Nick Enfield, professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney, has written a timely warning for the Guardian about a phenomenon we’ve become all too familiar with lately: In a post-truth world, “experts are dismissed, alternative facts are (sometimes flagrantly) offered, and public figures can offer opinions on pretty much anything.
And thanks to social media, pretty much anyone can be a public figure. In much public discourse, identity outranks arguments, and we are seeing either a lack of interest in evidence, or worse, an erosion of trust in the fundamental norms around people’s accountability for the things we say.”
Enfield enumerates examples of Australian politicians uttering falsehoods and exploiting a changed environment in which demonstrated lying and deception no longer seem the kiss of death for public figures. Wilful ignorance, in effect, has become weaponised, wielded to unembarrassed effect, and used as a means to befuddle and divide the populace.
Filipinos need not look far to see its effect.
The 32nd anniversary of the Edsa Revolution against dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for instance, served up a frenzy of lying and revisionism aimed at discrediting a historical event that retrieved the democratic space some are now eagerly undermining.
Worse, the untruths are coming from those in positions in power, tasked with upholding the factual historical record (the government itself hosted an official Edsa event, after all) but who, typically, chose instead to traffic in fraudulence to advance their own agenda.
On Edsa Day last week, the assistant secretary of Presidential Communications, who runs a personal Facebook blog with some 5.5 million followers that she insists should be seen as divorced from her official functions, ran a poll on her page with the following question: “Do you believe that the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution was a product of fake news?”
There was, of course, no concept of “fake news” in 1986. But even with the suppression and co-option of the mainstream press at that time, the abuses and plunder of the Marcos regime still came to light, resulting in the nationwide struggle that would culminate in the toppling of the dictatorship through a popular uprising.
The facts are easily verifiable, the public record voluminous and indisputable – if only this government official, her salary and the state resources at her command paid for by the people’s money, had the basic integrity to Google her history instead of using her official perch to propagandise falsely.
Or, take the case of the partisan throng that suddenly became avatars of good behaviour by slamming Rappler reporter Pia Ranada for supposedly having been “rude” and “disrespectful” to Palace guards when she was barred from entering Malacanang.
A determined journalist doing her job of reporting on the government’s workings is held up as “bastos” (discourteous) – while the same crowd shrugs its collective shoulders, even chortles, at the profanities and shocking utterances that have defined President Rodrigo Duterte’s public pronouncements, such as his recent directive to soldiers to shoot women rebels in their vaginas.
The world, it seems, has turned upside down.
“There’s a breakdown of rational governance,” laments the activist nun Sister Mary John Mananzan, a veteran of the freedom struggle. “The new normal now is to be rude and offensive, to tell a lie, tell fake news. What is happening to us Filipinos?”
More Filipinos need to wake up to this insidious state of affairs, because, as Enfield warned, “a post-truth world with eroding trust and accountability can’t end well”.
These days, eternal vigilance is the price, not only of liberty, but also of the truth that is the bedrock of that liberty.