Friday, September 11, 2009

The vulnerabilities of our free speech and press freedom

Free speech and press freedom are beautiful in theory; in practice, however, they can often be used for organized, large-scale deception or outright lunacy masquerading as legitimate news or informed opinion. Let’s face it: when national election season comes in our country, political operators ruthlessly manipulate the print and broadcast media to advance their interests, and some candidates with obviously low levels of intelligence or discernment make fools of us—and often make such fools of themselves as well—by mouthing uninformed, superstitious, or daft statements on television or radio.

Network TV and radio are, of course, highly vulnerable to this abuse of the freedom of self-expression. This is in sharp contrast to practically all of the other information media, which have strong built-in checks against such abuse—newspapers, magazines, and other printed literature have copyeditors and photo-editors to prune out excesses in the written word and in visuals, while movies, video shows, and other forms of canned entertainment have directors, editors, and producers to methodically expunge excessively abusive language and images. But not so with live TV and radio broadcasts, where hardly any form of regulation is exercised over messages and language being aired live during news coverages or live talk shows. (Remember that time in the recent past when, on stage during a political rally in Makati City covered live by network TV and radio, a high elective public official made such a sordid spectacle of himself by spouting a particularly vile obscenity against the country’s president?)

Indeed, through these two very powerful and highly pervasive media, anybody can say any fabrication, self-serving propaganda, or utter nonsense in front of the video camera direct to millions of viewers or listeners. Lately, in fact, in the guise of instant opinion polling during talk shows on controversial topics, some TV channels now also blithely allow libelous text messages or outright invectives to scroll continuously at the bottom of the TV screen. Where is the wisdom, good judgment, and sense of fair play in such forms of unbridled media abuse? What happened to the need for civility and decency in our public discourse?

We can only hope that no matter how heated the forthcoming polical campaign turns out, our country’s broadcast TV and radio networks will not abdicate their responsibility for restraint and self-regulation. They should be ever be self-aware and vigilant that apart from being the most manipulative of all the mass media (a power that can actually be harnessed for the public good), they are the most easily manipulated mass media as well. For their own long-term survival, they shouldn’t allow this country’s much-vaunted free speech and press freedom to go straight to the gutter.

Related to these thoughts of mine, many of which I had previously expressed in my columns in The Manila Times shortly before and during the 2004 national election campaign season, I wrote the essay below, “Caution in times of reasonable doubt,” to remind us to be much more discerning and critical when subjected to the barrage of election propaganda from all sides of the political spectrum. I feel that the points I raised in this essay have once again become relevant now that we are seeing the beginnings of another season of ruthless character demolition and counterdemolition.

Related Reading:

It’s not only in the Philippines that civility in public discourse is seeing serious erosion. In the United States, as if taking the cue from the strident, demonizing language that we hear day in and day out in our domestic TV newscasts, a Republican representative called the US president a liar while the latter was addressing the US Congress.

Do we bewail or cheer the parallel?

Read “‘You lie!’ further erodes discourse” in Yahoo News

Caution in times of reasonable doubt

There was a time when the spread of false information took a much slower and largely linear path. A jealous or enraged person concocts a lie against a perceived enemy, whispers the lie to a neighbor’s ear ostensibly in the strictest of confidence but certain that in no time at all, that neighbor will break that confidence and whisper the same lie to another neighbor, who, in turn, can be expected to ensure that the process gets repeated ad infinitum. The lie then acquires an attractive reality of its own. Still, there was a downside to the process. Word of mouth was relatively slow, so even the most resourceful prevaricator needed at least a few days or weeks to fan the tiny flame of a lie to a major conflagration.

Modern communications technology has changed all that. These days, radio and TV, the daily papers, landline and mobile telephony, e-mail, and now even the mechanisms of the law itself make disinformation as fast as blabbering a sound-bite over the broadcast networks, punching the “Send” key of a cellular phone or computer keyboard, or filing fabricated charges against one’s target in a fiscal’s office. Organized deception has become a thriving industry, ruthlessly exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities of the very same mechanisms that make democracy possible.

This is clearly manifest in the current election campaign. Every seeker of public office is a prime target. Both the good and the bad are fair game for political demolition. Each of them—whether a true leader, visionary, zealot, crackpot, or nincompoop—is prey to the dangerous phenomenon described by the British psychologist R. H. Thouless in his “Law of Certainty”: “If statements are made again and again in a confident manner, then their hearers will tend to believe them quite independently of their soundness and of the presence or absence of evidence for their truth.”

Thouless has pinned down one fundamental flaw of the human psyche: its profound tendency to believe statements based on repetition instead of actual evidence. Of course, few would take pleasure in the notion that even the intelligent and more discerning among us can be so gullible, but other investigators have validated the “Law of Certainty” and have come up with even more disturbing corollaries: (1) The exposure effect, demonstrated by Borstein in 1989, which states that repeated exposure of people to a stimulus results in the enhancement of their attitude toward it; (2) The twin repetition-validity effect and the frequency-validity effect, established by Brown and Nix in 1996, the first confirming that belief in a supposed truth increases with repeated exposure to it, and the second, that the rated truth of a stimulus is determined by how often it is repeated; and (3) The truth effect, demonstrated by Schwartz in 1982, which states that when messages of questionable truth value are repeated, their repetition tends to move their truth-value ratings toward the truer end of the scale.

The “Law of Certainty” and its corollaries are, of course, the principal tools of ideologues, religious extremists, and political propagandists in foisting untruths in the minds of their targets. They know that by sheer repetition, the feeble resistance of rationality soon caves in and crumbles. This is why in this election campaign season, practically all of the communication channels in our midst are bristling with deceptive messages. Their financiers and practitioners have no time to lose and everything to gain, and can take comfort in the fact that the effort costs so little and that the laws against it are so weak and inutile.

Now, the big question we have to ask ourselves is this: Shall we be sitting ducks to these blatant deceptions? What is our defense against the syndicated lie and half-truth? Thouless gave us what I think is a sound course of action: be thoughtful and skeptical, and adopt a position of caution when there’s reasonable cause for doubt about a particular assertion. In plainer terms, we should never, ever make a fool of ourselves by taking scurrilous political messages at their face value.

So the next time we see a derogatory blind item in the papers, a slanderous e-mail in our electronic mailbox, or a poison text message on our cellular phone, we should not honor it even with a single thought. We should resist the temptation to pass it on. We should stop it on its tracks by skipping it or by zapping it with the “Delete” button. That’s the only way we can run the character assassins out of business. If we don’t, who knows, they just might succeed in getting us to elect people who will send this country further down the road to perdition.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 27, 2004 issue © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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