Linguistics in the Time of #FakeNews

Manila Bulletin, August 20, 2017 | Go to article overview

Linguistics in the Time of #FakeNews


By Toni Tiemsin

The Internet is an entirely different world right now compared to what we had a few years back. The passionately fought national elections last year unleashed fake accounts all over Facebook and Twitter, which are heavily used in our social media-crazy country. Politicians' camps created and paid online militias to propagate ideas and beliefs online, at the expense of the truth.

No less than President Rodrigo Duterte himself admitted that his camp hired keyboard warriors to defend him against social media critics and ultimately to help him win the presidency. Asked about a recent Oxford study, which showed that his camp spent a whopping R10 million for a social media army, Duterte said during a press conference right after his second State of the Nation Address, "Sa election siguro. Sa elections Ma'am more than... And they were all during the campaign. Pero ngayon, hindi ko naman kailangan." (During the elections probably. During the elections it was more than that. But now, I don't need it anymore.)

More than a year after Duterte's win, legitimate netizens still have to contend with anonymous trolls with unverifiable and faceless accounts, unabashedly bashing those who are simply expressing their views.

No matter how damaging these trolls and fake news could be, however, we can learn a few lessons from them, particularly in the use of our national language. Not many people realize that what makes these keyboard warriors appealing to unwitting netizens is their effective use of the Filipino language.

With the help of some photos and meme generators, social media content posted by trolls in our native tongue--regardless of their veracity--capture the attention of Filipino-speaking netizens, who are the target of false and malicious content or messages which we often now call as "fake news."

The propagators of fake news know their mass audience very well. They recognize the fact that the best way to appeal to the general public is through the native tongue. Their messaging in Filipino is one of their primary strengths, helping them garner support online, which also translates offline.

Look, for instance, at the countless viral political posts, memes, tweets, and online videos spread all over Facebook. Most of them are expressed in Filipino, some even with reference to the Philippine pop culture. The fact that these posts are liked and shared in social media--no matter how suspicious they are--attests to how Filipino netizens positively (or negatively) engage when messages are packaged and delivered to them in a language they understand.

This is often the neglected bit about language: that it is more than a pedagogical tool. It is also an effective and powerful political and cultural vehicle.

The Philippine social media experience in the last one to two years, which we could aptly call the Age of Fake News, taught us that language indeed is power. While technology has undoubtedly democratized the flow of information since the dawn of the new millennium, we are now seeing the power of language being maximized in every Facebook post and 140-character tweet.

It is especially true in the Philippines where the mastery of language dictates one's educational attainment, which later in life translates to job or economic opportunities and to which social stratum one belongs.

While institutions continue to promote Filipino as the lingua franca and official national language under the 1987 Constitution, a cultural and historical reality remains in our country: English is power. …

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