MANILA, Philippines – When the audience laughed at the most recent sexist statement made by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, it was a moment of clarity for Brother Armin Luistro.
Luistro, president of De La Salle Philippines and former education secretary, said it was this culture of approval and encouragement that fuels the spread of disinformation.
“When you have a president who tells his troops to shoot female combatants in the vagina, followed by a logic that says, if you shoot the vagina and there’s nothing more, then they’re useless, and you have an audience that applauds in respect of that statement, that is the basic architecture that allows fake news to become true, applauded, and valued,” Luistro said on Tuesday, February 13.
“I said, ‘How can a culture that I have grown in…when the Filipinos whom I thought I am part of and whom I think I know just takes shooting the vagina as part of culture we accept?’ I have no answers,” he said.
He was referring to remarks made by Duterte towards female communist rebels, a statement that has since been condemned by human rights groups.
Luistro said it shocked him that Filipinos, even women, accepted Duterte’s statements as a joke. But he said the people’s acceptance of this language and untruths is to blame for the spread of disinformation and fake news in the country.
“We’ve created this architecture where an emperor walks with us with no clothes, and either because we’re afraid of power, we’re too subservient to power, we forget who we are and we take that on,” he said. “I think the fist bump is the basic architecture that allows fake news not only to flourish but to be regarded highly and valued.”
The fist bump is the hand symbol used by the president and his supporters.
Luistro also warned against the effects of such toxic language and disinformation to the Filipino people.
“I am not anti-Duterte. But over the past 1.5 years I have seen not only how power has consolidated and has allowed dissenters to be silenced. Once you have that basic architecture, you don’t only lose a political party, or a government program, you lose and erode the soul of the Filipino,” Luistro said.
“Where is our soul? It’s gone. It’s been eroded. We’re not a nation anymore. And I think that's where we should be focusing all of our efforts. It's not a political move. It’s Filipinos in search of who we are as a Filipino,” he added.
Luistro made the remarks at the Disinformation and Democracy Forum, jointly organized by media groups Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, ANC, Vera Files, and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, as well as educational partners.
The panel with Luistro focused on how the church and the academe can offer solutions.
Father Jett Villarin SJ, president of Ateneo de Manila University who was a panelist, said what has been a source of concern for academics and the church is “the culture that is being created.”
“It’s dangerous, it hurts us as a people. It divides us. A leader has the power to change these things,” he said.
Villarin said Filipinos have fallen for the narrative that they need salvation by a strongman – which is fake news in itself.
“A politician who would want to be a dictator…would present himself as a savior, a messiah. Because we’re so ‘bad.’ And the only way to straighten that badness is for power to take over,” said Villarin.
Luistro agreed, saying this makes all Filipinos at fault for what is happening in the country.
“It’s not one person. It’s every single one of us saying the problems of the Philippines can be magically addressed by one strong person. And the stronger this demigod is, the more magical that solution, I don’t have to do anything. Maybe at the very least I click the like button and therefore leave it to him. I will just be an audience in this wonderful journey of progress and change,” he said.
“I have no answers. I really have no answers. Except to say that I and every single one of you here are part of this architecture because we have allowed it.”
Both religious leaders then offered several solutions that the church and the academe could take part in.
Villarin said public spaces of conversation have been “vandalized” because of the evil words being hurled by outliers both from the far right and far left. He said it is thus crucial to “create spaces, or public sqaures for meaningful conversations where faces are seen and where tones are heard.”
“The internet is not this space for a conversation. We need this face-to-face encounter,” he said.
He also said there is a need to strengthen the voices in the middle, “the silent middle,” and focus on truth tellers or “sources of hope, trust, and conviction.”
Villarin called for wisdom, adding that the hateful voices both online and offline are not just individuals but that there are architects to the disinformation and that it is "structural."
He added it is important for solutions to be transdisciplinary, not just interdisciplinary, and that the academe should look beyond the disciplines and speak to civil society, government, and the private sector, “so we are enriched as well in our thinkings in our research.”
Luistro agreed with Villarin on the need to have more face-to-face conversations and for the church and academe to truly talk to people and understand their concerns.
“Church and academe have traditionally been seen as living in ivory towers, and part of what shook those institutions is a recognition that power cannot reside in a tower. It has to move down to the people,” he said.
He said this is something the government has been able to do: “That’s where the current administration is able to project a perception that they are on the ground via a prospective that says you’re in touch with humanity if you’re able to speak foul language."
He said it is necessary to “come down and connect with people,” and that the church and academe must help them not just to find truth, but truth that “means something concrete for people in the ground.”
Luistro also said it is crucial to have deep respect for the other side and for their decisions.
“I think the temptation is to convince others and join the populist stance that the more we are, we have the better truth. We don’t need numbers. Truth stands on its own,” the former education chief said. – Rappler.com