ARE you sure you're a Filipino if you don't know what chismis is?
Contrary to popular belief, there is something that travels faster than light. Scientists and scholars alike may think that that statement is false, but if they sat down with my family in a reunion, the notion would not be contested. It is the oldest profession here in the Philippines, passed on by middle-aged women wearing sundresses with curlers on their hairs. Chismis may sound fun, but, for the longest time already, chismis has been an essential product of only one thing in the Philippines: the proliferation of fake news.
Here in Cebu, the seemingly frontliner in the fight against fake news is our governor Gwen Garcia. She has made rounds this year with her vicious attempts to combat online trolls and social media dummies. In her peak, she made a man kneel down in front of the camera in an apology for a joke to kill her. Photographs usually depict her with her hair unkempt, mouth open, and a lecturing finger raised. Netizens like to portray her as a mad woman.
But what's with all the crazy, anyways?
The seemingly genetically passed culture of chismis is a stain within our people. Filipinos are known for their hospitality, but they are also a very trusting people. There is a thirst for knowledge innate in every man, whether they like it or not, but the knowledge they receive may sometimes not be beneficial. This idea that we must accept everything we believe and spread it to others, even with the precaution that it might be false, is undeniably toxic. This is made even worse with the presence of social media. People used to cup their hands over their mouths to avoid people hearing gossip. Twitter and Facebook don't have that option. Now people who can fabricate information have a platform to spread it to others. And that's everyone.
Fake news may seem harmless at surface level, but it can grow into a much more insidious cause. Oxford University released a study that found that Duterte's campaign spent $20,000 on internet trolls to spread misinformation in his favor. Fake news in most cases, however, aren't paid for nor does it favor a specific person. Fake news damages people's reputations -- big or small (refer to People vs. Santos, Ressa, and Rappler).
This is why fake news is such a big deal. It's not just because it harms people and drives corrupt motives, but also because it is so widely accepted already. Our culture allows for fake news to proliferate, and that is why governments are putting so much effort to quash it. Especially now when Filipinos are so scared, it's so easy for them to believe that "Covid-19 isn't as bad as you think" or that "a vaccine is coming soon." It's so easy for them to doubt information that they would rather not hear, even from verifiable sources. The culture of chismis has disrupted the relationship between audience and media.
The need for accurate and real information is pivotal at a time of confusion like this. So in what other method should the government be enforcing these policies on a people who are so accustomed to spreading chismis if not for crazy?
The only way to unlearn a culture, however, is through strict application. Having temporary restrictions with no long-term repercussion for fake news will only improve the situation at present but will risk a relapse in the future. Information is meant to be used for sustainable development thus the rules around it must do the same. The government must include proper information consumption and production in their policies. Commendable examples would be the imposed Media and Information Literacy subject in senior high and Cebu's one-year jail time for fake news posters.
The government must also have their own outlets to provide not just accurate but also regular and valuable information. Their outlets must follow a pattern that is digestible for the masses, especially when it comes to numerical data that may be hard to interpret. They must also be accepting of criticism, complaints, and questions to their line of dissemination. Moreover, the information they give must contain a delicacy in them -- a sense of hope in these hopeless times.
The culture of chismis has plagued us all. To stop the spread of fake news won't be easy and sudden. We will have to go through a long and rocky road to get there. With the proper enforcement and use of knowledge and skill, however, we may be able to combat that and finally, finally, finally understand what Gwen Garcia has been jabbering about this whole year.
Student of Sacred Heart School-Ateneo de Cebu