Baler (Philippines) (AFP) – A room full of Filipino police and soldiers stares intently at headlines projected on a screen, the latest students of a media bootcamp aimed at fighting their nation’s flood of fake news.
Scores of people ranging from girl scouts to government workers have already received the same innovative instruction in the Philippines, ranked the world’s top user of social media.
“Which one is real?” asks class teacher Rowena Paraan, a veteran journalist with the top Philippine TV network ABS-CBN, as she stands in a sweltering gym on a military base.
Her lesson is part of the channel’s long-running citizen journalism training programme, which since late-2016 has shown some 25,000 people how to fight the fake news spike that accompanied President Rodrigo Duterte’s rise.
The first headline zeroes in on the nation’s struggle against the infamous jihadists on its southern islands: “Donald Trump sends 5,000 troops to fight Abu Sayyaf”.
It’s fake and several students quickly shoot up their hands to say so. But subsequent headlines get harder and harder until the only sound is Paraan’s footsteps as she paces among the students.
The training, which is delivered free-of-charge to groups who request it, provides an overview of how fake news works as well as techniques to spot and debunk it.
It is one of several similar efforts that have sprouted up since Duterte’s election, including one run by the news website Rappler, known for battling with the president over his brutal drugs war.
Formats and content vary, but generally the classes are run by journalists teaching social media-obsessed youth how not to get fooled online.
Paraan says the risk of being manipulated has serious consequences.
“It (fake news) generated more support for the president… either it encouraged you to hate the president’s enemies or urged you to support the president,” Paraan tells AFP, referring to Duterte’s 2016 election.
Duterte’s camp has repeatedly been accused of employing online trolls to sing his praises and savage dissenters with fierce words or even threats.
– ‘Be our own gatekeepers’ –
Some of Duterte’s inner circle have been caught passing on false information, including his one-time campaign spokesman.
His government has been largely quiet on the classes, but has spoken against a bill in Congress that would penalise public officials who spread fake news.
One of Paraan’s pet examples of pro-Duterte fake news is the US space agency NASA allegedly recognising him as “the best president in the solar system”. It was shared more than 6,500 times on Facebook.
“Hello? Did they canvass Mars, Pluto and other places?” Paraan asks with mock seriousness.
Among the nearly three dozen police and soldiers in class is officer Bernadette Leander, who came because she has already tangled with fake news at work.
After a rumour circulated on social media that Duterte had doubled all police officers’ salaries, the local force was deluged with inquiries from potential recruits.
“People started asking us about it. We told them it wasn’t true,” Leander, who works in public affairs, told AFP. “We had to conduct an information campaign (against it).”
One of the reasons the Philippines is a key battleground for fake news is the sheer volume of its online activity.
According to consultancy We Are Social, the average Filipino spends nearly four hours per day on social media, the most in the world.
Facebook said the Philippines — home to 106 million people — has 69 million users, the sixth-largest country group.
With some 10 million Filipinos living abroad, the size of the diaspora goes some way towards explaining the country’s fondness for social media.
“We always want to connect to our family members and friends from far away, and one way to do that is through social media,” said Rica Oquias, managing director of Manila digital marketing firm M2Social.
Another factor may be the free but limited internet connection Facebook provides to mobile users in developing countries including the Philippines since 2015.
Paraan said this arrangement is potentially fertile ground for fake news because users only see headlines and would need to buy data to click-through to read a full story, key to evaluating its authenticity.
The classes, though, give average people some of the tools they need to fight back, said Luz Rimban, executive director of the Asian Center for Journalism in Manila.
“There’s a flood of information and so we have to be our own gatekeepers,” she added.