Championing Free Speech in the Social Media Capital of the World

Social Media

By Michael Henry Yusingco

Social media-savvy Filipinos will be a huge factor in the 2022 elections. Despite the threat of online disinformation, political activism in social media still needs to be encouraged. Thus, protecting free speech and press freedom in social media must remain paramount in the face of strong efforts to regulate cyberspace. 

The Philippines has been designated as the “social media capital of the world” because a large majority of its 110 million population spend around 9 hours of the day online, with almost half of this time spent in social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. 

A recent survey by polling firm Pulse Asia showed that 48% of Filipino adults get their news about government and politics from the internet, particularly on Facebook. So, for most Filipinos, social media also functions as a facilitator of political engagement. Whether as just a window to observe the current political happenings or as a means to connect with political actors or as a platform for direct political action. But without a doubt, social media has become a prime forum for political discourse.

Sadly however, in an interview in 2017, one of the young politicians in the country lamented,  “We used to say that the internet is a marketplace of ideas, now it’s a battlefield already. And the difficulty with being in a battlefield is that maraming (there are a lot of) casualties. And sometimes the casualties are democracy, good ideas that need space to be able to come out.”

During the 2019 midterm elections, CNN Philippines, through its Digital Disinformation Tracker research project, monitored online conversations during the election period and found that social media was an extremely toxic environment for political discourse. Voters pretty much stuck to their echo chambers and the “us versus them” mentality prevailed. There was no effort from the various political sides to “reach across the aisle” so to speak. Each side was only keen to promote their respective narratives while equally determined to suppress the claims of the others. 

The internet is a technological innovation that provides people real-time access to information, to cultures beyond borders, and to discourses happening virtually any place in the world.

For this election cycle, the online vitriol began in earnest right after the lapse of the deadline for the filing of certificates of candidacy a fortnight ago. Social media is currently flooded with attack propaganda lodged by supporters of candidates against each other. And this toxicity will even intensify considerably once the campaign period for the national elections officially begins on February 8, 2022.   

Pertinently, campaigning in the 2022 elections will most likely be devoid of the usual “fiesta” like atmosphere. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the movements of peoples and will likely continue to do so until May next year. Hence, most, if not all, of campaign gimmicks and activities will likely be undertaken online. 

Thus, an already robust online public discourse will be elevated several notches higher, which judging from the level of partisan outrage being expressed now could come close to the point of chaos and pandemonium. During the following months, social media in the Philippines will swing from being a “marketplace of policies and ideas” to being a “battleground of partisan politics”.

A democratic cyberspace  

The internet is a technological innovation that provides people real-time access to information, to cultures beyond borders, and to discourses happening virtually any place in the world. As more people now interact in the digital world, for Filipinos it is vital that cyberspace remain democratic given the centrality of social media in the civic space.  

But the intense level of connectivity and the amplification of communication necessitates a critical assessment of the scope and depth of free expression and press freedom in cyberspace, as well as the roles and responsibilities of government and citizens in adhering to these constitutional rights.

The Philippines has a cherished legal tradition of respecting free speech and press freedom, despite its complicated history with democratic rule. The Supreme Court articulated this ethos as follows:

“To be truly meaningful, freedom of speech and of the press should allow and even encourage the articulation of the unorthodox view, though it be hostile to or derided by others; or though such view “induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”” 

From just a plain reading of this ruling of the high court, it would be so easy to conclude that the rambunctiousness of political discourse amongst Filipinos in Facebook is proof that free speech is alive and well in the social media sphere. However, online disinformation insidiously threatens the full exercise of these constitutional rights, particularly in relation to political discourse.

The disinformation scourge

The dictionary definition of disinformation is “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth”. This is to be distinguished from “misinformation” which is defined simply as “incorrect or misleading information”. Both are obviously bad for democracy but it is the element of nefarious intent which makes disinformation the more fatal of the two. 

The spread of disinformation hinders reflective and balanced public discourse about pressing issues and the viable policies to address them.

To illustrate, the claim made by Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. that he had an undergraduate degree from Oxford and an MBA from Wharton can be classified as misinformation because while he did spend some time in Oxford University and Wharton School, his name is not in their official lists of graduates. On the other hand, the falsehoods about the Marcos dictatorship being promoted by certain online sources can be classified as disinformation because their aim is to cover up the plunder and brutality perpetuated during Marcos’ authoritarian regime, both of which are historical facts already proven in the court of law.

Disinformation imperils democracy because information plays such a huge part in democratic consolidation, particularly in ensuring free and fair elections. The spread of disinformation hinders reflective and balanced public discourse about pressing issues and the viable policies to address them. Thus, depriving voters the ability to make a rational and informed decision at the polls.

Moreover, an integral part of a modern disinformation campaign is to sow division within the polity by stoking emotions and prejudices on a politically or socially charged issue. This scenario has played out in other parts of the world before, but “weaponising social media“ in furtherance of electoral gain is currently unfolding in the Philippines. 

Nevertheless, fostering and even encouraging political activism in the digital realm is still optimal because ardent citizen engagement in matters of governance and politics can sustain a healthy democracy. Hence, the need to protect free speech and press freedom in social media.

Accordingly, a strong adherence to constitutional rights must underpin any government initiative to keep social media a safe and vibrant space for its citizens. Specifically, in institutionalizing mechanisms against the deployment of online disinformation.

Digital citizenship

Needless to say, there is a plethora of ways to address the proliferation of disinformation on the internet. But one of the most important steps is to institutionalize digital citizenship, a concept defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as, “a set of skills that enables citizens to access, retrieve, understand, evaluate and use, to create as well as to share information and media in all formats, using several tools, in a critical, ethical and effective way to participate and engage in personal, professional and social activities.” 

Digital citizenship imposes on social media users a responsibility to uphold norms of appropriate and responsible use of digital technology. This view is buttressed by the opinion of the Supreme Court that it is “incumbent upon internet users to exercise due diligence in their online dealings and activities and must not be negligent in protecting their rights.” Correspondingly, the subject of digital citizenship and responsibility is now part of the K-12 curriculum.

It must be clarified though that a digital citizenship regime does not absolve government from any responsibility in preserving the safety and security of the online world. It merely highlights the fact that civil society plays an important and indispensable role in keeping cyberspace safe and secure for all its users. 

Regulating social media 

Notably, the digital space is not actually the Wild Wild West. It is “governed” by a complex matrix of international rules and state laws. But regulating the web is still a hotly contested proposition and remains to be the subject of intense debate amongst scholars and legislators. In the Philippines, the apex regulatory statute is the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

The main goals of this law are to ensure the “free, easy, and intelligible access to exchange and/or delivery of information” and to “protect and safeguard the integrity of computer, computer and communications systems, networks, and databases”. Sometimes the fulfilment of these objectives becomes problematic, particularly in cases involving free speech.

Press Freedom

Indeed, finding an acceptable balance between preserving online freedom and keeping cyberspace safe is profoundly challenging due to the authoritarian tendencies of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

For instance, last year, the armed forces chief proposed to include social media in the coverage of the controversial anti-terrorism law. This extreme proposal aims to give national security agents the authority to closely monitor the online activities of suspected terrorists. There is genuine fear however, that this can also pave the way for state surveillance being employed indiscriminately against the population.  

And just last month, the head of the cybercrime division of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, National Bureau of Investigation, urged Congress to enact a law that would mandate one social media account per person in the Philippines as a measure to prevent online scams. But again, this elicited serious anxieties that the state will use this power to surveil and censor those individuals who are overtly critical of the government. 

Ostensibly, the country’s existing legal framework on cybersecurity needs to be updated in order to keep pace with the current developments in digital technologies. In fact, the current proposals on how to better regulate cyberspace are now being studied and discussed both in the legislature and in academia. But Filipinos must be vigilant given the palpable tendency on the part of the government to compromise free speech and press freedom.

Reforming the digital legal framework 

The militaristic approach to regulating the internet must be reexamined because a regulatory regime that infringes on free speech and press freedom actually undermines the nation’s already distressed democracy. 

Thus, this Report of the Special Rapporteur on disinformation and freedom of opinion and expression must be seriously considered in undertaking such a massive reform effort, particularly this caveat:

“Laws and policies are often being made with sub-optimal knowledge of online harm, without adequate data, research or public consultations. States have resorted to disproportionate measures such as Internet shutdowns and vague and overly broad laws to criminalize, block, censor and chill online speech and shrink civic space. These measures are not only incompatible with international human rights law but also contribute to amplifying misperceptions, fostering fear and entrenching public mistrust of institutions.”  

Clearly, reforming the regulatory framework for cyberspace must be a multidimensional and multistakeholder effort. Insights from users, business and technology concerns, social cohesion and national security, all have to be factored in.  Hence, a viable legal framework to govern the digital realm can only be achieved with the collaboration of civil society, the digital platforms and the government.  More crucially though, all three parties must agree that the crafting process cannot deviate away from the nation’s obligation to respect constitutional rights.

Conclusion  

Indubitably, social media is now a site where Filipinos learn about public affairs and where they deliberate and mobilize political action. Thus, it is guaranteed that a social media-savvy electorate will be a huge factor in the 2022 elections.

However, online disinformation in social media can make election discourse hostile and toxic. If not properly addressed, this can mean political campaigning will no longer be about an honest-to-goodness public accounting of problems and solutions, but will simply be for showcasing electoral warfare between political protagonists.

Nevertheless, political activism in social media needs to be encouraged. This is precisely the reason why protecting free speech and press freedom in social media must remain paramount in the face of strong efforts to regulate cyberspace.

About the Author

AuthorMichael Henry Yusingco, LL.M is a Policy analyst and constitutionalist, senior research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center of the School of Government of the Ateneo de Manila University, fellow of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance and author of the book, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.