Hindsight No. 7: Disinformation and Democracy

Hindsight for Monday, February 28, 2022

(Image from designtaxi.com)

LAST FRIDAY—the 36th anniversary of EDSA 1—I spoke to a group of university students who wanted to know what I thought of Filipino democracy. 

I told them that at EDSA, along with millions of other Filipinos, I jumped for joy at the news that Ferdinand Marcos had fled with his family. We did not know—and might not have cared too much then—that they had brought two planeloads of gold and cash with them to Hawaii. All we wanted to hear was that they were gone, presumably for good, and that we were off to a fresh start at peace, freedom, justice, and prosperity. The darkness of the past twenty years would lift, and a new Philippines would emerge, truly democratic and firmly opposed to any form of despotism.

Today we realize what a fantasy that was, what a temporary reprieve. Under Rodrigo Duterte, if the polls are right, most of our people have once again embraced authoritarian rule, implicitly accepting its attendant excesses. The dictator’s son is back, and may even become our next President—to the delight of his supporters for whom martial law never happened; or if it did, then it was a golden age to which we will soon be returning, an age of new roads and bridges, clean streets, industrial peace, Miss Universe pageants, and eternal sunshine. 

Indeed it would be as if the past half-century between 1972 and 2022 were a confused and hazy dream, and now we were waking up where we had left off yesterday, when Ferdinand E. Marcos was poised to “save the Republic and build a New Society.” His son is making sure that we don’t miss the connection by heralding his entrance at his campaign rallies with the anthem of martial law, “May Bagong Silang.” Most of his followers today have never heard that song, or understand its chilling context, or the price we paid—in blood and in billion-dollar loans—for that “new dawn.” To them, it is a catchy jingle, in marching tempo. It comes with the smell of money and power in the air, the promise of a shower of gold for the hopeful masses. 

This, of course, is also a fantasy, but a powerful one—and I think I will be correct to surmise that many of the students I addressed, and even their teachers, fully believe it. And why not? They were never taught in school about the horrors of martial law. Instead, they were told that those were good times, that the Marcoses were good leaders who were deposed by their enemies and the CIA, that rich people don’t steal, and that the Marcos billions came from the gods, Yamashita, and anywhere but the Philippine treasury. That diet of lies has now become a catered banquet. 

The biggest enemy of democracy today—more than at any other time in our or even the world’s history—is disinformation: the willful distortion or fabrication of information to create false beliefs or impressions in the minds of people, turning bad to good, wrong to right, and vice versa. 

This is happening not only here in the Philippines, but in many other places around the world—including America, where Donald Trump has been pushing the “Big Lie” of a stolen election, despite the lack of any credible evidence. Even earlier, in what has by now become a cliché, Josef Goebbels thundered that if you repeat a lie a thousand times, it becomes the truth. 

During and after WWII, military experts engaged in what was called “psywar” or psychological warfare to weaken the enemy’s mental defenses, lower morale, and make people switch sides. This was done through radio, leaflets, newspapers, and other media available at the time.

Today the prevalence of the Internet and social media has magnified the means for disinformation by a magnitude of millions. And this is scary, because according to a recent survey, every other Pinoy can’t tell real news from fake. How can a society so prone to disinformation—to fake news—function well as a democracy?

Last month, the Akademyang Filipino (on whose Board of Trustees I serve) sponsored a forum on the topic of “Can Democracy Win in May 2022?” Most such questions are meant to be rhetorical, with obvious answers. But this time, the more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by its actual complexity. The problem, I realized, is that we no longer have a clear and common idea of what “democracy” means.

There are as many definitions of democracy as there are politicians eager to appropriate it. “Democracy” has to have been one of the most ambiguous and most abused words of the 20th century, going into the 21st. When a brutal totalitarian state like North Korea styles itself as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” you know something somewhere has gone awfully wrong. Dictators will call their actions democratic—as Ferdinand Marcos and Muammar Ghaddafi did—by asserting that they are acting on behalf of the people, a responsibility that presumably entitles them to extraordinary powers and compensations.

In my layman’s understanding, democracy is the rule and exercise of power by the people through representatives they choose by a free and fair election. It seems simple, but immediately we can see how vulnerable this definition of democracy is to interpretation and manipulation. What is a “free and fair” election? Does it simply mean an election free of vote-buying, coercion, and fraud?

If a candidate wins more than 51% of the vote without obvious coercion or cheating, then will that candidate have won a democratic election? But what if those voters had been fed provably false information? What if they willingly believed that information to be true, and voted on the basis of it? Would this still be democracy at work? 

Arguably, yes, because democracy never promised only intelligent outcomes. Elections are emotional, not rational, exercises. This disturbs me deeply, but again I have to ask myself, am I idealizing democracy as something that can be perfected? Or should I just accept that democracy, like society itself, is inherently messy, mercurial, and manipulable? 

What kind of democracy do we Filipinos have, and what kind of democracy do we want? The vote this May will help provide the answer. 

Hindsight No. 4: Denial and Dissonance

Hindsight for Monday, February 7, 2022

(Image from contemplativestudies.org)

I FIRST heard the phrase “cognitive dissonance” fifty years ago in UP from my friend Jose “Oying” Rimon, then a Mass Comm major just grasping the mechanics of social behavior. Oying would go on to become a population expert and close adviser to Bill and Melinda Gates on public health, capacities in which he had many occasions to see cognitive dissonance at work in shaping people’s attitudes and responses to development policy. 

I’m not a psychologist, so I’m going to have a real one, Dr. Sam Mcleod, explain what the concept means: “Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance…. When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.” 

The examples that usually turn up in the literature are fairly simple: you smoke, but know that smoking is bad for you; you know you need more exercise, but put it off for tomorrow, citing the workload on your desk.

Why is this relevant to our present situation? I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let me quote from an article by Dr. Eddie Harmon-Jones in Psychology Today wondering why so many Christian Americans still voted for and supported Donald Trump despite his patently un-Christian behaviors, such as adultery. “As president, he has engaged in many actions that seem immoral. How do so many still support him? Surely they must experience dissonance over this. How do they reduce this dissonance?” (For that matter, why did so many conservative Fil-Ams vote for Trump on the excuse that he was supposedly “pro-life,” ignoring his many other moral infirmities?)

Why do people believe what they want to believe, regardless of the hard facts and figures in front of them? How do they reconcile these contradictions in their minds to feel like they’re doing the right thing and to feel better about themselves? (The science suggests that we humans have a natural impulse toward feeling good.)

This is what the psychologists call reducing or resolving dissonance—accepting or acknowledging what the more logical part of your brain is saying, but then coming up with a rationalization or justification for sticking to your original belief anyway; or, with much more effort, you find a reason to cross over to the other side. Sure, smoking is bad for me, but so is anxiety; sure, maybe vaccines work for other people, but I’m not like other people—I haven’t been sick in twenty years; sure, I lied on my tax declaration—but haven’t bigger people done much worse?

Dissonance is a shade different from denial, which is the outright rejection of proven or provable fact. Holocaust deniers will insist it never happened; other neo-Nazis will say it did, but that the Jews brought it upon themselves, or that Hitler wasn’t to blame for the genocide. 

This is the stuff that conspiracies and conspiracy theories are made of—a little truth here and a little truth there, interwoven by threads of fanciful fabrications to create some semblance of alternative logic. Spun imaginatively and cast widely enough, this web of lies can begin to acquire the sheen of truth, or what passes for it among its believers.

Are those believers stupid or crazy? Not necessarily. An interesting paper by the psychologist Andrea Kohn Maikovich argues that terrorists aren’t simply the hate-filled loonies they’re often pictured to be. Rather, recruits go through a radicalization process during which they negotiate between their personal predisposition not to commit violence and the collective pressure to do more than carry placards on the street. When the dissonance hits its peak, some leave; those who stay have found a way to convince themselves that violence is good and necessary.

Writing for the Atlantic Monthly on “The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic,” Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris note that “When people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology, or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for them and distort or ignore the evidence that challenges those loyalties. The social psychologist Lee Ross, in laboratory experiments designed to find ways to reduce the bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, took peace proposals created by Israeli negotiators, labeled them as Palestinian proposals, and asked Israeli citizens to judge them. ‘The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians,’ he told us.”

In this context, it isn’t hard to see why pro-Marcos narratives can seem so compelling to many Filipinos, despite the clear and documented evidence of ill-gotten wealth (let’s say it plainly: theft), brutality, deception, and other abuses of power during the martial law years. They’re rich and powerful—which we all want to be—so they must have done something right.

People who are already rich don’t steal; it wasn’t FM Sr. who committed martial law’s excesses, but his administrators; EDSA 1 was nothing but a CIA operation; Imelda was never imprisoned, so she can’t be guilty of any charges thrown at her; the younger Marcoses knew nothing about what was going on, and so will be different from their parents; if the Marcoses were bad, the Aquinos and Lopezes are worse; et cetera. If you feel comfortable with any of these ideas, then you’ve made your own kind of sense of the past, even if you may not even have been there.

Of course, I have my own set of stubborn core beliefs and dissonances as well. I keep holding on to the idea that Filipinos are worth dying for, only to be disappointed by the way many of us choose our leaders. I believe in democracy, but I feel frustrated when it’s gamed by people who obviously don’t care much about it. 

According to cognitive dissonance theory, something has to give: your cherished notions, or the hard truth. It seems much easier just to give up hope, but there’s no real comfort nor resolution in that, either.