Voter education to combat disinformation

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

Voter education is a regular activity held during election season. Various groups from civil society, churches, the academe, and government work to educate individuals on casting their ballots. From the use of vote counting machines to the ways to engage in campaigns and other election processes, voter education has been a normal practice leading up to the polls.

These, however, are not normal times. Voter education thus takes on a new normal as well. The Philippines is in the middle of not one but two pandemics: the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of disinformation. Voter education must not only address its usual objectives but take into account health considerations and even the combating of disinformation.

For roughly two years, the health pandemic has shaped “the new normal.” Community quarantines, social distancing, and similar measures have been a way of life. There is a greater reliance on the internet now. At a time when physical interactions are limited, people use the digital space to accomplish many of their tasks.

With the long and recurring lockdowns in the Philippines, it is no surprise that internet usage has spiked. In a recent report published by We Are Social, the Philippines ranks second worldwide in the daily time spent using the internet at over 10 hours a day. The use of social media is also rising as well. There has been an increase of over 25% in the number of social media users in the country since 2020. The Philippines currently has around 92.1 million active social media users. Moreover, other studies reveal that the internet does help shape election results.

Numbers from Pulse Asia Research show that the internet plays a greater role in communicating news. Ranking only second to television, the internet is cited as one of the top news sources today. A more recent survey by this firm also shows that the internet plays a greater role in influencing people’s choice of president. In 2010 and 2016, the internet — including social media — only had 1% citing it as being an influential source of information in choosing a president. Now, that has surged to 19%.

In today’s digitized age, social media plays a much greater role not just in everyday life but in key events of Philippine history. During this election season, social media is shaping the narratives that people perceive and believe. This can be dangerous.

Social media, while useful, does not have the rigorous vetting that traditional media institutions employ. Most concerning is how the country is witnessing an erosion of trust in these traditional sources of media, such as television news outlets and newspapers. Mainstream media is more easily questioned, and one is left to ask whether journalists are indeed the gatekeepers of truth or merely storytellers who may have their own hidden agendas. People instead turn to social media as another source of information. This has yielded unfavorable consequences.

Many people now believe historical revisionist narratives, be it the existence of stolen gold or that martial law years were the best years for the Philippine economy. These are not grounded in historical fact, but many social media accounts are pushing this alternative narrative.

If people believe lies and make decisions based on those lies, if they choose candidates who have empty promises and lackluster qualifications, the country faces another six years of hardship, corruption, poverty, and downright disaster. Philippine democracy as it stands is already challenged by the authoritarianism it experiences today. Disinformation paves the way for authoritarianism to flourish.

Voter education is thus essential to combat disinformation. Groups conducting voter education these days must raise awareness that certain narratives are not actually grounded in fact. People might believe lies that are detrimental to their future. But one must remember that this is also an emotional issue — people do not usually take well to learning that what they have believed is objectively wrong.

Voter education must be done in a way that does not patronize or use a “holier-than-thou” approach. Instead, voter education must seek to empathize. It is important to understand where voters are coming from and to persuade, humbly, with the truth. The truth does speak for itself, but it is not done any favors when shared in a prideful manner. This would further alienate and give more ground for people who have been misled by disinformation to distrust what is actually fact.

The truth must be told. It must be told again and again so it does not drown in the well-funded deluge of lies and disinformation. Now, more than ever, one must make a stand for the truth and keep fighting as political machinery continues to spread disinformation. Truth must prevail, not the deceitful narratives of campaigns spin.

Today’s social media space is infected with the pandemic of disinformation perpetrated by forces who need to distort historical facts otherwise their objective to seize power will be defeated. Disinformation on these platforms could bring about severe consequences to Philippine growth, development, and overall democracy. The voter education we experience today should be mindful of this and must boldly combat disinformation with untiring passion and resolve.

This article was originally published in the BusinessWorld Commentary.

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