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Disinformation and Democratic Decay:
 Why Deceptive

Information Erodes Democratic Institutions, And How to Fight


Forward
The 2nd Conference on Democracy and Disinformation
22-23 April 2019, Auditorium, University of the Philippines, Bonifacio Global City

OUR DEMOCRACY IS SICK AND


TRUTH-TELLING IS THE ONLY ANTIDOTE

by

CONCHITA CARPIO MORALES1


Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (Retired)
and Ombudsman (Retired)

[VIPS…] officers and members of the Consortium on Democracy


and Disinformation, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, a
pleasant afternoon to everyone!

Thank you for inviting me to the 2nd Conference on Democracy


and Disinformation with a timely theme, Disinformation and
Democratic Decay.

It’s been almost nine months since my term as Ombudsman


ended. I promised myself that I would refrain from accepting speaking

1
2016 Ramos Magsaysay Awardee.

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engagements because, among other things, I wanted to spend more time
with my family, especially my grandchildren.

There is, however, a pressing need to explore more areas on


integrity and anti-corruption, reach a wider audience, and involve a
broader set of sectors in nation building. Thus, I welcome this
opportunity to speak before you not as an Ombudsman but as Citizen
Chit.

I am aware that your consortium is made up of “soldiers of


truth” who possess the most lethal of all weapons in today’s post-
truth era: facts—reliable, timely, and unfailing facts. Because of
this, you have become, individually and as part of your respective
organizations, Enemy Number 1 to the purveyors of fairytales and lies
lurking in our midst.

Please allow me to begin by proffering some questions:

1. What can we show to the world to prove that we have


institutionalized democracy in our country?

2. Do average Filipinos understand the workings of democracy


that they will be willing to risk life and limb to protect and
preserve it?

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3. Are we Filipinos politically literate?

I started with these questions not to impute doubt on the ability of


our people and our leaders for critical thinking but to call upon our
citizenry, especially our thought leaders, to engage in individual and
national introspection.

Regrettably, disinformation has distorted reality and conditioned


this otherwise freedom-loving nation in (1) surrendering their rights to
might, (2) accepting intimidation as the norm in governance, (3)
dismissing human rights as figments of imagination and invention of
criminal protectors, and (4) ushering a realm of mistrust in the rule of
law under the pretext of the dire need to effect the promise of change,
swiftly albeit unduly.

Today may be the best time to do our personal and collective soul-
searching because we now live in a world which the English novelist
Charles Dickens aptly described in his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities
as the best of times and the worst of times, the age of wisdom and the
age of foolishness.2

In my keynote message during the U.P. Law Alumni


Homecoming in November 2016, I explained the rationale for self-

2
The Project Gutenberg EBook of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/98/98-h/98-h.htm

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introspection by quoting what author Sarah Chayes recalled from a
local during her assignment in Afghanistan: “The government is your
face. If it’s pretty or ugly, it’s your face.”3

As I explained then, the problem is not because we lack


mirrors but because we do not take time to stand in front of the
mirror and turn on the light to see our faces clearly.

Our country’s democratic quotient has turned from bad to worse.


Perhaps this highlights the urgency for us to stand in front of the mirror
with lights on—now.

To understand our struggling democracy is to identify and


acknowledge the manifestations and root causes of our democratic
deficits and resolve to address them.

The rule of law is the bedrock of democracy. Sadly, in many parts


of the world today, the rule of law is being disregarded, worse, law is
being weaponized. Among us in this forum are victims of this legal
aberration. Another cause of great concern are leaders who could
not only figure out what is legal and illegal but also could not figure
out what is morally right and wrong. The monstrosity of supremacy

3
Vide Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (WW Norton & Company
2015).

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and the trappings of power aptly explain why leaders transform
themselves into autocrats (dictators).

Let us be reminded, no matter how highly we regard ourselves,


there is still a higher order: there exists the overarching rule of law.
The law serves as the proverbial lighthouse that guides our nation as it
charts the course of history. It mirrors the matrix of values or mores of
a given society. As former US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl
Warren stated, “[i]n civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics.” 4 What
keeps the law afloat is the supporting buoyancy of the underlying
ethical values. The legitimacy of any law—or jurisprudence for that
matter—would either sink or set sail depending on the strength of the
“sea of ethics” on which it relies for buoyancy and resilience.

Democracy provides the setting for everyone to exercise her/his


inviolable rights. We must exercise our basic rights to protect and
defend democracy. But the sad truth is human rights have become
incomprehensible or distorted even among those who have sworn to
defend it.

What have our leaders done with our electorate? It is true that in
a democracy, it is the people who are the ultimate sovereign. After all,
only the people or the majority of them can elect the leaders into power
to govern us all. By now, we have to realize that there is logic, no

4
New York Times (November 12, 1962).

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matter how perverse it may seem, why our people continue to elect
“wrong” leaders. Patronage politics and corruption cannot exist without
the other. If we are maddeningly mad with corruption, more so, with
patronage politics that feeds on it. I can only imagine that corrupt
leaders would always rave with the unnecessary excesses and spoils of
corruption. Please excuse the tautology.

For those who may be outside this patronage politics, many


remain apathetic to human rights violations and corruption—
untouched, as they live comfortably anyway, until the next tragedy
hits home, or until a loved one becomes the next victim.

The linkage between human rights and corruption should not be


forgotten. The late U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan explained:

“Corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of


corrosive effects on societies. It undermines democracy and the rule of
law, leads to violations of human rights… Corruption hurts the poor
disproportionately—by diverting funds intended for development,
undermining a government’s ability to provide basic services, feeding
inequality and injustice, and discouraging foreign aid and investment.”5

5
Foreword to the UNCAC publication by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (2004).

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A 2016 study also concluded that when corruption thrives, human
rights are denied, and correlatively, when denial of human rights
continues, corruption persists.6

Disinformation and misinformation are forms of corruption.


It is not difficult to explain why narratives on human rights and
corruption are among the favorite topics for “fake” news and hate
speech by the enemies of democracy.

The doctrine of checks and balances is under threat from


those who cannot bear even fair criticisms. John Adams, one of the
leading advocates of this doctrine and one of the founding fathers who
served as the second president of the United States of America (1797-
1801) has said:7

“A legislative, an executive and a judicial power comprehend the


whole of what is meant and understood by government. It is by
balancing each of these powers against the other two, that the efforts
in human nature toward tyranny can alone be checked and
restrained, and any degree of freedom preserved in the constitution…
(underscoring provided)”

6
Rafanan, A.T., “Asset Recovery as an International Human Rights Response to Violations of the Right to
Corruption-Free Governance: Rethinking the Prospects, Potentials, Predicament and Purpose of an
International Anti-Corruption Court” (unpublished) London, 2016.
7
Wright, B. F. (2016). American interpretations of natural law: A study in the history of political thought. New
Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

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Having served the executive branch and the judiciary, I am
inclined to conclude that the balance has tilted against the judicial
branch. While the 1987 Philippine Constitution enshrined judicial
activism through, among others, judicial review of actions and
decisions of the two other branches, much still has to be done to
promote the independence of the courts. Here, I am reminded of your
recent statement which characterized “a frail and compromised justice
system.” 8 I can’t help but agree with your generous characterization.

The absence of checks and balances mechanism plus a timid


press present a clear and present danger to democracy. One just
has to rule by fear and intimidation to impose tyranny.

And we also have to deal with one inconvenient truth. The


upcoming election on May 13 as we may unfortunately expect, may be
again, a manifestation of our people’s political literacy. I am reminded
that among the frontrunners in the senatorial election are ex-
senators whom I would rather see faulted than elected. How could
we miss the logic why people would still elect them? Apart from the
promises of moons and stars and other ridiculous forms of
entertainment, the people are just as perplexed as any political pundits,
why they remain scot-free and worse, qualified political candidates, in
spite of mayhem? We could not really fault if majority of our people
could only think that the way to extract real benefits from exercising

8
Democracy & Disinformation. Joint Statement on the Harassment of Maria Ressa dated 18 February 2019.

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their power to elect is to be part of the gravy train of patronage politics.
The less privileged is not alone for the blame. Arguably, the truth
should be weaponized to the full extent of shaming these candidates
and their enablers to prevent them from running, if wheels of justice
seemed derailed or too slow to catch them!

Being communication professionals and scholars, I am sure you


are very much aware that the advent of new technology, especially the
social media, is one of the most important inventions of the 21st century
that has the capability to rebuild democracy. The ubiquitous Facebook,
for example, has provided everyone (or shall I say anyone), even those
below 13 years old (which is the Facebook requirement to open an
account), an easy platform to let their voices be heard.

In October 2018, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR)


released its Facebook-commissioned study, Human Rights Impact
Assessment: Facebook in Myanmar.9 The report noted that Facebook
has been “described as having a powerful democratizing effect in
Myanmar by exposing millions of people to concepts like democracy
and human rights, increasing accountability for lawmakers and
enforcers, and providing a communications channel for political
representatives and their constituents. It also provides a learning

9
BSR is a global nonprofit organization engaged in consulting and research that works with its network of
more than 250 member companies. It has offices in Asia, Europe, and North America.

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platform for human rights activists, which improves civic participation
and empowers civil society.”

But as we are all aware, the use of Facebook also has many
downsides. No less than Ms. Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur
on Human Rights in Myanmar, was reported to have said, "I am afraid
that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally
intended.”10

What prompted the UN Special Rapporteur to give this opinion


may be the many documented reports on the use of Facebook to spread
rumors about people and events which have been associated with
communal violence and mob justice and the proliferation of fake
accounts and news pages by organized groups to spread hate speech,
fake news, and misinformation for political gain.

Many of these observations may very well apply to our country


which has prompted many organizations such as yours to push back to
reclaim sanity and order in our virtual public space and for
Facebook to be more serious in enforcing its Community Standards.

The advent of social media saw the birth of post-truth discourses


where emotional impact rather than truth is what matters. There is a

10
Advance Unedited Version Human Rights Council 37th session. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the
Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, 26 February -23 March 2018.

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lack of demand for truthful and honest discourse. Social media has
become a searing battleground for propagandists, apologists, and more
alarmingly, trolls and bots, who foment discord among a vulnerable
and ill-informed population that acknowledges Google as the sole and
primary source of information for just about everything.

But what attracted me most in the Human Rights Impact


Assessment 2018 Report is the observation that the use of Facebook
and smartphones proliferated even before the public has learned
some form of digital literacy. It noted that “the majority of the
population lacks the digital literacy to effectively navigate the complex
world of information-sharing online.” By the way, I was told that in
Myanmar, the internet is Facebook as all internet users are Facebook
users.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Messenger, Viber, among others,


all add to the discordant voices around us. Amidst these loud divergent
views (or shall I say noise) and the incessant hurling of invectives,
there is always room to listen to the voice of principled reason and
the heartbeat of an impassioned conscience. After all, truth is not
measured by decibels.

According to Noam Chomsky, in the right hands, social media


and other technological advances, would be a highly democratizing
device. It could help eliminate the core of the whole system of

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authority and domination. However, it’s not going to develop like that
on its own. People will have to organize and fight to make that sort of
thing ever happen, in fact fight very strenuously for it.11

I fully support the promotion of media literacy to make our people


more discerning and responsible not only in terms of media
consumption but also sharing of media content. Media literacy is our
first line of defense and it has both immediate and long-term impact.
But let it be made clear that media literacy should not be used as an
excuse to curtail freedom of expression.

I appeal to your consortium to hold steadfast to your most


essential goals: pursue, defend, and protect the truth even if many
others may have chosen to do otherwise. Find the truth and expose
the lies.
Be advocates of truth that will empower a nation and its
people to break the bonds of helplessness and wakeup from a world
of comforting illusion.

Our democracy is sick and truth-telling is the only antidote.

Maraming salamat at magandang hapon po sa inyong lahat!

11
Noam Chomsky (2003). Understanding Power: The Indespensable Chomsky. Vintage UK. Random House.

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References:

Business for Social Responsibility. (2018). Human Rights Impact Assessment:


Facebook in Myanmar. Retrieved from
https://fbnewsroomus.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/bsr-facebook-myanmar-
hria_final.pdf

Chayes, S. (2015). Thieves of state: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.


WW Norton & Company

Chomsky, Noam. (2003). Understanding Power: The Indespensable Chomsky.


Vintage UK. Random House

Morales, C. (2018). Democracy and Governance in the Philippines: Deficit,


Surplus, and Unfinished Business. A Policy Forum on Issues of Urgent Concern
for all Citizens.

Rafanan, A.T. (2016). Asset Recovery as an International Human Rights


Response to Violations of the Right to Corruption-Free Governance: Rethinking
the Prospects, Potentials, Predicament and Purpose of an International Anti-
Corruption Court (unpublished) London.

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar


Advance Unedited Version Human Rights Council 37th session. 26 February -23
March 2018

Wright, B. F. (2016). American interpretations of natural law: A study in the


history of political thought. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

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