PH, ‘patient zero’ in fake news epidemic, can learn from Finland
There are many reasons to be envious of Finland.
It’s been named the happiest country on the planet for the fifth year in a row by a United Nations-sponsored index. Corruption Perceptions Index says it’s the least corrupt country in the world. It’s No. 2 in terms of press freedom, No. 3 in transparency and social justice, and No. 4 in gender equality.
But perhaps the biggest reason to envy Finland is its successful fight against disinformation. Its war on fake news has been so successful that it has become the example, with other countries wanting to copy its blueprint as they wage their own battles.
In 2018, Finland made it to the top spot in a study measuring 35 countries and their resilience to the post-truth phenomenon.
That same year, at an event in Germany, Facebook’s Global Politics and Government Outreach director Katie Harbath referred to the Philippines as “patient zero” in the global war against disinformation. Tragically, four years later, patient zero has yet to recover, and continues to be afflicted by fake news, trolls, peddlers of deception masquerading as legitimate news sources, and propaganda.
And it’s not just the massive, orchestrated campaigns by people who have made the act of spreading lies their means of livelihood. Disinformation has become so rampant in this country that even ordinary citizens are now emboldened to produce their own blatant fabrications, seemingly with no fear of consequences.
Case in point: the Cebu Pacific pilot who went viral for claiming that Vice President Leni Robredo caused multiple flight diversions by asking for priority landing—something that has been refuted by both the Office of the Vice President and the airline.
Despite the apology from the airline and despite multiple legitimate news outlets publishing reports on the complete baselessness of the viral story, some Filipinos still continued to believe the pilot’s tale. These are the same people who buy into it all—the spliced videos, the Red-tagging, the revisionism—people who take falsehoods and swallow them as gospel, people who, when forced to look at facts, reply with “Respect my opinion.”
What is it about our country that has made us so susceptible and so gullible to disinformation? Why have we been so willingly pulling wool over our own eyes? Is it even possible to get patient zero on the road to recovery?
Finland shares a border with Russia, and it was Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 that set off alarms for the Nordic country in terms of the potential power of disinformation. “From then on,” Juha Pyykkö, Finland’s ambassador to the Philippines, told the Inquirer, “it was increasingly realized, not only in Finland but everywhere else, that this disinformation is a very powerful tool.”
In that same year, the Finnish government itself launched an initiative against fake news. It makes one wonder if this is possible in a country like the Philippines, where politicians often benefit from disinformation or are even the source of it themselves.
For the past years, the Finnish government and other sectors have been coordinating and cooperating in taking an active stance against fake news.
“The whole society—government, business, civil society, academia, all of them, they get together, and they design the policies, and they decide the call to action. It’s not enough that the government only would be acting on it,” Pyykkö said, adding that if the fight against disinformation wasn’t multisectoral, “the approach will fail.”
In 2019, Jussi Tovianen, who trains Finns how to spot trolls, fake news, half-truths and other forms of disinformation, told CNN: “It’s not just a government problem; the whole society has been targeted. We are doing our part, but it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy. The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”
In Finland, even children are taught media literacy. “We teach kindergarten kids about digital literacy and disinformation,” Pyykkö said. “Teachers have to be trained first and they explain to kids that when you read the news, when you read anything, when you’re on social media, you have to be careful because not everything is as it looks.”
Critical thinking is taught to students at every level. Armed with their gadgets, grade school kids and high schoolers comb through YouTube videos, social media posts, practice differentiating fact from fiction, and learn about media bias.
Trust is essential
Finland has been called a utopia for journalists, and not just because of press freedom. While there are rampant attacks on the credibility of journalism all over the world including the Philippines, the people of Finland top the charts when it comes to media trust, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018.
That means they are less likely to turn to alternative news sources.
Trust is essential to Finland as a nation, said Pyykkö. “In Finland, trust is an important concept. We trust our neighbors, we trust our political opponents, we even trust the taxman. We pay a lot of taxes because we know and trust that we will get a lot in return.”
He acknowledged the need to protect trust during this post-truth era. “Disinformation is obviously a threat to this trust and is a threat to the foundation of a democratic society like Finland,” he said.
Finland’s fight against disinformation has been successful because of two things, Pyykkö said: trust and education.
“In so many respects, education is the key,” he said. “You know, 100 years ago, Finland was a poor agrarian country. In the late 1960s, we were receiving contributions from Unicef (the UN Children’s Fund). It’s not that long ago that we were a developing country, and one of the backbones of our development has always been education—comprehensive education, equal education irrespective of socioeconomic background. Every single kid is entitled to the same high-quality education.”
While different countries want to do it, copying Finland’s approach in fighting disinformation is not going to be easy.
Said Pyykkö: “I find it difficult to compare to other countries because the scenery, the history, the scale is different. That’s something to pay attention to. We in Finland have 5.5 million people, and here in the Philippines, you are 110 million. The scale does matter. You cannot, unfortunately, transplant anything. It takes evolution and development.”
With Finland’s example as the goal, we have a long, long way to go.
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