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Fighting fake news with fake news

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Greg B. Macabenta

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Communications Secretary Martin Andanar recently announced the launching of a satellite network, ostensibly to deliver the news directly to the far-flung barangays. The objective: to counter fake news.

That, in effect, is fighting fake news with fake news.

You can almost hear Andanar justify the investment in the satellite network to President Rodrigo Duterte: “Sir, the barangays are being fed fake news anyway, it might as well be our positive news.”

Fake news. Positive news. Like alternative facts, in this day and age they mean the same thing.

It is said that the government of Duterte has been among the most rampant dispensers of that kind of news. But, wait, not just Duterte’s but the government of Aquino III, as well. And that of Macapagal-Arroyo. And Joseph “Erap” Estrada. And Fidel V. Ramos. And Cory Aquino. And, of course, Ferdinand Marcos.

We could go farther back in time, but for purposes of this piece, we believe we have adequately established the thesis that the so-called news fed to the citizenry by governments and by politicians must be taken not just with a grain of salt, but with a massive dose of it.

That applies to the government of the United States as well, with the present POTUS being the poster boy of fake news.

In typical exaggerated fashion, President Donald Trump claimed that it was he who coined the term “fake news” to characterize what the mainstream American media had been reporting on him. In truth, he simply popularized — as well as epitomized — a communications technique that is older than Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. In fact, it is as old as Adam, Eve, and the snake.

When the snake persuaded Eve to take a bite of the forbidden fruit, it insidiously presented an appealing story of the benefits and withheld vital information on the consequences.

If the snake had been a Jesuit, not telling the whole truth would have been defined as the doctrine of mental reservation. Not necessarily telling a lie, but purposely withholding some parts of the truth.

The recently resigned White House communications director, Hope Hicks, admitted to a Senate committee investigating her that she had told “white lies” for Trump. Which brings us to the harsh fact that there are varying shades of the truth or of lies. They range from outright blatant, bold-faced fabrication or distortion of facts, to black propaganda, to simple propaganda, to the common journalistic practice of SS or masturbating the news, to premeditated disinformation, to incidental misinformation, to hyperbole, to misleading advertising, to the mental reservation of the ever-pragmatic Jesuits.

These may all be classified as news or information that is not entirely, genuinely pristine or unalloyed and, thus, qualifies to a lesser or great degree as fake.

Make no mistake about it. Sometimes it is necessary to mix 24-karat pure gold truth with some alloy. Nations at war and even during peace time routinely tell each other lies. National survival could depend on it. Or winning a war.

When the Allied Forces invaded Germany, they spread fake news about where they were going to land — and not at Normandy. When the Israelis trashed Egypt in the six-day war, they used fake news — or fake intelligence information — to throw the Egyptians off-guard and leave them utterly defenseless.

One could therefore argue that the way to justify, or condone, or condemn fake news depends on one’s perspective. Like describing a glass as half full or half empty.

It may also depend on the gravity of the consequences. Or the gravity of the lie. Or their lack of believability.

In this regard, Duterte’s army of trolls (Andanar’s office has nothing to do with the trolls, honest, peks man), may be overdoing it. Postings on social media have portrayed Duterte as being praised by Queen Elizabeth and having been endorsed by Pope Francis (the Trump presidential campaign also claimed a papal endorsement).

Claims like that strain credibility and make the fake look fake, smell fake, and sound fake, thus making them ineffective.

That is one downside to “overfaking” fake news. From a strictly utilitarian perspective, fake news has got to be believable to be worth the money invested in it.

The other downside is that every purveyor of news becomes suspect. Worst of all, half-truths become normal, de rigueur and, thus, acceptable.

For instance, in the US, Trump’s supporters are no longer bothered by the way the president plays fast and loose with facts. In a media interview, Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana rationalized that “what some critics have claimed to be lies from President Trump are instead just ‘hyperbole’ — exaggerated claims not intended to be taken seriously.”

It did not bother the GOP senator that independent fact-checking Web site PolitiFact marked only 5% of Trump’s statements as true, while about 69% had been determined to be false in varying degrees.

Apparently both Trump and Duterte are cut from the same cloth (in fact, from whole cloth, to use an American idiom meaning “a story invented with no basis in fact”). Thus, Duterte’s apologists have often had to clarify to Manila media that their boss should not be taken “literally” when he appears to put his foot in his mouth.

Concerning Duterte’s order to soldiers to shoot women NPAs in the private parts, Andanar insisted that his boss should not be taken “literally.” However, he should be taken “seriously.”

There is a euphemism for it: “equivocation.” In Tagalog, “palusot.” But that is not a unique characteristic of Duterte. US presidents have done it too, although it’s called weaseling in the US. Former president Bill Clinton, in denying that he was ever alone in the Oval Office or had sex there with intern Monica Lewinsky, weaseled his way around the question. To paraphrase the lyrics of Harry Belafonte’s song, “Man Piyaba,” Clinton’s explanation was “clear as mud and it covered the ground and the confusion made my head go ‘round.”

Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook has been pilloried in US media, among them, MSNBC, for allowing itself to be a vehicle of fake news for the sake of profits. Zuckerberg’s assurance that money was not as important to his group as its integrity sounded fake to MSNBC.

As a lifelong advertising man, the specter of fake news in its many variations have made a skeptic out of me. Drilled for decades with the premise that my job was to present my clients’ brands in the best light and that it wasn’t my responsibility to point out their defects, I have now become an avid observer of caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

My advice to the young and naïve: When a head of state like Donald Trump or Rodrigo Duterte says, “Believe me!” — DON’T!

 

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.

gregmacabenta@hotmail.com