I recently had the pleasure of hosting a panel in the Philippines at the Ateneo de Manila University. The entire two-day event, aptly titled Democracy and Disinformation, was centered around fake news and what institutions of higher learning and consumers can do to filter through and fix the problem.
The problems with fake news have, of course, been widely publicized. Concentrated efforts by local and foreign actors can influence elections, determine public opinion and shape public discourse. That societies from the developed world to the developing world have been so penetrated by social media means that information spreads faster than ever and by extension so does fake news.
While the practical, on-the-ground effects of fake news have been chronicled and investigated, the panel I was on addressed the deeper cultural and political implications of fake news.
Flanked by Brother Armin Luistro of De LaSalle University and Father Jett Villarin of Ateneo de Manila University, the conversation shifted quickly from how universities could do more to combat the spread of fake news to fake news’ effect on the wider public.
As brother Armin said, fake news does not only affect the here and now but affects the way a society processes and comprehends information – adding that he worries about the direction the Philippines is taking under the onslaught of disinformation.
Both men agreed that when the truth is distorted so easily and so often, it gives rise to a society that accepts ‘alternative facts’ and questions are asked of established institutions.
Universities, scientist, medical professionals who normally have an authoritative place in public discourse are now accused of bias and malfeasance. The end result is a society unwilling to accept empirical proof and known facts.
Topics like climate change, vaccinations, death tolls are questioned and vilified by a barrage of disinformation and alternative voices – often with little qualification to weigh in on the discourse.
As Father Jett said, two plus two will always equal four but fake news may make the public question that more than they should.