Is Our Freedom of Speech Under Attack?

 (Source: MjK Photography/Flickr)

(Source: MjK Photography/Flickr)

As Filipinos and Filipino Americans, we are a freedom-loving people. Freedom is ingrained in our psyche and our history. From Lapu-Lapu's resistance to Ferdinand Magellan's conquest to the underground revolutionary movement during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, our spirit of freedom rings loud and clear.

In modern history, the Filipinos' love for freedom came to life, not once, but many times on EDSA, resulting in the overthrow and displacement of presidents while providing an undisputed testimonial to the power that emanates from the people.

But it seems our continued quest for freedom has come to life in another venue and another issue: social media and the right of free expression.  The power of the Internet has enabled every freedom-loving netizen to express personal views and debate issues without fear of filter or censorship.

Realizing this power to reach the largest possible audience, even the news media as well as individual journalists have used social media to expand their bully pulpit (no pun intended). Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networking sites have become, so to speak, a melting pot of ideas.

Lately, however, this freedom of expression has taken a new turn, and many fear there have been attempts to curtail it.

Facebook Accounts Taken Down

In the Philippines, social media have become venues for fierce competition between bloggers and legitimate journalists and between individuals and groups with opposing political leanings.  But they have also become vehicles for bullying, for the spread of untruths, and a numbers game.  As a result, we have been seeing action being taken against social media accounts.

Just a few weeks ago, the verified personal Facebook account of veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona was disabled by Facebook, without any explanation, for hours. 

 Journalist Inday Espina-Varona (Source: linkedin.com)

Journalist Inday Espina-Varona (Source: linkedin.com)

"Today, I find myself blocked with this notice," Espina-Varona told another journalist, referring to a Facebook notice stating her profile is under review.  It is believed that Espina-Varona's account was blocked (it was later reinstated) as a result of reports from netizens who oppose her views.  Of late, the journalist has criticized the decision to allow the remains of the late Ferdinand E. Marcos to be buried in Libingan Ng Mga Bayani (LNMB).

This is not the first time that groups and individuals posting comments had been blocked on Facebook.

Back in June, the account of the Economic Journalists Association of the Philippines (EJAP) was taken down by Facebook after the group posted a statement criticizing President-elect Rodrigo Duterte's statement on media killings.

The same happened to one account petitioning to ban the Facebook page of Duterte supporter, entertainer-turned-political blogger Mocha Uson. Ironically, a counter petition defending Uson gained almost an equal number of signatures without the account of the author being taken down.

Also in June, TV5 anchor Ed Lingao's page was taken down because he criticized Duterte's support for the burial of Marcos at LNMB and was slapped with the same reason that Varona's page was blocked: violation of community standards.

Ironically, the threat to freedom of speech is not necessarily emanating from government, but from the people themselves: supporters and critics alike of politicians and personalities. (President Duterte has said repeatedly: "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.")

(Read: http://news.abs-cbn.com/news/11/25/16/duterte-to-black-friday-protesters-i-will-defend-your-right-to-speak). 

The netizens are emboldened by the "power" given them by Facebook and other social media networks to report such "violations."  Sadly, it appears that action on these reports are triggered by algorithm more than by human editors.

Needless to say, many reports have no factual basis.  Rather, they seem to border on partisanship and the clash of political opinions.

Facebook Apology

When the multiple account lockouts in the Philippines were brought to the attention of Facebook, the social media platform apologized. 

"Security is a top priority for Facebook, and we devote significant resources to helping people protect their accounts and information. We’ve built numerous defenses to combat phishing and malware, including complex automated systems that work behind the scenes to detect and flag Facebook accounts that are likely to be compromised."

Furthermore, Facebook said, "In this instance, these systems prompted us to ask a set of people to secure their accounts and the precautionary step was not needed in this case."

According to Facebook, one report is enough to take down content if it violates their policies. Similarly, multiple reports will not necessarily lead to the removal of content if Facebook's standards are not violated. (Read: https://www.facebook.com/communitystandards)

Social Media and the U.S. Presidential Campaign

In the United States, both the news media and netizens have also come under attack, including by no less than President-elect Donald Trump.

Trump has slammed journalists as being out of touch with working Americans, saying: “The media is (sic) entitled, condescending and even contemptuous of people who don’t share their elitist views.” He had warned vaguely of those who “rig the media” and said: “They can wield absolute power over your life, your economy, and your country.”

Ironically, Trump himself uses his Twitter account to attack those who oppose his views. During the campaign, he has banned journalists critical of his campaign from attending or covering his sorties.

His latest tweet suggested that people who burn the American flag out of protest should be punished for their actions, including possible jail time or removing their citizenship rights as a result. The tweet was especially notable because it seemed to look past two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that held flag burning is form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. 

Then, in a speech at the U.S.S. Yorktown in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina last week, Trump referenced the use by ISIS of social media as a recruitment tool. He recommended a discussion with Bill Gates to shut off parts of the Internet. (Read: http://money.cnn.com/2015/12/08/technology/donald-trump-internet/index.html)

"Crackdown" on Fake News?

On another front, many believe that social media communities played a large role in gathering young voters for the 2016 election. Although Mark Zuckerberg, post-election, dismissed the notion that Facebook had any influence over the election outcome, he has announced that the popular social media network is taking steps to weed out fake news which escalated during the campaign period.  Other sites, including Google, are following suit.

While many welcome the "crackdown" on fake news and trolls on the Internet, others fear that it might impact other blogs, legitimate news sources as well as sites considered to be satire.

 One of the so-called "keyboard warriors," online trolls who get paid per post to sway people's opinions through incendiary comments. (Source: Franco Francisco) 

One of the so-called "keyboard warriors," online trolls who get paid per post to sway people's opinions through incendiary comments. (Source: Franco Francisco) 

 A sample of fake and satire sites compiled by memebuster.net

A sample of fake and satire sites compiled by memebuster.net

Freedom of speech comes with a certain amount of responsibility but such responsibility should be practiced by both sources and consumers.  While sources need to be truthful about their posts, and include appropriate disclaimers, readers should also take it upon themselves to fact-check what they read and refrain from spreading lies or obvious trolls by unverified and untraceable sources.

Social media should remain an open venue for news and opinions because freedom of speech always borders on two sides of every issue.  Netizens should be more discerning about what they read before sharing away.

It is also important to differentiate between fake news and satire, a centuries-old form of free expression. Imagine “Saturday Night Live” being banned from TV!

As a satire writer myself, I always tell people: Fake news is when someone posts that "Jackie Chan has died." Satire is when a post says that Jackie Chan is "collecting proceeds from his life insurance after reports of his repeated deaths."

Above all, our freedom of speech should not be curtailed just because a number of people disagree with what we say.  After all, they have the same freedom to say what they want to say.

As far as "community standards" are concerned, it should include a commitment to freedom of expression by those who have the power to curtail it. After all, free speech is a hallmark of Democracy -- cherished by Filipinos and the global community.

We should all be vigilant about fake news, trolls and propaganda on the Internet.  But we should be equally vigilant about any efforts to take away our freedom of speech. After all, it is a right guaranteed by the Constitution.


 Rene Astudillo

Rene Astudillo

Rene Astudillo is a writer, book author and blogger and has recently retired from more than two decades of nonprofit community work in the Bay Area. He spends his time between California and the Philippines.


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