This “new normal” of mandating Filipinos to stay at home has gotten people to be more active in social media. The lack of content from the television mega-giants drove Filipinos to turn to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for their daily news and entertainment needs. As expected, there was a spike in fake news from all corners of the Internet, especially the insatiable dilawans who have been itching to comment at each purported shortcoming of the government.
The fake news curve flattened with the recent enactment of Republic Act 11469, or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which contains a penal provision to punish purveyors of fake news. Effective for only three months, or until late June 2020, the authorities have the obligation to implement this law to the fullest extent possible. More specifically, Section 6(f) provides for a penalty of imprisonment of two months or a fine of not less than P10,000 but not more than P1,000,000, at the discretion of the court, against the following:
“Individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion; and those participating in cyber incidents that make use or take advantage of the current crisis situation to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails, or other similar acts.”
In response, the Philippine National Police (PNP) formed a task force to battle fake news online, known as the Task Force Contra COVID Peke. PNP Deputy Chief of Operations Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar said his people will spend time monitoring social media and identify perpetrators who take advantage of the panic caused by COVID-19. So far, it was reported that they have apprehended individuals misinforming the public about a cure to COVID-19 which they maliciously claim was invented by them. Similarly, peddlers of fake news in Cabuyao City, Laguna and in Lapu-Lapu City, Central Visayas were arrested for falsely posting about an outbreak in their respective localities.
Even public officials are not spared from this law. In Cavite, the town mayor of Noveleta, along with two others, were apprehended for using a dummy Facebook account to post photos of individuals alleged to be persons under investigation in Cavite City with critical commentary directed against said city’s administration. This caused unnecessary panic in Cavite City that led to the filing of a complaint against the mayor of Noveleta. It was discovered that the Facebook account was actually a “troll account” acting under the direction of said mayor.
This being so, the law exempts no one, not even government officials. The bigger question, however, is what if the authorities themselves are peddlers of “fake news”? For instance, last Friday, the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) took back its previous announcement that Rep. Eric Go Yap, chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives, actually tested negative, contrary to their report last Wednesday that he was positive for COVID-19. The mistake was attributed to a clerical error committed by an “augmentation staff” who was not organic to RITM. Shouldn’t this announcement be treated as fake news as well?
Of course, procedure dictates that there must be a complainant and that should be Congressman Yap, who already manifested that he has no intention to file a case against anyone from RITM. In his Facebook post, he showed a photo of a personal visit made by RITM officials at his residence, accompanied with a caption suggestive that he appreciated the sincerity and invited Filipinos to continue supporting the government in its fight against the disease.
True enough, Filipinos are forgiving, but this will reach boiling point soon enough. There is an outpouring of support for the Department of Health (DoH) and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, but this has not translated into results so far. The coverage of “fake news” in the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act should include not just the creation, perpetration, or spreading of information, but also the lack thereof. If we are not fully transparent and truthful to the citizenry, or if we fail to verify and authenticate the information for Filipinos, that should be punishable as “fake news” as well.