How wide is the information gap? Around 24 people died and about P14 billion ($260 million) worth of damages were sustained when Super Typhoon Rolly rocked the Philippines last November 2020. In the same month, there were 100 individuals dead and P20 billion in infrastructure damage when Typhoon Ulysses came. Then, when Super Typhoon Odette hit the country last December 2021, there were around 409 deaths and an estimated P33 billion in damages.
Beyond statistics such as these and brief updates from government agencies, Davao City-based journalist Kath Cortez said that media outlets struggle to get a sense of how affected residents are doing after disaster strikes. According to her, this was unlike ABS-CBN’s Lingkod Kapamilya, which openly shared updates on the network’s disaster relief efforts.
“For example, [when it came to giving] food para sa mga nangangailangan, because there are communities na ang tagal na nilang nasa evacuation center, [pero] wala pa rin silang pagkain. Ang nagpapakain pa rin sa kanila ay hindi ang gobyerno kundi yung local barangay, mas ‘dun pa sa mga civil society groups or mga concern citizen. So sa ganong klaseng factor pa lang makikita na natin yung malaking gap between media outfits and our local government units (LGUs),” Cortez, also the Vice Chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) explained.
(For example, [when it came to giving] food to those in need, because there are communities who were stranded in evacuation centers for a long period of time, [but] they still have no food. The national government is not feeding them, but the local barangays, civil society groups, or concerned citizens. It’s factors like these where you can see the large gap between media outfits and our local government units.)
On updates provided by LGUs, although Cortez noted the impact of their brief and up-to-date alerts (which some of them post through their social media platforms), she believed that they must avoid centralizing information to only a handful of communities and must reach-out to far-flung areas as well.
“Lagi’t lagi ang ginagawa ng mga LGUs talaga [is that] they just assign [a] certain person na yun yung mag-e-explain, so kapag wala na yung person na yun, wala ka ng access to information, which is so difficult kasi pagkaganon, marami tayong kasama sa media na ginagawa pili-pili na lang kung anong ire-report,” Cortez said.
(LGUs almost always assign a certain person to explain a situation, so if that person is unavailable, you no longer have access to such information, which is so difficult because if that’s the case, a lot of fellow media folk are forced to pick only a few details to report.)
She recalled how Lumads were “uprooted” from their communities back in 2012’s Typhoon Pablo, as most of them were not aware that a storm was heading their way. For her, this is proof that LGUs must consider those living in mountains or near coastal areas with regards to disseminating information.
“Pag-aralan na talaga nila kung papaano pa mas actively [ma-engage] sa community para mas maabot pa yung mga communities na hindi naaabot hanggang ngayon. Marami pa yun talaga. Kung dito yan sa Mindanao, sobrang dami,” Cortez added.
(LGUs need to study how to engage communities to better reach-out far-flung areas that remain unreachable to this day. There’s a lot of them. If it’s here in Mindanao, there’s a lot.)
But the gap between LGUs, media outlets, and their respective stakeholders is not limited to mere miscommunication and insufficient updates. For Cortez, LGUs must also consider social media.
In the fog of disinformation
Through online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, netizens can post updates and publicize calls for help to a larger audience. Besides contact information, payment methods for monetary donations, and images of affected areas and/or residents, users include hashtags that lead users to posts of the same type. For instance, users may find urgent calls for rescue through #RescuePH or #[NameOfLocation]NeedsHelp or donation drives through #ReliefPH.
Even with these capabilities, disinformation (in all its forms) may still find its way through social media. But how dangerous can that be?
If it’s not confusion from misleading and appropriated photos, disinformation can cause widespread panic. As an example, Cortez shared how Davao City residents were led to believe that a tsunami and another powerful earthquake were bound for the city just after it was hit by a Magnitude 6.3 quake on October 16, 2019. The former claims, however, turned-out to be false.
“Imagine the coastal barangays of the city, nag-panic ng around 5 PM. Ang dami-daming nag-evacuate, ang dami-daming naperwisyo ‘non. Sobrang haba ng traffic. Muntik pang mag-kasunog. Ang daming hinimatay, na-highblood sa mga ganoong klaseng situation,” Cortez recalled.
(Imagine the coastal barangays of the city. They all panicked around 5 PM. A lot of people evacuated, and were fooled that time. Traffic jams were long, one place nearly caught fire, many fainted and even had high blood pressure from such situations.)
Agreeing with Cortez on the matter of physical distance, BS Veterinary Medicine student Enif Ledesma said that one’s upbringing plays a part in how they interpret certain pieces of information. He hails from Negros Occidental, where ABS-CBN TV-4 Bacolod operated until it too was closed down along with the rest of their regional network group (RNG).
“Marami kasi ‘don ay hindi sila ganong ka receptive sa information, kasi in the first place yung information mismo [...] hindi siya [established] na parang from [a reliable source] nga mismo. Ang dami ng doubts pagdating na sa mga outskirts. Pagdating na sa mga margins mas [mahirap] lalo kasi di sila naabot ng information. At the same time, may iba’t ibang paniniwala sila,” Ledesma explained.
(A lot of people in far-flung areas aren’t receptive to certain information because in the first place, the information itself [...] at times doesn’t seem reliable. Too much doubt comes when it reaches the outskirts, and having them reach certain margins is difficult since they’re further away. At the same time, they may have their own beliefs.)
Ledesma continued that “Yung makakain po or ma-a-absorb ng mga tao kasi, iba’t iba naman yung pag-absorb natin. Iba-iba naman yung, let’s say [the information’s] ‘palatability’ [or what they deem as beneficial] yung pag-absorb, yung pag-digest ng mga tao in terms of this information (how people consume or absorb such information is different from one another. Their, let’s say the information’s ‘palatability’ for them, and how they absorb and digest differs).”
Given these, Cortez affirmed that it was not difficult to fact-check per se. Instead, the challenge is keeping-up with the amount of disinformation that plagues social media.
Emphasizing how it’s “not the media’s job to “catch-up,” Cortez recalled how difficult it was to cover mining communities due to heightened military presence and how significant files may be missing from the websites of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the like.
“For example, [sometimes we] can’t interview agad yung mga susing tao na makakasagot ng ating mga tanong (ask the key people our questions immediately) [...] It’s a greater challenge, kasi (because) how can you? Hindi naman (Not to) rebut, [but] how can you correct an information without presenting the truth or the data?” Cortez continued, highlighting that the lack of resources contribute to disinformation spreading quicker than verified updates.
Democracy in danger
The loss of ABS-CBN’s franchise last 2020 brought to mind the first time the network was shut down on September 23, 1972. As loyalists of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. took over the network, crony-operated outlets dominated the scene, while the critical press suffered heavy restrictions and mass arrests.
Today, networks such as the Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) and NET25 openly peddle disinformation that favored the junior Marcos. Meanwhile, state propagandists thrive on certain platforms, usually facing little to no consequences for their actions.
Cortez claimed that even government agencies these days would peddle disinformation, saying “meron ding talagang mga tao or group of people na talagang trabaho nilang, magpalabas ng (there are those people and groups whose job is to release) disinformation for their benefit, and sad to say even our local officials do this para mawala yung basura sa pangalan [ng mga Marcos] (just to keep the dirt out of the Marcos family’s name).”
In the larger context, Department of Development Communication Asst. Prof. Aileen Macalintal said that this was a sign of the current “post-truth era, [...] when personal beliefs and personal [opinions] weigh more than facts, and this phenomenon [affects public] policy.”
Across platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube, disinformation peddlers and online trolls release posts, as well as appropriated images and videos that favor specific narratives. When not promoting false beliefs and narratives, oftentimes these would target and malign people who disagree with them or are critical of the national government.
Macalintal described the current online climate as “a very, very bad combination of everything that can go wrong in the Philippines.”
“Think of the worst thing that can happen. Maybe the United Kingdom exiting [...] the [European] Union. Dito siguro, [ipaupo] mo ulit [sic] ang anak ng diktador (here in the Philippines, maybe it’s letting the child of a dictator sit in office), so it actually happened because of disinformation,” Macalintal explained.
She added that climate and disaster reporting may face more problems under Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.’s presidency, saying “kasi kung denial of truth ang prinsipyo ng [mga Marcos] sa buhay, paano pa kaya ang climate disaster reporting na nakatungtong sa science, na hindi mag-ta-thrive sa lies and deception?”
(Because if denial of truth is the principle of the Marcoses, what more when it comes to climate disaster reporting, which is supposed to focus on science and not on lies and deception?)
She then recalled a time when she sat with Facebook content strategists in California. Macalintal noticed that even though the latter were discussing improvements to the platform, their agendas were more profit-driven.
“In the long run, [it’s more about] how to make a profit on the media platform. Ma-se-sense mo na hindi talaga siya (You can sense that it’s not really) for the common good, so anything goes. [...] Pwedeng kwestyonable ang magiging future ng (it can be questionable, the future of) communication and journalism, so what we can do also, siyempre (of course) in the academe among media practitioners, is just push back to see, thinking anything positive na lang,” Macalintal advised, with Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter being her example.
Given these, Cortez feared that media would have to “crawl” through strict censorship just to get the truth out “because alam natin at mas naiintindihan natin na ayaw din [ng mga tao tulad nina Marcos na] mapahamak sila (we know and we understand that [people like the Marcoses] don’t want to be caught).”
Cloudy with a chance of hope
Two years later, calls to restore ABS-CBN’s franchise remain prevalent, with state critics condemning similar attacks on the media such as the recent attempt to close down Rappler. Just this July, the progressive Makabayan Bloc refiled a House Bill that aimed to give the network franchise good for 25 years.
But how’s ABS-CBN doing without their franchise? Macalintal said they seemed to have “leveled-up” in their coverage, due to branching to other platforms like TikTok and collaborating with international media outfits. She also highlighted the latter, as it may give audiences outside of the Philippines a better understanding of issues in the country.
Even with these developments, Macalintal said that it’s high time to directly discuss how to properly address disinformation in the country with Google and Facebook among other “tech giants”. Jokingly, she said “wala ng nagbabasa [ng balita] tapos [...] hinahayaan niyo lang ang (no one’s reading [the news], and now [...] you’re just being hands-off on) disinformation, so maybe we need to talk.”
Cortez elaborated how journalists are arrested, doxxed (i.e. having their private information exposed online), red-tagged and harassed on and offline, killed, threatened with rape and murder, and verbally maligned in their line of work. For her, not only are these signs of a failing democracy, these are also attempts to censor journalists.
“It’s a sugarcoating of what’s happening [in] our country,” Cortez explained. “Hindi mo rin matatawag na democracy na nangyayari ngayon na kapag nag-report tayo, [tapos] kinakalampag tayo ng trolls sa mga social media accounts natin. We cannot tell even if it’s still a democracy when our government itself yung purveyor ng false information.”
(You couldn’t call it a democracy when whenever we report, we have trolls swarming our social media accounts. We cannot tell even if it’s still a democracy our government is the purveyor of false information.)
Adding that it’s “no secret'' that there are government officials who openly defame journalists, Cortez added that media practitioners are bound by ethics. This, she said, gave them an advantage over propaganda vloggers, as “halimbawa meron tayong mali sa ating reporting, inaako natin na mali yun at nagwawasto tayo, nag-a-apologize tayo, but sila hindi nila ginagawa ‘yun.” She again highlighted that swifter access to information is important in disaster reporting and beyond before concluding.
Speaking of ethics, Ledesma, in wrapping-up his thoughts, said that it’s not just media folk and critical parties who have to be bound by ethics. He said that “We need to defend the flow of information, kasi kung meron tayong ethics ganyan, tapos parang tayo-tayo lang din, I think malayo pa tayo dun sa goal to protect everybody, to protect the communities, kasi uulitin natin yung kasalanan nung nakaraan.”
(We need to defend the flow of information, because if we have ethics but we’re the only ones following it, we’re not close to the goal of protecting everybody, protecting the communities, because we will only repeat the mistakes of the past.)
Simply put, “if you don’t have [a genuinely] democratic country, democratic government, you can’t expect much from the field of communication and journalism,” Macalintal ended.
(NOTE: This article is the conclusion of two parts. Read the first part here.)
Reuben Pio Martinez is a news writer who covers stories on various communities and scientific matters. He regularly tunes in to local happenings. The views expressed are his own.