Recent events have once again proven how important information is. Now an overused cliché, it is still worth reminding, in this age of the Internet and social media, how fast information can spread. While the human mind is wired to respond quickly to stories, it is not particularly well-equipped to evaluate data outside of an emotional frame. What is particularly disturbing is how today’s biggest Internet platforms — Facebook and Google — work to exploit that reptilianvestige of the human mind. Google — and Facebook in particular — continuously hone their algorithms to harvest isight from the vast amounts of data it collects from its users to tune in on what makes public sentiment tick. It then uses that insight to sharpen the digital barbs it uses to hook people onto its content.
What makes content go “viral” over the Internet therefore does not necessarily depend on what makes reasonable sense. Rather it is the stories with the sharpest emotional hooks that win in today’s Internet jungle. This is what is behind the baffling spread of “fake news”. The reality is that while fake news is easily debunked by crtical analysis, its hooks into people’s psyches are not as easily pulled out. Unfortunately, political discourse has long been a game of tug-o-war between competing narratives (much of it laced with fake news). It has never been a contest between competing ideas in the real sense. The outcomes of politics result more from one or another narrative winning hearts and not the much-vaunted “wisdom of crowds” that past idealists hope the “popular will” might embody.
We see the flaw in the that theory of “democracy” today. Political leaders do not necessarily represent the most sensible option. The debate surrounding how a country is run is more about “good guys” versus “bad guys” (in the minds of the consumers of these narratives) and less about objective problems and solutions. More disturbingly, social media’s elite influencers organise themselves in the same way — around personalities and stories. Technology did not change the dynamic of human interaction. It merely accelerated the outcomes — or consequences — of what remains a fundamentally primitive social dynamic of allegiances to tribes, beholdenness to mythology, and emotional reactivness.
Fortunately there is hope. Data- and algorithm-driven decision making is slowly taking over many key aspects of our lives once dominated by emotion-based action. Nutrition is an example. Whereas in the past, we only had our bodily cravings to rely on to choose what to eat, many of us are now guided by scientific knowledge about the effects of various types of food on our health. We also increasingly use data-gathering devices like pedometers and wearable vital signs monitorong gadgets to track physical responses to daily choices we make. Another is religion. Religion sees the zenith of its power in societies that lack access to information and modern knowledge. When people began to understand the natural forces behind phenomena they observe everyday, they rely less on stories of long-bearded gods in white robes throwing lightning bolts from the sky while perched on a cloud.
I’d like to believe the state of political discourse in the Philippines is reaching a turning point. If we take stock of the landscape today, we will find that we have gone back to square one — with the nation’s foremost influencers latched on to the personal agendas of the powers-that-be and not keeping a secure footing on objective and measureable reality. This does not serve the public well and, not surprisingly, some are beginning to regard the output of these “influencers” with a critical eye even those who come from within their own political camps. To ride on that opportunity to feed a growing community of critical partisans, we need a source of reliable information to support sound decision-making. At the moment there are many sources of information. Unfortunately, all of them are coloured by the paralysing partisanism of Philippine politics. On one end of the spectrum are the corporate-owned big media organisations that Filipinos have grown suspicious of. On the other, is state-owned PTV-4 and a community of pro-Duterte bloggers led by social media celebrity Mocha Uson who issue content generally aligned with the administration’s agenda.
Interestingly, one of the promised initiatives of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte was the establishment of an independent public information dissemination channel. Indeed, in June 2016, Martin Andanar, head of communications for the then president-elect reportedlyasked the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to “help the Philippine state-owned PTV4 transition into a self-sustaining, independent network.”
Andanar has asked the public media firm to help train staff. As a broadcaster, Andanar also trained with the Australian network. He added that the unified Presidential Communications Office under Duterte would also seek help from local commercial media.“The charter of ABC is patterned after the BBC,” the respected state network of the United Kingdom, Andanar said, noting the need to amend PTV4’s charter.Andanar believes Duterte, who drew protests for comments that seemed to justify the killings that hound Filipino journalists, backs press freedom and sees no need deprive state media of that right.“The three important, primary values that he believes in are justice, fairness and equality,” Andanar said. If you believe in these principles, “there’s no reason why you can’t give in to editorial independence.”
I wrote a while back about how the BBC presents a promising model to frame implementation of reform in the Philippines’ information industries. The most recent version of its charter demands that it “must display at least one of the following characteristics in all content: high quality, originality, innovation, to be challenging and to be engaging” and that it must “demonstrate that it provides public value in all of its major activities.” A state-run media operation that is chartered to be independent of partisan politics could step up to this ideal unencumbered by the commercial realities of competing in the free market.
Nonetheless, the key challenge remains with the Filipino public, in the ability of its members to think outside of the little square that frames their primitive regard for their politics and embrace a practice of democracy that is more intellectually engaged. Personality politics is the chicharon of the national discourse that Filipinos need to learn to approach with prudence equuippped with modern educated minds.