The Filipino Language in the Time of Fake News

No less than the President himself admitted—the night after his second State of the Nation Address last month—that his camp hired keyboard warriors to defend him against social media critics and to help him win the presidency.

Responding to a reporter’s question on the recent Oxford study which showed that the President’s camp spent a whooping P10 million for a social media army, Duterte said, “Sa election siguro. Sa elections Ma’am more than… And they were all during the campaign. Pero ngayon, hindi ko naman kailangan.”

More than a year after the national election passionately fought offline and online, it is already an open secret by now that fake accounts have proliferated all over Facebook and Twitter. Some journalists have confirmed the existence of the influential online militia paid to seed and propagate ideas and beliefs online. To plain observers these are the mere anonymous trolls with unverifiable and faceless accounts, unabashedly bashing legitimate netizens simply putting out their views out there. It is a whole lot different virtual world we have right now than we had just half a decade ago.

No matter how damaging these trolls and fake news could be, however, we have quite a few lessons we could learn from them. Unsurprisingly—but not realized by many—what make these keyboard warriors appealing to the unwitting netizens is the effective use of the Filipino language.

With the help of some photos and meme generators, these posts in native tongue regardless of its veracity appeal to the very hearts and souls of the Filipino-speaking netizens who are actually the target of these usually false and malicious content or messages which we often now called as fake news.

The propagators of fake news know very well their mass audience and appreciates the fact that the best way to appeal to them is through the native tongue. Their messaging in Filipino is one of their primary strengths in garnering support online which translates offline or to the real physical world.

Case in point are the countless political viral posts, memes, tweets, online videos—all expressed in Filipino and with reference to the Philippine pop culture—that would attest how Filipino netizens positively (or negatively) engage when messages are packaged and delivered to them in a tongue they understand, no translation needed.

This is often the neglected bit about language: that it is more than a pedagogical tool but a political and cultural vehicle as well.

The Philippine social media experience in the last one to two years, which we could aptly call the Age of Fake News, taught us language indeed is power. While technology has undoubtedly democratized the flow of information since the dawn of the new millennium, we are now seeing the power of language being maximized in every Facebook posts and 140-character tweets.

It is especially true in the Philippines where like in the pre- and post-Commonwealth period, the mastery of language dictates one’s educational attainment—which later in life translates to job or economic opportunities—and which social stratum one belongs to.

While institutions continue to promote Filipino as the lingua franca and official national language under the 1987 Constitution, it is the English language that has continued to become the language of the government, courts, and corporations. In other words, governance and official public discourse remain to be in the foreign tongue since it was imposed to us by the colonizers, and whether we like it or not this is our cultural and historical reality. English is power. It is written in the highest law of the land promulgated by our Consitutional fathers 30 years ago, clearly distinguishing national from official language.

Article XIV Section 6-9, reads:

The national language of the Philippines is Filipino. As it evolves, it shall be further developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages.

Subject to provisions of law and as Congress may deem appropriate, the Government shall take steps to initiate and sustain the use of Filipino as a medium of official communication and as language of instruction in the educational system.

For purposes of communication and instruction, the official languages of the Philippines are Filipino and, until otherwise provided by law, English.

The regional languages are the auxiliary official languages in the regions and shall serve as auxiliary media of instruction therein.

Thus 30 years after, the language divide continues between the English speakers and non-English speakers that is reflective of the great economic divide between the learned and not. We will see this to continue in the near future as the study of our own language is being neglected.

If not for a temporary restraining order of the Supreme Court, the first batch of the graduates under the K-12 program will have six to nine units less of Filipino courses in their college curriculum next school year. The “miseducation” continues when we settle for a language that is devoid of linguistic and cultural identity, and that which does not and will never embody our national aspirations and goals. We can never own something that is never ours to begin with.

The debate on the Filipino language traces its roots to a hundred years back and has been settled already by linguists and scholars alike. Clearly there is no question on the effectivity and efficiency of the lingua franca as a tool for pedagogy and public discourse.

The experience of the Philippine print industry will attest to this. While several English magazine titles folded already in the last few months and while the broadsheets are continued to be challenge by readership and revenue woes, Filipino tabloids remain strong as ever. While the nine Manila-based national broadsheets would have a combined daily circulation of 3 million, the Manila-based Filipino tabloids could easily beat that number. In fact just recently another tabloid in Filipino started printing in Metro Manila.

In the online sphere, meanwhile, we see the success of the Filipino short stories and novels published by Wattpad, which is being read by the younger millennials and by what we now call as the post-millennials or the Generation Z.

We have a lot to learn as well from the active engagement of netizens in Facebook or Twitter or other social media channels, the reason why they are now the main targets and audience of several marketing stunts and strategies.

Now more than ever the Filipino language plays a critical political and cultural role in spreading the truth offline and online and in combating lies, fake news and false information.

More than affirming our linguistic identity, Filipino has a critical role to play too in the heavier task ahead as a medium of instruction: to create a well-educated and critical-thinking generation of Filipinos with empathy for their nation and their kababayans.

Editor’s note: The first version of this essay was published by the Manila Bulletin in August 2017.

About the Author:

Subselfie - Toni

Toni Tiemsin  is‘s Editor in Chief. He is working with Ogilvy’s public relations and influence sphere.

He was previously Media and Communications Officer for children’s rights group Save the Children and Executive News Producer for GMA News and Public Affairs. Journalism 2009, UP Diliman. Read more of his articles here. For his photos, check out his Instagram.

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