Commentary: Hijacking Ressa’s democracy

“DEMOCRACY as we know it is dead,” Maria Ressa declared in her interview with CBS News (April 27, 2017). “What you’re seeing,” Ressa explained, “is exponential growth of propaganda networks that hijack what used to be called democracy.” By “propaganda networks,” she’s really referring to pro-Duterte Facebook pages whose collective engagement per week dwarfs that of Rappler, the social media news site that she founded, by several millions for almost a year now.

The word “hijack,” which means to seize something illegally, only revealed the undertow of Ressa’s statement. It isn’t a dirge to our democracy but the sighs of the Philippine traditional media undergoing an existential crisis as the power to sway public opinion they used to monopolize becomes diffused by social media platforms. By describing this process as an instance of “hijacking,” Ressa perceives this diffusion of power as a usurpation of the long-held role of Philippine traditional media in shaping public perception.

Is Ressa that clueless not to sense that what’s happening is really just another transition in the primary means of social persuasion? Social media’s irrefutable influence on public opinion is no different from how radio and television have taken over newspapers, which in turned replaced pamphlets as the pre-eminent means of mass persuasion, as J. Michael Sproule noted in Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion.

What is it exactly that worries Ressa about the “exponential growth of propaganda networks”? Is it the entry of more competition? Or is it the growing difficultly for political operators to launch propaganda without an effective counter-propaganda?

The word “propaganda” has been bandied about in the Philippine political sphere as if it were a sinister tool. Usually, propaganda is used as a slur against opinions, perspectives, and rhetorical style one finds unacceptable. In Propaganda: History of a Word, Erwin Fellows observed that the changing attitude towards the word might be an effect of the “shift in meaning from a religious to a military and then to a political context” that it acquired since it was first used in English in 1718. In reality, anyone who would like to persuade others to support a particular course of action uses propaganda.

Some equate propaganda with deception. In Ressa’s interview, the word propaganda is ingeniously juxtaposed with “fake news,” which Filipino journalists are fighting in order perhaps to save Philippine democracy. The CBS News article used fake news about Senators De Lima and Trillanes as examples. However, the article was vague about how exactly this fake news imperiled Philippine democracy. At worst, they jeopardize the political careers of politicians. Democracy and a politician’s career aren’t synonymous. Perhaps in Ressa’s brand of democracy they are the same.

Equating propaganda with lies conflates judgment of the veracity of a particular propaganda with the purpose of propaganda in general. The very purpose of propaganda is mass persuasion. There are deceptive propaganda, but not all propaganda are meant to deceive.

Yet this difference is lost in the way the word propaganda is popularly used in our country, even by supposedly schooled commentators like Ressa. Worse, pundits like Ressa sell to the public the idea that propaganda in itself is bad for democracy and that Philippine democracy once existed without it.

Ressa knows very well that traditional media has been used and continues to be used as a propaganda tool by different political actors. I’m sure Ressa has already read the endemic corruption in Philippine media, written up extensively by Chay Florentino-Hofileña, her colleague at Rappler, in News for Sale: The Corruption and Commercialization of the Philippine Media.

Ressa herself is no stranger to how politicians and corporations have been using the press to flood our country with propaganda in the service of their interests. On January 31, 2011, Ressa wrote on her blog “Brave New World,” about how “politicians, company officers and government officials have said they’re flabbergasted by the number of journalists on their payrolls.” And in that same post, Ressa herself admitted being bribed once with “$150,000 to do a story for CNN.” She refused to accept the bribe; but most probably, someone else would have accepted it. And it’s very likely that the well-heeled drug syndicates and other parties affected by Duterte’s policies are using journalists now to protect their interests.

So, what exactly is the democracy being hijacked by the so-called “propaganda networks,” which are largely supportive of Duterte’s war on narcopolitics? Based on Ressa’s own admission in 2011 and the research of her colleague, it’s a democracy plagued by an endemically corrupt Fourth Estate. And that plague has been perverting our democracy even before the emergence of the Facebook pages that Ressa and her ilk find threatening to their power.

(Published by The Manila Times, 1 May 2017)

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