The Manila Times : Disinformation in social media and bias in mainstream media

26 March 2022

By Antonio Contreras | The Manila Times

MAINSTREAM media is painting Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo as the most abused candidate, and that the level of disinformation being peddled against her is so disproportionate when compared to other candidates, particularly former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

In a Senate hearing earlier this year, Professor Yvonne Chua of the University of the Philippines testified that a study conducted by Tsek.Ph, an academe-based fact checking initiative, found that for the month of January Robredo was the biggest disinformation victim, while Marcos Jr. was the biggest disinformation beneficiary.

The study said that while disinformation was being peddled for both candidates, those pertaining to Robredo were largely detrimental to her interests, while those involving Marcos Jr. were largely positive in his favor. In short, the lies being peddled were against Robredo and supportive of Marcos Jr.

As one who is familiar with the dynamics of social media, I would not settle for a raw characterization of lies without identifying their sources. The diversity of accounts in social media would reveal that while there are untrustworthy pages, troll accounts and partisan micro-bloggers, whom you would generally expect to peddle propaganda and biased posts, there are those who belong to cohorts that you would expect to have more prudence, which include journalists and news outlets.

This is not to exonerate those who willingly peddle disinformation. They should be fact-checked and tagged to inform people that what they are posting are misleading, or outright falsities. Although I am also wary about the indiscriminate manner by which accounts have been suspended or banned. In my opinion, the better alternative that is friendlier and less violative of free speech rights is for social media platforms to merely tag people and posts, instead of taking them down.

The more serious source of disinformation that needs to be checked are the legitimate sources of news and information themselves. While indeed, these bodies have internal vetting mechanisms, and have the means to hold their writers, reporters and anchors accountable, we cannot deny that many of them have well-publicized political biases. No one can dispute the fact that Rappler is heavily slanted toward a particular political persuasion. Individual journalists express themselves in their own social media accounts, and a fair analysis of their reportage would reveal their biases. Many of them are so blatant that they even wear it like a badge of honor, perhaps getting inspiration from how media has become partisan even in the international scene.

It doesn't help that mainstream media and their allies in the fact-checking industry obviously rarely fact-check pro-Robredo lies and disinformation, if at all, even as they are so energized to correct any small misinformation favorable to Marcos Jr., that one even fact-checked a claim attributed to Nostradamus. A good example of this is when the claim of Robredo about her mathematical calculation being merely a product of splicing, which is patently false, was never ever fact-checked, not even by Rappler which uploaded the original tape that was alleged to have been spliced. Every error of Marcos Jr. in his pronouncements is fact-checked, while Robredo's gaffes are blatantly ignored.

It was a relief when ABS-CBN, in a very rare moment, fact-checked an image where the rally of Marcos Jr. in Bulacan was falsely labeled, by digitally altering the color of the shirts of those who attended from red to pink. Meanwhile, claims about huge crowds attending Robredo rallies are rarely fact-checked by mainstream media. An obviously unvetted post citing a list of artists allegedly attending the rally of Marcos Jr. in Zamboanga in April, which triggered denials from these artists, are now allowed to fester and be used against Marcos, without any fact-checker from Rappler or VERA Files lifting a finger to do what they readily do when the material is adverse to Robredo and favoring Marcos Jr.

Recently, the manner in which mainstream media covered the simultaneous rallies of Marcos Jr. in Cavite and of Robredo in Nueva Ecija clearly illustrated attempts on the part of some to show shots of sparse crowds in Cavite while featuring sweeping drone shots in Nueva Ecija.

Indeed, it becomes disturbing when legitimate media outlets show their biases in the way they cover political news and fact-check social media posts. Their anti-Duterte, anti-Marcos slant is no longer even hidden. It is these images of egregious bias that turned Marcos supporters away from mainstream media to social media.

The study conducted by Tsek.Ph reveals the anti-Robredo and pro-Marcos slant of social media. But an important context was missed in the study that can explain this phenomenon. I would argue that it is a backlash against the perceived pro-Robredo and anti-Marcos bias of mainstream media. And this is a topic that has not been subjected to any academic study.

The impression given by the supporters of Marcos Jr. is that mainstream media companies are utterly biased against him, and are pro-Robredo. This is what drives them to turn to social media to express their rage and defiance, even to the point of peddling disinformation. The disinformation, whether deliberate or not, becomes part of that defiance, a kind of weapon against an institution that they feel is not being fair to their candidate.

And the reaction of fact-checking them feeds into the vicious cycle of erosion of trust and the disappearance of any semblance of confidence in mainstream media. Worse, when pro-Marcos accounts are suspended or taken down and banned, these are not seen by the Marcos base as attempts to correct lies, but as assaults. What is further multiplied and amplified is the image of an elite mainstream media inflicting their biases against the Marcos supporters. In short, the cure of fact-checking, banning and taking down accounts and posts does not solve the problem, but only further aggravates it.

Thus, the disinformation in social media against Robredo has become simply the flip side of the bias in mainstream media against Marcos Jr.