Journalists Raisa Serafica and Vernise Tantuco are at the frontlines of the Philippines’ disinformation problem every day. Here’s why they’re taking the online problem, offline.
By Therese Reyes, Vice Asia
Reading negative comments online is one thing, hearing someone say it to your face is another. Raisa Serafica, 28, is no stranger to either of those things. As part of the Philippine news website Rappler at a time of increased distrust in the media, it’s just part of the job.
Serafica organizes the company’s media literacy events in various campuses and provinces around the country. Once, a participant accused Rappler of being “fake news” in front of the crowd. Another time, a participant asked why they were blocked by Rappler on Facebook because of a comment. If Rappler truly promoted free speech, the participant asked, then why would they block a netizen?
As misinformation continues to spread on social media, Serafica is at the frontlines of the fight, teaching thousands of Filipinos about the importance of fact-checking. And as dispiriting as it can sometimes be, she believes moving away from the comments section and reaching out to people directly, in person, is the way to enact real change.
The workshops she organizes have since moved online due to pandemic restrictions but the goal remains the same: to build a community that can counter organized disinformation networks. Just this year, about 2,000 people made up mostly of students, have taken part in their webinars.
“We know that fighting disinformation shouldn't just be...a job that journalists can do and can finish. Part of it is really engaging or pulling in a community that will work towards the same goal,” Serafica said. “With the magnitude and scale [of the] disinformation fight in the Philippines, it needs to be a community effort.”
In 2017, an Oxford University study found that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 campaign paid $200,000 for as many as 500 people to attack critics and spread disinformation. Four years into his term, there is a machinery that continues to do this today, that defends the government’s policies fiercely and viciously attacks online criticism. But the problem comes from all sides. “I think we also need to mention that even members of the administration, they've also been targets...or at the receiving end of these false posts,” Serafica said.
Trendy topics as clickbait
The problem is also larger than political posts, insidiously infiltrating all types of online content. Serafica’s Rappler teammate, researcher Vernise Tantuco, 27, spots and debunks these suspicious claims online on a daily basis. She’s been monitoring posts on social media since 2017 and noticed that false information usually follows whatever topic is trending at the moment. She recalled that when the Taal Volcano in the Philippines erupted in January, posts with photos of different volcanoes claimed to be the site of the devastation. Always prevalent are fake quotes attributed to political figures or sensationalized stories about showbiz feuds.
"It's those silly things that get a lot of clicks, and the theory is that these smaller stories or not so serious stories that get clicks – they fund the bigger disinformation networks," Tantuco said.
Currently, the misinformation revolves around the coronavirus. Since COVID-19 cases started to rise in March, so have misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic, including fake cures, fake vaccines, and supposed origins. By connecting to a global community of fact-checkers, they learned that these types of posts are seen all over the world.
“We're not the only country experiencing these things. We're not the only country that is struggling,” Tantuco said.
“People realized that part of fighting the coronavirus or the pandemic is also fighting the disinformation revolving around it,” Serafica said, adding that this is likely why many have joined their fact-checking webinars.
Now connecting with participants from their homes through video calls, Serafica, Tantuco, and other representatives from Rappler start webinars with a discussion of the online landscape amid the pandemic, pointing out common themes and types of disinformation. They then run through the process of fact-checking, ending with a practical exercise. They flash real posts found online and participants identify which elements should be fact-checked.
Most of the participants are from the Philippines, some are from countries like Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and South Korea, but all have similar concerns. Serafica said that by far, the most frequently asked question is how to break it to relatives that they are spreading misinformation.
“I think dealing with disinformation is a reality faced by almost everyone already. It's close to their hearts,” she said. “They know somebody, a friend or a relative, an uncle, an aunt, who shares unverified claims online. And they want to do something about it.”
Making real impact
After each workshop, Serafica adds participants to a Facebook group co-managed by other news organizations and members of the academe, where they can share dubious posts they see online. Each person is limited by their own social media feeds, so sharing is key in finding, and eventually debunking, more false information.
Some question if their efforts can even have real impact. Serafica assures them that they do, but both she and Tantuco admit that fighting disinformation can get frustrating. They likened it to playing whack-a-mole, a metaphor they attributed to Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa, who herself has been the subject of vicious attacks and misinformation. Rappler itself has been at the brunt of online attacks, especially after Duterte himself lashed out at the independent news site for its critical reporting of his administration, tagging them as “fake news.”
The job has only become more difficult since the passing of the Philippines’ Anti-Terrorism Law, which critics believe the government may use to silence its dissenters.
“On a personal level, when the law was passed, I did feel a little more afraid, a little more careful, about the things that I've been looking at online,” Tantuco said, referring to the law that allows the government to tag and punish critics as terrorists.
Because of the current political climate, Serafica said that there is now also a “moment of hesitation” for some of the groups they try to engage with. She too is worried whenever volunteers in their community initiatives are attacked online or tagged as subversives.
But the fight against disinformation continues and what keeps them going are the relationships they’ve built with people along the way.
“That's also very encouraging, to be able to speak to young people and to educators...they're so motivated to get rid of all the misinformation that’s going around the internet,” Tantuco said. “It's so much fun and...it's also very inspiring.”
Disinformation online can be traced back to organized networks, so fighting it requires strong coordination from various sectors too. Serafica hopes for a united media industry and more engaged citizens, while Tantuco calls on the government to be on the side of truth.
“I wish the government would actually help us out or reach out to us and I would actually also want to help them out,” she said. “It should be a community effort in trying to find solutions, instead of taking advantage of it, right?”
FNF supports Rappler’s fact-checking webinars.