ELECTIONS 2022: Should social media become the ‘fifth pillar’ of our democracy?

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In this photo taken on March 10, 2022, Al Contrata, 25, a supporter of presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, browses his phone during an interview with AFP at his residence in Manila. - Philippine social media has exploded with support for presidential election favourite Ferdinand Marcos Junior, driven by a massive misinformation campaign aimed at revamping the family brand and smearing his top rival.  - TO GO WITH AFP STORY: Philippines-misinformation-internet-vote-Marcos, FOCUS by Faith BROWN (Photo by Jam STA ROSA / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY: Philippines-misinformation-internet-vote-Marcos, FOCUS by Faith BROWN (Photo by JAM STA ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)
Philippine social media has exploded with support for presidential election favorite Ferdinand Marcos Junior, driven by a massive misinformation campaign aimed at revamping the family brand and smearing his top rival. (Photo by JAM STA ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)

Disinformation has already become an out-of-control monster on social media. From what started as a buzzword (along with its more informal term “fake news”), especially in the 2016 Philippine national elections, disinformation has ultimately controlled people’s opinions across all demographics. It comes in many forms – from fake quote cards, manipulated images, spliced videos, and questionable news articles, to actual statements by our very own national leaders during their public speeches.

This destructive monster, essentially, is on the loose.

There have been some efforts by journalists and even volunteer fact-checkers to combat this growing monster. The likes of ABS-CBN, Rappler, and PhilStar are known for their regular fact-checking posts that attempt to counter especially viral or trending malicious and dubious posts. Rappler also holds regular fact-checking sessions with volunteers.

While all these fact-checking efforts are incredible, we have to acknowledge that they are no longer enough. There have just become too many pieces of disinformation in the social media sphere. There can never be enough journalists and fact-checkers to fact-check all “fake news.”

A Washington Post report published on April 12 cited research by scholars from the University of the Philippines that found that the Marcoses' online revisionism project dates back to as early as the 2000s, through the more popular social networking sites back then like Friendster, Flickr, and other now-defunct websites. The report said that, as far back as the 2000s, there has already been some messaging online that argued that the Marcos family has been unfairly maligned.

This tells us that the kind of messaging that Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is using today is nothing new. They have long been spreading content – content that attempt to whitewash the atrocities of the Marcos regime especially during Martial Law – that are favorable to them for around two decades by now. How do you combat something that has already become ingrained in millions of Filipinos’ minds for years now?

This political strategy of using social media to spread disinformation becomes even more effective in social-media-savvy countries like the Philippines, where 68% of the country's population has access to the internet and where there are over 92 million recorded social media users. Per day, an average Filipino user spends 255 minutes on social media alone – the most among Southeast Asian countries. These facts alone show that the country can really become susceptible to a political strategy that heavily uses social media.

While all these fact-checking efforts are incredible, we have to acknowledge that they are no longer enough. There have just become too many pieces of disinformation in the social media sphere. There can never be enough journalists and fact-checkers to fact-check all “fake news.”

To combat disinformation, social media platforms must step up and do more than just tagging or flagging dubious posts. After all, tagging or flagging questionable posts does not remove them entirely from the platform.

More than just mere tagging and flagging, social media sites should urgently and automatically remove any post and all other posts that display the same words and images of the original post (surely social media sites’ AI tools can identify them) that violate their community guidelines.

Sure, Facebook's parent company Meta may have recently announced that they have already taken down up to 400 accounts from the Philippines that were engaging in malicious activities ahead of the May election, but this is not enough as, surely, there are thousands more among the 91,000 users in the Philippines in mid-2021, or 2.93 billion active Facebook accounts worldwide as of early 2022.

Again, social media platforms should urgently and automatically deactivate any account that is found to have been violating their community guidelines. Emerging AI tools like object detection and visual recognition can certainly be used by these platforms in quickly acting against any questionable content. Should the user behind an account that was taken down want to argue that their page and posts are valid, they can raise a claim to the site, and that is when the more detailed review happens.

I know that there will be accusations of how this move will snub our democratic rights to free speech and how this might reflect digital terrorism, but this move will teach any user to understand what’s right and what’s wrong. Soon, social media platforms should be seen as bastions not only of free speech but also of intelligent and facts-based content creation.

Ultimately, social media platforms should acknowledge that they are no longer just sites for fun and all. They have got a lot of content that hugely affects a nation’s political spectrum, hence they must see themselves more highly because they have really become an important and crucial institution already, whether they like it or not.

Social media should act like they are the fifth pillar of democracy, or the Fifth Estate. They have become an important institution that affects many countries’ democracies and power, so it is only right to act pursuant to the protection of a nation’s democratic liberty.

They need a dedicated effort to anticipate, understand, and implement imaginative, cross-functional solutions. Journalists Sheera Frankel and Cecilia Kang described it perfectly in their book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. There, they said, “Facebook needed to go on the offensive. It should no longer merely monitor and analyze cyber operations; the company had to gear up for battle. But to do so required a radical change in culture and structure.”

Journalists and fact-checkers should have a bigger role in all this. They must be working with social media sites in terms of accurately identifying which posts are not backed by accurate facts and information. Journalists and fact-checkers are the only persons who have the skills and work experience that are needed to do so.

Social media companies should take a closer look at themselves and realize their impact on the world. I will go as far as saying that social media should act like they are the fifth pillar of democracy, or the Fifth Estate. In fact, a dedicated Wikipedia page has already been created to define non-traditional media including social media as such. They have become an important institution that affects many countries’ democracies and power, so it is only right to act pursuant to the protection of a nation’s democratic liberty.

But can social media really act like they are the Fifth Estate? Historically speaking, Facebook, for one, always reminded itself that they are not a government or intelligence agency, hence it was not its place to insert itself in international relations. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, according to Frankel and Kang in their book and multiple reports for the New York Times, also never really minded politics too much.

If a social media company’s leadership is not interested and keen on acknowledging the cruciality of its role in nation-building, we have a problem.

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who writes in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications. He covers cultures, media, gender, and the 2022 Philippine elections. The views expressed are his own.

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