The cure for fake news

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When I’m asked what the cure for fake news is, I always say: You already have it between your ears.

I’ve don’t understand why some people are railing about fake news the way they are doing now. Because if they really wanted to do something about the problem, they should know that passing a law penalizing its spread (like a senator has proposed) or identifying alleged purveyors of fakery in the hopes of scaring people to avoid them (like the Catholic bishops have done) is really not going to do it.

But let’s examine these proposals one by one. Let’s start with Senator Joel Villanueva’s call for the passage of a law that will criminalize the act of spreading reports that are not true.

Villanueva last week filed a bill seeking to punish the malicious creation or spreading of fake news. Villanueva’s proposal will penalize violators with jail time of up to three years and a fine of up to P3 million and doubles the penalty if the perpetrator is a public official.

My first problem with Villanueva’s plan is that there are already laws that penalize the malicious spread of fake news, including online. These are the current (though much-criticized) laws on libel and slander, including the cybercrime version that takes care of online violations.

Why come up with a new law just because spreading fake reports is in vogue again? And, pray tell, how is the new law going to succeed in proving what the existing ones have always had a problem with—the presence of malice?

Indeed, Villanueva seems to have copied the concept of malice from existing laws on legally actionable defamation, which makes the person or entity (in the case of media entities) liable for spreading fake news reports or malicious reporting. But this, to me, means that Villanueva is also quite aware that unless reputations are unfairly—and maliciously —ruined, he could be going against the constitutional protection of free speech, expression and publication.

In the words of the 1987 Constitution: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for redress of grievances.” And if malice cannot be established, then any law that abridges that freedom cannot stand.

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As for Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, who also holds the position of president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, his situation is, well, a little more problematic. And not only because he and the his fellow bishops declared that spreading fake news is actually a “sin.”

Villegas’ declaration coincided with the release of a CBCP pastoral letter which condemned fake news as sinful. The online-only news website Rappler reported that the CBCP drew up last January a list of web pages and social media microblogs that were included in the new CBCP “Index” and gleefully released a “partial list” of these that were, by no small coincidence, were supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte.

(Apparently, fake news is only proffered by Duterte supporters, which is certainly a piece of fakery, as well. But that’s something for another column altogether.)

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or List of Prohibited Books, was drawn up by the Catholic Church beginning in the 9th Century to identify publications unsuitable for the faithful, according to their clerics. Why the CBCP wants us to go back to not reading stuff on the say-so of priests—a practice finally discontinued in 1966, with the advent of the reforms instituted by the Second Vatican Council—is a mystery to me.

But what’s really puzzling is that Villegas has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the list reported by Rappler. Villegas has not even said if the “partial” list is accurate.

The Rappler list has earned the ire of a lot of people who consider it another instance of the Church encroaching on something that is not really its concern, quite naturally. Is Rappler using Villegas and the CBCP to foist yet another piece of fake news upon its readers?

The bishops aren’t saying. Which is amazing because they are in a perfect position to cite the Rappler story as fake news or not, as the case may be.

Finally, to get back to my own prescription to combat fake news without resorting to legal measures or Church-dictated lists, it’s this: Use your own coconut.

My favorite analogy about news is that of an old-fashioned wet market. You go to a market to check out what’s for sale, but you buy only what you really need and want.

The size of the store, the declarations of the vendors as to the virtues of their offerings and the price you pay is really something for you to factor in, if you want. Caveat emptor, as they also used to say.

But you will not really get what you want (the truth, in this case) if you don’t check out everything and use your previous experience with the vendors and their products as a guide. You can even produce your own food and do away with going to the market altogether, or become a market vendor yourself.

But what people need is to learn how to discern, which requires education instead of the threat of jail terms, fines and even eternal damnation. And teaching requires brains, as well.

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