once thought that tyrants like Ferdinand Marcos would never make it in today’s wired and networked world. When he declared martial law in the 1972, he shuttered radio and TV stations, padlocked the printing presses of newspapers, and made sure Filipinos heard, read, and saw only what he wanted them to.
I told myself it would be impossible to do that today. We now live in a highly interconnected world. Social media apps, email, text messaging, computers and mobile phones link everyone to everyone else. Marcos and his henchmen would not succeed today the way they did 45-years ago.
But now, I’m not so sure anymore. Dictators, autocrats, and authoritarian regimes have discovered how manipulate public opinion using social media. They employ armies of well-trained hackers who spread “fake news” while their legions of supporters troll the internet and gang-up on anyone with a differing viewpoint. Instead of cutting-off access to news and information the way Marcos did, today’s tyrants drown out the truth with lies and fake news.
Russia is accused of doing just that during the 2016 U.S. election. Kremlin hackers flooded Facebook and Twitter with paid advertisements and fake news on Hillary Clinton to help bring about a Donald Trump victory. If true, Trump who constantly accuses the press of “fake news” would ironically owe his election victory to it—courtesy of Russian hackers.
Facebook just recently acknowledged that it might have been an unwitting accomplice to Russia’s interference and set new rules in place. The internet after all, should be a force for good. Unfortunately, it is also easily subverted by those who use it for nefarious ends.
What happened in the U.S. should give Filipinos pause. If an election in the world’s richest and most powerful country can be easily “commandeered” by an adversary halfway across the globe, might an adversary just across the South China Sea have also manipulated the Philippine presidential elections of 2015? One wonders.
There appear to be very persuasive arguments for China to do so. The Philippines owns highly strategic waters in the South China Sea. To make matters worse, a UN arbitral tribunal upheld Philippine claims to those waters—via unanimous vote no less. From China’s strategic perspective, the former colony and close ally of the United States had to be neutralized. And the quickest, most cost-effective way to accomplish that goal was to put a Chinese stooge in Malaca�ang.
The takeaway from all this for Filipinos is the importance of becoming more discerning about news and information. Fake news is now everywhere. Our LCD screens are now flooded with an audiovisual cacophony of information. If Pinoys are to move forward and prosper as the free and just people they truly are, they must continually strive to determine what is true and what is false. American Wendell Phillips put it succinctly back in 1852: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”Published 2/2/2018