Prone to abuse? House bill seeking to criminalize spread of fake news draws concerns

August 9, 2022 - 5:56 PM
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Fake news reader
Image by memyselfaneye from Pixabay

While generally lauded, the filing of a fake news bill at the House of Representatives concerned a few members of the local online community who perceived it could be prone to abuse by striking critics.

Reps. Josephine Lacson-Noel (Malabon) and Florencio Gabriel Noel (An Waray party-list) sought amendments to the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 under House Bill 2971, which aims to criminalize the “creation and dissemination” of fake news.

The bill defines fake news as “misinformation and disinformation of stories, facts, and news which is presented as a fact, the veracity of which cannot be confirmed, with the purpose of distorting the truth and misleading its audience.”

Misinformation and disinformation, however, have separate meanings.

Misinformation is defined as “misleading information created or shared without the intent to manipulate people,” according to academics. An example would be sharing a rumor that someone died, before finding out it’s false.

Meanwhile, disinformation is defined as the “deliberate attempts to confuse or manipulate people with dishonest information.”

The House bill filed says that “the creation and dissemination of fake news […] committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future” constitute the punishable offense of cybercrime.

The proposed measure says that any person found guilty of the punishable acts shall be punished with imprisonment for six years and one day to twelve years or a fine of at least P200,000.

“It cannot be stressed enough that nowadays, people have been repeatedly misinformed about what they consider to be data and facts through the advent of ‘fake news,'” Lacson-Noel explained.

“Not even credible sources like media outlets and broadcast stations were spared of the false information spread out by paid trolls to distort truth and deliberately mislead people to think the opposite of what is actually happening,” she added.

The lawmaker said that “both misinformation and disinformation must not go unpunished,” believing that it “poisons” the minds of Filipinos by “distorting the truth.”

Their bill does not specify what the “truth” is.

The country has been called “patient zero” for disinformation on social media.

A February 2022 survey by Social Weather Stations notes that some 58% of Filipinos believe the spread of fake news is a serious issue while 51% find it “difficult” to spot fake news.

The proposed measure received laudatory comments from some social media users.

“Ganda sana! Lulusot kaya?” a Pinoy on Twitter wrote.

“Crazy how it’s already 2022, and now pa lang may bill na ganto. Let’s hope na maipasa ‘to, but chances are looking slim,” another Twitter user commented.

But there were those who were more cautionary about the proposal.

“Easy to talk about, hard to write. You’d have to prove it was intentional and malicious, or you risk getting people prosecuted for accidents/misinterpretation. Personally, that will never happen and there’s too much vagueness for it to be effective, but not draconian,” a Pinoy on Reddit commented.

“Ang problema sa ganitong batas ay pwede itong gamitin ng gobyerno para ma-legalize ang persecution ng mga indibidwal na iba ang pananaw sa kanila,” another Redditor said.

“Mas okay na solusyon sa misinformation ang edukasyon kaso mas madali magparusa kesa tingnan ‘yung ugat ng problema kaya lahat na lang iki-criminalize sa bansang ito,” the user added.

“‘Yun lang ang vague ng definition ng fake news. They lumped together misinformation and disinformation. Dapat mag-draft ng criteria na mas specific at may levels of accountability. Pwede itong ma-abuse,” a Pinoy from Twitter said.

“Another thing: who will make the determination of whether something is fake news or not?” another Twitter user commented.

A Reddit user also recalled that Lacson-Noel had been called out by her son before for supporting the controversial Anti-Terror Law and the junking of the ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal.

The Redditor additionally recalled that she also voted for the presidential son to be appointed as senior deputy majority leader the lower chamber despite the latter being a lawmaking neophyte.

The Reporters Without Borders, in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index Report, noted that several countries in Southeast Asia have “adopted extremely draconian laws or decrees in the spring of 2020 criminalizing any criticism of the government’s actions and, in some cases, making the publication or broadcasting of ‘false’ information punishable by several years in prison.”

It said that some countries have “used the pandemic to reinforce obstacles to the free flow of information.”

Disinformation researcher Jonathan Corpus Ong in January 2021 said that the region “has been a leading example of ‘legislative opportunism’ through which moral panics about disinformation have been exaggerated and hijacked by state leaders to gain control over the digital environment.”