[OPINION] Is the market of ideas under siege?

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New press secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles aims to give digital media influencers (bloggers and vloggers) greater access to presidential press briefings through a revamped accreditation system. His predecessor, Martin Andanar, began allowing certain social media personalities to cover special events attended by President Rodrigo Duterte to promote presidential updates online.

Some journalists have expressed concern over the expansion proposal, seeing it as a way to shield the new president from their critical gaze. Then-candidate Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. was often criticized for giving more access to content creators and social media influencers who produced only positive accounts of his election campaign. Obviously, the new general manager must be systematically accessible to all types of media for the next 6 years.

Relevantly, some mainstream media professionals view these “non-journalists” as instinctively drawn to gaining more subscribers and engagements than presenting the hard facts and offering relevant information. And therefore, it is feared that they are only dumbing down the reporting on the president in order to popularize themselves and their works.

But the worst criticism leveled at these social media influencers is that they will say or write just about anything to defend their political boss and also relentlessly malicious critics. Even to the point of poisoning the information ecosystem with lies and hate speech. Regardless that it may further deepen the hyper-partisan divisions plaguing our society today.

Let’s be clear though, that bloggers and vloggers are different from troll farms. The former are new sources of information and insight in the digital age, while the latter are online groups organized to spread disinformation on social media on an industrial scale. Bloggers and vloggers are legitimate players in the news ecosystem, while troll farms are the evil villains in this arena.

In fact, it was recently reported that to show they deserve to be treated seriously, some vloggers and bloggers have banded together to form a professional guild. They aim to be guided by ethics and standards in the performance of their work. As preparation for their increased access to the presidential route, this certainly looks like a step in the right direction. But obviously they still have to prove to the public that they can live up to these so-called ethics and standards.

It is worth mentioning that the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Commission on Elections now regulate the activities of these social media information practitioners. Indeed, blogging and vlogging can no longer be treated as a mere hobby or pastime. These are now recognized as activities in the public interest and therefore require regulatory attention.

On the other hand, legacy media, as the traditional guardians of the news ecosystem, have also been the subject of serious complaints. Bloggers and vloggers have accused some of these mainstream media professionals of being beholden to corporate interests. And that some journalists engage in sensationalism or “tabloid journalism” to make profits for their publishers.

Of course, the mainstream media has also been criticized for being propaganda tools for powerful politicians. It is only recently that some media have been branded as spokespersons for communist terrorist groups. Indeed, some high profile journalists are openly known to engage in partisan political commentary.

The reality is that television, radio and print media are all grappling with issues of public trust. The internet is a technological disruption that has facilitated a multitude of profound challenges for traditional media. One is the decentralization of expression platforms which has led to the expansion of the information landscape to include bloggers and vloggers.

This brings us back to the new administration’s decision to put bloggers and vloggers on the same footing as journalists who cover Malacañang’s beat. Essentially, this means that the government has left it to the public to distinguish between these two sources of information and insight. Alarmingly, the difference between the two is slowly eroding, especially for the less demanding consumer of information.

It cannot be overemphasized that all media professionals are required to convey only the truth to the public. Those who spread misinformation, regardless of the medium, must be rejected. Needless to say, the space to express opinions must be vigorously protected, but this license cannot be used to propagate lies. There may be different points of view, but there cannot be alternative facts. These are standards to which all players in the information ecosystem must adhere.

But in the context of current affairs reporting, particularly involving politics and governance, the real battleground should lie in the intelligence of the coverage and the depth of analysis offered in the story. Indeed, anyone working in this field should be judged on their accuracy, credibility, and ability to explain complex issues. Whether you identify as a political journalist, a provocative blogger, or an activist vlogger, these are standards you must uphold when presenting your work to the news-consuming public.

More importantly, as consumers of information, we must bear in mind the prescriptions of freedom of speech and freedom of the press enshrined in the 1987 Constitution. This means that political discourse in the country should basically be a “marketplace of ideas”. The public space where we discuss politics and governance must accommodate the articulation of views and ideas that “induce a condition of restlessness, create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even incite people to anger”.

We don’t want to see groupthink and echo chambers when it comes to political discourse. On the contrary, we want to see democratic deliberations prevail in this public space. Democratic deliberation means that people come together, on the basis of equal status and mutual respect, to discuss the issues and problems facing them and, on the basis of these discussions, decide on the corresponding reforms that they will undertake collectively.

We must impose this constitutional reference on all types of media professionals, because reporting on politics and government fuels political discourse. Journalists, bloggers, and vloggers can be competitors in this arena, but they must all strive to ensure that the news ecosystem reflects deliberative democracy. We don’t want our politics to be limited to “bardagulan”, do we?

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Editor’s note: The author is a policy analyst, constitutional scholar and professor of law.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ABS-CBN Corp.

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