The pendulum swings

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

There has been so much controversy about Facebook, about fake news, and about the unauthorized use of personal data. It was bound to happen, and it’s only started. It is the swing of the pendulum, the way life goes from one end to the other as though it is trying to continuously balance itself. Man often becomes too conservative or will overdo things. That freedom is always there no matter what; it is the price we are willing to pay that makes the difference.

The advent of social media, in my view, is the democratization of individual expression towards an audience bigger than the usual. It is not as though we have not been able to speak our minds all this time, but our audience was always quite limited. Our own hesitation for whatever reason, the limitation of physical space, and the expense involved to reach greater numbers kept most individual expression to a small audience. Technology, however, has reversed things. Opportunities, not limitations, are what it offers.

The Internet and social media platforms have dramatically changed the social landscape of individual expression. Oh, yes, the more intimate chismis circles will always be there, the kwento kuchero (but in taxis today) is still going strong, and the barber shops and beauty salons still host space to vent. And it is all these traditional platforms of individual expressions had their fair share of fake news. The very connotation of the word “chismis” drips of deviations from fact and truth. If we recall, all the way from ancient times, an admonition was already incorporated in the Ten Commandments about bearing false witness against another. Apparently, not just telling lies but telling them to destroy the character and reputation of others has been a persistent human temptation.

When mankind went through its technological journey, a simple oral tradition began to find extra exposure through graphics and images, was drawn on paper or on walls of caves, and then converted to the printed word. It used to be that the exclusive domain of the sages, philosophers, religious teachers, wise men and experts that would surround and guide royalty or power, opened up very slowly to the rest of society. Printing technology was a great breakthrough. After that, the telegraph, radio, and television further magnified both reach an audience. Because the sources of what was written or broadcasted were not open to all, credibility and codes of conduct became primary basis and assurance of fact and truth.

The thing about technology, however, is that it is not born from ethics. Rather, it is a product of knowledge and imagination. Of course, the morality and attendant laws that a society subscribes to will definitely set parameters of use. But behavior deviant to ethical norms and laws is always present. Some are caught and are punished, while others get away with it – for a while. It just depends on how much society is willing to tolerate what it frowns on. When that line of tolerance is crossed, the self-preservation and self-defense mechanisms are naturally activated until they devise effective controls.

When technology advances, control mechanisms may get left behind but do catch up. Cyber crimes were born with the advent of the digital age. We were years behind in enacting cyber laws but we have our first ones in place now. And they will get more sophisticated as more loopholes are plugged. Plunder and looting were once the motivation of many wars and were considered just rewards for the victors. Today, there are laws against them. Societies have a way of upgrading themselves – from value systems, ethical behavior, and effective application of the law. That’s how a pendulum swings.

There are existing laws against libel, against slander, against defamation, and similar crimes that tend to destroy the character and reputation of another. The problem, however, is how to prosecute these crimes in the social media arena because of the sheer volume involved. Social media platforms simply accommodate millions. In the case of Facebook, there are reportedly 1.9 billion users. It is Facebook itself that must create and apply controls because new laws cannot simply catch up – unless government uses censorship on the Internet. Already, the governments of Great Britain and the United States are demanding that Facebook becomes more strict in the custody of private data and in blocking sources of fake news. More governments will demand the same, if not more.

The special challenge of the digital age and social media platforms is the emergence of trolls and bots. They are mercenaries but use digital tools. While there is now the capacity to recognize, track and identify many of these, the capacity is not within the grasp of most netizens. In other words, there will be a need for cyber cops, too. Meanwhile, we have to depend on providers of social of media platforms like Facebook to do the first policing. Very quickly, though, if there is money to be made, cybersecurity services will be offered. Cybercriminals will have to stay steps ahead because the effort to catch and prosecute them will become a big global industry.

In other words, it is the unethical and/or perverse intent and behavior of a man that creates fake news. Technology merely magnifies the deviant behavior. The most beneficial and sophisticated technology can be created but the ingenuity of man can somehow use it to hurt others. After all, fake news or lies are mere projections of what is already inside the human attitude. Sick is sick, and technology becomes a tool to spread the sickness with speed and reach.

But the basic goodness and decency of man ultimately win. Societies especially will subscribe to the good and decent despite the errant and criminal behavior of some of its members. That is why technology that meant to destroy, or inherently has a great capacity to do so, like nuclear technology, is intently monitored and restricted. In proportional degrees, the same is applied to other technology that can disrupt and damage. Because the pendulum swings, and swings with a greater purpose.

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