IT WAS REFRESHING to learn and unlearn from Maria Ressa, Time Magazine’s one-time “Person of the Year” in a Finex-sponsored forum where we were one of the panelists, recently.
The founder of Rappler, an independent digital publication, she faces 11 cases under the Duterte administration- mainly stemming from Rappler’s expositions and ownership. She has been jailed overnight and posted bail and her cases are being monitored globally given the status of Maria Ressa.
Facebook is the world’s largest distributor of information and in the Philippines, there are more than 89 million social media users. With virtually everyone having free access to it, Facebook in the wrong hands can be used to divide and radicalize people into a certain way of thinking.
Fortunately, Maria Ressa sits on the Board of the Fact-Checking mechanism of Facebook- contributing her experience and personal gravitas in cleaning up that platform.
On the whole, Social Media can be used for political propaganda, be an instrument of oppression, be an insidious manipulator but can also be an instrument of good.
Social media, using AI (artificial intelligence)-generated technology, was used to do malicious political attacks related to the 2020 American polls; some of them were taken down by Facebook. It seemed more than the Democrats, the Republican allies were responsible.
From a post traceable to Russian entities, the next click brought the reader to Trump ally Steve Banon and then carried out next by Fox News, known to be an out and out pro-Trump network. Connecting the dots was easy. Facebook was “all hands on deck” watching the USA polls.
According to the UNESCO Press Freedom Awardee (2021), Facebook users also targeted Southeast Asia as well at the same time. In the Philippines- taken down by Facebook were accounts promoting the candidacy of Sara Duterte, those revarnishing the image of Imee Marcos and those further discrediting Rappler
Describing this as part of the “low-intensity conflict”, the Rappler head says Facebook began its “historical revisionism” launch in favor of the Marcoses in 2018, graduated into Duterte-Marcos support in 2019 and in 2020 figured in red-tagging and other anti-communist issues. Since Facebook is free and accessible, they became a source of “alternative news” sites of fake news, trying to supplant truth and mainstream media.
“A lie told a thousand times, becomes the truth”, a famous line of Goebbel, Hitler’s spokesman, found new meaning today.
Hindsight tells us the role of troll farms in the victory of President Digong Duterte in 2016 and the landslide victory of pro-Digong bets in the 2019 polls. It was a well-orchestrated, well-funded operation. The same could be used again in the 2022 polls but the Opposition is learning.
There is a call for billionaires to support a crusade to build opposing troll farms- fighting fire with fire for the 2022 polls. Maria Ressa is saddened by this as this reduces the fight between “manipulators vs manipulators” making democracy the tragic casualty in the conflict.
But doubtless, social media as a battleground will widen in scope in the 2022 polls. Mainstream media can help by contributing solid content -material to add to “truthful debate” even if being used in the Social Media platforms.
INSTRUMENT OF OPPRESSION
We have heard too many horror stories of Social Media being used for sexual blackmail, cyberbullying, child pornography and putting celebrities to shame- some leading to the suicide of victims. Maria Ressa cites global statistics that 73% of women journalists are abused online, 25% of them threatened with violence and 20% getting actual offline and online abuse. In all cases, a climate of “fear” is created.
She said the cases filed against her usually come during those times when Rappler is pursuing investigative journalism that might not make the government look good or when she gets some international award. Graphic postings vs. the Rapper founder (which is even too difficult to describe here) have been Ressa’s daily breakfast and she has learned to live with them. A German friend told her these acts of “dehumanization” are reminiscent of what the Aryan Germans did to the Jews in World War II.
At one time, she was getting 90 threats per hour in her mail or phone; 60% meant to place doubt on her credibility and 40 % personal- bordering on misogynism and sexism.
It has been used to spread falsehoods in the drug war, against the truth and in the case of a jailed opposition senator, Leila DeLima was added the “weaponization of law” to suppress dissent.
Oppressive social media works because trolls are highly paid and what spreads fastest are “anger” and “hate” contrasted to straight, factual news which is “slow and boring”. The Social Media “war” began in April 2016- a month before the election in May. Targets like Rappler would suffer tangible drawbacks like a 50% drop in advertising earnings, as a result.
But with global and national support, Maria Ressa and Rappler had “held the line” and continue to be a source of data-based news and lucid opinions for an ever-growing fan base. It is a rolling stone on a hill gathering momentum.
Maria Ressa founded Rappler in the total belief that social media could lead to development. It never occurred to anyone that a business model as “The Hype Machine” fueled by the newfangled “surveillance capitalism” would become in vogue.
This phenomenon has led to individual’s insidious manipulation – a Frankenstein built- such that the originators at Silicon Valley would not allow even their own kids to touch gadgets exposing them to social media today.
“The Hype Machine” begins with the accumulation of microdata about the identity, preferences, beliefs, vulnerabilities of the user whenever he uses smartphones, Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn. They are -without their knowledge-transposed to “intelligent machines” that will profile the user- resulting in a “You” that even oneself can not even begin to comprehend. They know our characteristics more than we do.
This plate of data is often being sold to the “New Advertisers” and “Governments” that make the Profiled Victims subject to insidious manipulation through fed messaging and the like. The worst that can happen is one’s worst vulnerability is ripe for sale to the highest bidder- out to damage or blackmail one’s person.
Maria Ressa likens it to us baring our souls to psychiatrists who turn around and announce to the world they have your best and worst secrets and are open for sale.
With a high “virality” rate for Facebook and Youtube, just to state two, we can all be subject to mass persuasion based on data we innocently surrendered to social media and be used to “insidiously manipulate” us to with way of thinking by fake news and other instruments. It would seem, therefore, that not mainstream media, but Social Media had taken over the public sphere.
This ability to digitally divide people and then radicalize them to a specific way of thinking can be done efficiently. An anti-vaccination article, for instance, leads a reader to Qanon’s Theories of Conspiracy and all those hogwash about the Bill Gates and the Faucis of the world benefiting from an “invented pandemic” and will lead to a depopulation of the world by 2 billion with the use of tainted vaccines. And so forth.
To learn more about manipulation, search for the movie ” Social Dilemma” on Netflix or elsewhere.
INSTRUMENT FOR SOCIAL GOOD
Of course, there is a yin for every yang. And Social Media has its beneficial uses. It can make citizens into instant journalists- reporting on a crime or a service not rendered by the government. Posted in a manner filled with passion that touches the recipients’ emotions can lead the latter to make further inquiries and even to find solutions.
In the hands of good men, Social Media can be used to propagate thoughts of community welfare, love, Bayanihan, patriotism and altruism. It can multiply the teachings of Jesus, Allah, Buddha and Confucius in a myriad of ways that no thousands of missionaries can do with the same time, effort and money. Would the lowly Community pantry of Patricia, for instance, have evolved into hundreds across the nation today without Social Media?
In fact, Rappler is built on three pillars, namely, Technology. Journalism and Community. By consistently harping on data-based and objective analysis, their brand of journalism is able to establish indivisible Truths that thereby create a “reality” ‘ essential to building a fruitful and compassionate community.
IN THE END, Social Media’s use depends on the hands of the user. Like a knife- it can cut one’s steak or be used to maim another man forever. The lowly seat belt can be used by two different persons. One uses it and gives him the false confidence to drive at dangerous speed limits or can be used to save lives inside the same car.
What kind of Social Media user are you?
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