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Tips on propaganda: Doing, defending against and detecting it

AFTER many years in journalism, and about five as a government spokesman, I think I can confidently write about tips in this kind of endeavor. 

First, ridicule what can be ridiculed, or must be ridiculed. President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. surprisingly demonstrated this “trick” the other day. After he had already turned his back to leave at an impromptu press conference with reporters in Cavite the other day, he faced them again and said with a mischievous smile, “Welcome to Hokkaido!” He then guffawed wildly, turned around and left, waving goodbye. 

He was responding to rumors in social media, that he was in Japan at the height of the typhoon for another R&R, just as he went last month to Singapore to watch the Formula 1 race. Compare Marcos’ jab at that rumor to the Palace’s curt, oh-so-serious statement. “The president is not in Japan.” I think we’ve seen the last of this #nasaanangpangulo nonsense in twitter.

Second, do not highlight your adversary’s main argument or propaganda thrust in your reply. A columnist for instance, obviously a fan of the First Lady, used half of his column space, and put at the front end a tirade by blogger against her, complete with  translation in Filipino.   He practically broadcast in a serious, respected newspaper the rantings of a Canada-based blogger called “Maharlika.” She should have sent him several kilograms of cherries to thank him for making her famous. 

Very few readers read an entire column, truth be told, unless it is so rivetingly written that the writer keeps the reader’s attention to the end. In fact, studies in the US showed that most newspaper readers do not read past the third paragraph of a news article or an opinion piece.

So, in this case, Maharlika’s rants were what most readers read, not the columnist’s sorry attempt at debunking her. Such short attention span of people in this age, and their addiction to soundbites, in fact has made Twitter the biggest social-media platform, which limits tweets to just 280 characters (about 50 words.)

That writer thinking he was effectively defending Mrs. Louise Araneta-Marcos, in fact first put in print what before was a term only whispered in Malacañang comfort rooms: “Imelda 2.0.”

In similar nearly comedic manner, two other articles defending the First Lady announced to the world that term which that blogger viciously tagged her: Babaeng Ahas. To be honest, even if I often wade into the  swamp of the blogosphere,  I hadn’t heard of the term before. One writer even hilariously tried to give the term a benign spin, that the “snake” symbolizes fertility, rebirth, healing medicine,” he says, according to his google search. But 100 percent of Filipinos see a snake as the most treacherous of creatures, a view which the Bible has propagated for 2000 years.  I don’t think any Filipina – or any woman – would like to be dubbed Babaeng Ahas.The First Lady reading those columns,   probably slapped her own forehead in exasperation. 

A third “tip,” if I may still use that term for this point: It is often better to ignore an accusation rather than argue against it. Before the advent of the internet, an adage by PR old-timers goes like this: “Do not argue with a newspaper. You just have one bottle of ink. A newspaper will never run out of ink.”  

That adage has been modernized in today’s digital age: “Don’t pick a fight with somebody which has vastly more eyeballs than you,” with eyeballs referring to the people who usually reads that newspaper’s articles or a columnists’ piece in its internet version. For instance, if your columns have never had 100 eyeballs (those who read it), don’t dare lock horns with a writer whose eyeballs always reaches 2000.

A fourth tip: Contest ASAP, like the day after, misinformation, malicious twisting of data, and biased reporting. This of course is contradictory to the third tip, and it requires expertise in propaganda/PR work (they’re basically the same thing.) in choosing one path from the other.

One of President Macapagal-Arroyo’s, and to some extent of President Duterte’s, shortcomings was that their propaganda teams apparently gave up in the latter half of their terms – she on the corruption charges involving the Chinese firm ZTE, and he on the misinformation spread about the casualties of his anti-drug war.

Fake news, not contested, is repeated. A contested one often fades away. For instance, in 2017, the famous (or infamous now) Columbia University professor Sheila Coronel wrote an article in a prestigious US magazine that Duterte’s drug war even at that early time had “claimed the lives of 9,000 suspected drug dealers and users.” That figure was way over what the police reported, which was 3,000. When I asked her where she got that figure, she said “numerous reports quote that figure,” referring me to those “reports.” Those “reports” were all either by Rappler or by leftist anti-Duterte groups, all of which didn’t explain where they got their figures.

Despite their chest-thumping declarations that they will always “speak truth to power”, publishers and editors see libel charges as a huge pain in the ass, as it requires expensive legal costs in this era when newspapering is always on the brink of bankruptcy, and editors as well as reporters have to attend the court hearings, which as in one case involving the Philippine Daily Inquirer has lasted for nearly a decade.

The fifth “tip” is actually an observation or a warning. Be very, very careful of “social media,” much of which has become a dark world where character assassins and hatchet men roam. The modus operandi of a recent hatchet job is as follows:

The first phase is when paid character assassins with enough audience — in this recent case, these were two popular broadcasters – concoct a case of corruption against the target, and try to popularize a term such as “the million-peso” official, referring to the amount they alleged he extracted from an applicant for a government post. Their boldness in making such allegations is that they do not name the person, but hint only at it. Also, unlike print media, it is difficult to file a libel against a broadcaster, as either his libelous statement aren’t recorded, so he could easily deny he said it. That allegation didn’t get much traction, as the amount they alleged was just so unbelievable. They concoct other allegations.

The second phase is when bloggers and “vloggers”, seeking fame or even fortune, repeat these false claims, some taking the bold step of even naming the target. The mastermind behind this demolition job recruits, to the extent his finances can afford, as many bloggers and netizens to broadcast the lies.

The lies become “truth”, “obvious” since many bloggers assert them, as condemning somebody as a “megalomanic” or asserting a cliché that “power corrupts” feeds on their baser instincts to be at the vanguard of a lynching mob. This happens very easily if the target’s hands are tied, as he cannot reveal facts either because of the attorney-client confidentiality relationship or if he or she would not want to reveal facts that would put his superior or his friend in a bad light. In a few months, the demolition job that was swirling in the dark depths of the swamp that is “social media” rise to the surface – in print media.

And this is the third, most despicable, phase: otherwise level-headed columnists repeat the lies of social media, emboldened – or just too lazy to check the veracity of the reports — as the fabrications had been repeated so many times. That’s when you read phrases written by otherwise careful columnists and reporters, such as “widely believed”, “rumors circulating”, “widespread allegations” – when all of these were merely claims spread by some in social media. The coup de grâce is delivered when a few writers claim certain damnable moves by the target that was disclosed to them by “insiders”, which however we are unable to determine the veracity of.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dorina Rojas

    I hope everyone takes this seriously specially the President’s press staff. As it is now, PBBM seems to be the one teaching them. Propaganda is only for the losers. They suck, them pathetic ones.

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