Just like how “fake news” exists (supposedly) because many people couldn’t be bothered to check before “liking” or “sharing”, a branded witchhunt targetting “fake news” could gain steam because people couldn’t be bothered to check first before embracing the notion of “fake news”.
Let me explain why I used the word “branded” to qualify the notion of a “fake news witchhunt”. Notice that amongst all the screeching “fake news” crybabies infesting social media nowadays, it is those with a brand that resonates powerfully in “polite” (read, disente) society that gain the most traction. Rappler CEO Maria Ressa has (or, shall we say, had) a formidable personal brand back in her day and she used it to marshal an influential community of chi chi social media “influencers” to propagate a narrative of “evil” trolls peddling “fake news” to “victimise” the “good” guys (as Ressa and her disente mob defines them).
The way brands work is by serving as a cognitive shortcut that allows our minds to bypass the resource-intensive process of critical thinking. Thus, established brands like Coca Cola need only flash a logo (even just a colour) and our brains, wired by years of conditioning by advertising, quickly concoct a cocktail of feel good jingles about “teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony” and, of course to “buy the world a Coke”.
When, for example, Filipinos see Maria Ressa’s face on a big video screen, lips flapping, with the words “press freedom” and “under threat” being shoved into the mike she is holding, it is her personal brand power talking to them and not necessarily The Truth. When, to cite another example, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issues a list of “fake news sites” then clams up about how exactly they came up with such a list, the message gets spread anyway — because the acronym “CBCP” and the crucifix that adorns their public collateral are both powerful symbols of the “truth” in the minds of the majority of Filipinos raised to tremble in the presence and words of the Catholic clergy.
Ressa is a self-anointed “liberal” (by Filipino standards) while the Catholic Church and its CBCP henchmen are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. But they are the same in that they encourage — no, expect — their audience to believe rather than think. In a sense, both Ressa and the Church conspire to dumb down Filipinos and not uplift the national discourse.
This puts into better context what Malacanang spokesman Harry Roque said a few days ago…
Kung walang fake news, hindi natin malalaman ano ang true news. [“If thre is no fake news, we will not know what is true news”] Let there be a free marketplace of ideas.
Netizens with minds possibly addled by the barrage of misleading messages sent out by both Ressa and the CBCP were quick to ridicule the statement as they had come to believe that “fake news” is an “evil” entity that should be “denounced immediately as it appears”. The fact is, the “free market of ideas” in its true sense, like the Darwinian evolutionary landscape where life on Earth evolved, makes no moral judgement over the entitites that compete for domination on it. Mainstream media, in fact, use their brand power and the educational creds of its members to prop up the legitimacy of the content it publishes. What is interesting is that content that has come to be labelled as “fake news” spread on the sheer resonance of its content and not because of any brand equity of consequence of its purveyors.
Indeed, only in a free market of ideas can “fake news” be “denounced” (and thus, in the process, identified). Roque makes perfect sense in that regard. You need a true free market of ideas for “fake news” to be controlled. But you cannot control “fake news” in the traditional sense that characters like Ressa and the men-in-robes of the CBCP apply the term. The true control comes in the form of the emergent shaping of outcomes effected by the natural forces of that free market itself. Spoilt brats who are used to getting their way by top-down edict seem to struggle to understand that in order to succeed in a true free market, you need to compete from the bottom-up rather than merely whine from atop ivory towers.
Social media has made the market for ideas truly free by dismantling the barriers to entry that kept mainstream media a protected and elite enterprise. Those barriers no longer exist and this elite enterprise is now forced to compete in a democratised landscape. Change is often a wrenching experience, and all we are seeing today are the wrinkled crybabies coming to terms with having to go through such an experience in their old age.
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