Battle for Hearts and Minds

photo by Noemi Lardizabal-Dado

(Slightly edited version of my short talk on Lessons in Fighting Back, for the Democracy and Disinformation conference, Feb 13, at Ateneo, Rockwell)

The frenzied pace of digital media can make many of us feel old sometimes. The hostility, the vitriol, can tempt us to crawl away and find safe nooks.

Social media is actually a relatively young arena of expression. Our preoccupation with social media, as both audience and producers of “news,” can be situated in the last decade. The impact on popular consciousness of the phenomenon often called “fake news,” started hogging news headlines only in the last half decade.

It is still remains a brave, new world, with the same potential that excited me ten years ago.

It’s just that we – traditional and social media practitioners – sometimes we become so enamored with the trees, their leaves and tangled veins. We talk of how lies spread. We don’t discuss enough the context of these lies.

Let me fall back on a phrase we probably read from news reports or books three decades or more ago.

Battles for Hearts and Minds have shaped the history of nations and the world and will continue to do so.

Disinformation – and valiant truth telling – are crucial components in these wars. We are still fighting these wars. The battles on social media are rooted in, are not much different, from the battles on ground.

HOW we fight reflects the things and values we fight for.

HOW we fight will determine whether we draw people in or drive them away, or rouse them into strong opposition.

LIES do not exist in a vacuum. As the Duterte experience shows, in graphic details, lies are seeded and spread in tandem with campaigns of intimidation and harassment. These seek to target behavior, drive a wedge among the governed so the powerful can rule.

This is no different from the “old-style” battles for hearts and minds.

How do we fight back?

Lesson#1

We don’t win the battle for hearts and minds by clawing at the RECIPIENTS of disinformation and then stomping away in pique.

On ground, we come in as strangers, try to share people’s lives, see where they are coming from. We LISTEN, even when their truths make us uncomfortable.

There are no shortcuts. We cannot demand that people listen to us if we dismiss them as fools.

Lesson#2

We cannot combat LIES with LIES. We cannot become the enemy.

And let me get this straight. It is not just the government that practices this, though the Duterte administration has made LYING a governance SOP. (Vera Files has done a very fine job highlighting this.)

Instead of falling back on exigency, we need to pour more energy and effort into truth – both accuracy AND context.

Lesson#3

BUILD on unities.

The world will always need professional journalists. To the chagrin of those who crowed a year ago that they had marginalized traditional media and made us irrelevant, our audience is finding its way back.

Young people no longer take their newsfeeds as gospel truth. They’re returning to websites, taking time to watch TV news, going to the social pages of news outfits. They’re even learning to enjoy reading long form journalism.

I always tell students and participants of workshops, YOU ARE MEDIA, TOO.

Instead of making a distinction between them and us, I would rather narrow the difference, teach them our tools, encourage them to use the same.

Having worked in citizen journalism and with citizen advocates, I can say it is not impossible, not even hard.

High school students were among our best trainees.

But they need to see how these lessons in journalism (as well as on the technology of production and dissemination) can directly CHANGE their lives.

Once our workshops focused on how THEY can tell THEIR stories, the speed of absorption was surprising.

Unlike Mocha Uson, young people understand that ethics and standards are NOT beyond the pale. They are not copping out of the responsibilities of truth-telling. They want to learn more about it.

Lesson #4

We should focus our fire on the masterminds of disinformation, whether governments, big business or feuding political elite blocs.

The 24/7 news cycle has forced so many of us journalists to become sprinters, seeing the race in increments of minutes, even seconds.

We report on what news subjects say almost in real time; the more outrageous their messages, the faster we post these. Then we play catch up with fact-checking and providing context.

Duterte loves that. He is not the buffoon many people would love to believe he is. His messaging is deliberate, sending people dancing this way and that through smoke and mirrors.

We can’t play the game that way. There is LIVE STREAMING. Why are our first breaks as raw as the live stream?

We must learn to value-add immediately – placing the truth and the contradictions side by side with his lies – on first serving of our news.

This is an area where we do not need to sprint with the pack. This is an area where our expertise and experience should make us stand out.

scaRRedcat Veteran, award-winning journalist, former chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and Knight Intl Fellow at Stanford