. The very structure of the web enables ‘ not completely fake but not completely true information’; in short distorted truth. With approximately 47 million Facebook accounts in the Philippines, so many Filipinos are being affected by fake news. A recent study found that Filipinos spend the most time online and on social media compared to any other country in the world.

Fake news. Hate speech. Cyber bullying and shaming. Political satire. The chatter on social media, especially among the pro- and anti-Duterte factions and the level of vitriol which began during the national campaign leading to last year’s election, hasn’t let up.

RJ Nieto is the author of a Facebook page and blog, Thinking Pinoy, that, to all extent and purposes, appears to be pro-Dutete. He posted a Facebook Live Video addressing the “fucking Malacanang press corps” the group of journalists accredited to cover the President. He cursed the media, and flashed his middle finger. You Malacanang Press Corps, you act like you’re for the Filipino people, but you’re sons of bitches!, he said to the camera.

During a national broadcast, diehard Duterter supporter Mocha Uson said this: “Leni, you are stupid. You and your whole staff are stupid. You are all sons of bitches.” This was directed to Vice President Leni Robredo, a leader of the opposition. Uson’s hateful comments led to the cancellation of her radio show.

Uson is Assistant Secretary of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) due to the number of her social media followers and her influence. The president himself said that the he appointed her to the position as payment for a “debt of gratitude” for her staunch support during his presidential campaign. Nieto is now a social media consultant for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) headed by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, Duterte’s vice presidential running mate in last year’s national elections.

There are allegations that fake news is being state sponsored and funded, given that several bloggers who are openly pro-Dutete have been appointed and hired by the government as consultants. Several government officials have also been proven to start and spread fake news, starting with the President himself. When he said in a television interview that he just made up the false foreign bank account numbers supposedly belonging to his political adversary, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, he himself became a purveyor of fake news.

The state-run Philippine News Agency has also gotten flak for erroneous news reporting or for fact twisting. In one instance, during the early days of the Marawi war, it used a photo of a soldier in the Vietnam War to report on the Marawi crisis. The photo posted showed a soldier carrying a gun which was cropped from a larger photo of two soldiers outside a hut traced back to Wikimedia Commons.

To quote sociologist Curato, “It’s actually very disappointing, because it’s used as a justification for a very important government decision. Images are never innocent. They are very political.”

On the other side of the pro-Duterte diehards (called Dutertards) are sites that appear to be supporting the opposition (groups, personalities and politicians mainly allied with the previous Aquino administration called Yellowtards). A blog post in the Silent No More site, a known critic of the administration, described seven senators as being “lapdogs” of the administration for refusing to sign a resolution denouncing the extrajudicial killings (EJKs) of alleged drug personalities. Said senators stated that this was untrue as they were not given the opportunity to sign the resolution.

The amount of fake news circulating on Philippine social media has risen to such controversial proportions with concomitant repercussions on Philippine society and politics that the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media has begun an inquiry into the issue. During its first session held just recently, the committee called in bloggers, journalists and the Presidential Communications Operations Office as resource persons.

Chaired by Senator Grace Poe, she expressed concern that the spread of fake or misleading information, if it remains rampant, “cultivates a culture of lying”. In her opening statement, she said, “If purveyors are allowed to get away with their lies, they embolden government officials to also lie in order to escape accountability, crush dissent and commit illegal acts with impunity.”

She noted that the use of so-called bots and trolls making fake social media accounts are influencing public opinion and discourse, affecting social interaction and government. “Fake news is the e-version of the budol-budol (meaning: scam) which many of our people unable to distinguish fact from fiction fall victims to. It is not even farfetched that in the future fake news can trigger wars,” she added.

“If fake news is not challenged, it will create lynch mobs out of certain people turning them into an army of character assassins who can be unleashed with just one meme to destroy an idea, a person or an institution,” Poe said.

The Senate hearings seek to identify measures that the government needs to take, such as addressing the lack of news literacy. The senator cited Taiwan as an example where children in school are being taught media literacy to help them identify news from hoaxes. “Should news literacy be required by schools?” Wrong online behaviour can be reflected in real life, the senator said. The issues of who should be held accountable and whether additional legislation is needed to penalize peddlers of misinformation both in and out of government were debated. And, hotly discussed was whether bloggers should be held to the same standards as mainstream journalists. Considering that, at present, bloggers post content which they deem is opinion or commentary and not news, would setting standards of accuracy and fact checking before posting and spreading information which has a wide reach and influence be a curtailment of one’s freedom of expression? Should an independent body be formed whose task is to set ethical standards for government officials and to investigate instances of government dishonesty? How about government officials, specially those in charge of communications, who use their personal FB pages and blogs to circulate opinions that appear as news? Is this acceptable and tenable?

Veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas of VERA Files said the term “fake news” is an oxymoron for “lies.” She said it is government officials who tend to play fast and loose with facts. “Pag sinabi kasi ng isang opisyal (When an official says something), you quote as accurately as you can. If it is a lie, do you report a lie accurately?” She believes that to help address the problem of fake news, the burden lies on the sources of falsehood.

In the internet age, anyone with a computer, laptop or mobile can easily disseminate information and express one’s views. The spread of social media empowers ordinary people who, in previous times, were passive recipients of mass information to generate news and views; but thus far, without the accompanying responsibility and accountability. With this has come false information, slander and hate speech, often with no one real entity or person who can be held accountable.

The battle against fake news is so big. And the fight is just beginning.