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The spokesman doth protest too much

I stole the head of the column from the Bard and apologies should be made. But the line from Hamlet, indeed, characterizes the unnecessary complaints of Mr. Roque over Facebook’s choice of fact-checkers, Philippine context. Facebook made its choice in Vera Files and Rappler.

Let it be. Let it go, Mr. Roque.

I don’t do Facebook and I don’t have a single social media account. I am too old, too Luddite and too promdi to engage in such things. I can’t even Google yellow corn prices in Isabela at the moment; these are things you have to get from the regular biyaheros. So, I don’t have a skin in the game over what Facebook does and decides on. But there are some facts that Mr. Roque should realize before he protests—and protests too much—over Facebook’s choice of fact-checkers.

Technology giants, such as Facebook, represent impersonality and agnosticism at its highest. There is always a code, an algorithm that underpins major decisions that are, in principle, free of biases. When Facebook did what it did in the Philippine context, which was to select fact-checkers that would do the job well and without fear or favor in the Philippine setting, it asked its coders and programmers to select the best media-oriented institutions in our country that would purge Facebook accounts suspected of peddling fake news and propaganda.

Choices based not much on human discretion but on algorithm.

The programs they ran said “ Rappler” and “ Vera Files.” No one dares veto the recommendations of the programs and the codes, not even Mr. Zuckerberg. That was it. Those that live on the web die on the web. Mr. Roque should not forget this fundamental fact of technology and the operating principles sacred to Silicon Valley.

Why did the algorithm tilt in favor of Rappler and Vera Files and not the other well-established media entities and institutions? We can’t break the codes that made the choices so we have to rely on common sense.

As the programs processed information on Philippine media, one thing stood out: that there is an official effort on the part of the Philippine government to shut down Rappler. Only a pending court case stands between Shutterville and Rappler. Do you think that factoid would reflect badly on Rappler? No. On the contrary, that current effort to close down Rappler was the first thing that the programs found in favor of Rappler. From the programs’ point of view, that suggested, whether we like it or not, whether Mr. Roque likes it or not, integrity and independence.

Another thing that the programs liked – the Pierre Omidyar connection.

Mr. Omidyar, the founder and first chairman of eBay, the auction site, remains one of the big names in the US technology circles despite his decision to focus more and more on online and investigative journalism. He happens to be a funder of Rappler and his investment in Rappler was what got Rappler in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He has since donated his $1.5 million investment to 14 Rappler managers.

The programs run by Facebook captured the full nuances of the Omidyar involvement with Rappler and that was another very favorable point.

What about Vera Files?

Vera, the Latin word, means verity, true and words associated with the two. The Russian version means “faith.”

With the spread of fake news, the rise of politically motivated trolls and literally unhinged social media posts with no connection to reality and truth, Vera Files combined the energy of its investigative journalism work, its original mission, with prodigious fact-checking.

Fake news uncovered is stamped with a blazing red “fake news” seal to guide people, who want to be informed of the truth, in knowing the real score.

Even memes and photos that spread lies and disinformation are monitored by the Vera Files staff to separate the truth from the lies.

The sustained and relentless effort of Vera Files to expose fake news and unmask the groups and personalities spreading the lies and disinformation is the kind of dogged work that is easy to get captured by an algorithm that is designed to capture and list down credible fact-checkers in the Philippine setting. The Facebook algorithm – this is a decent assumption – instantly captured the work of Vera Files, which led to the decision to tap it for its fact-checking job in the Philippine context. Vera Files is also an accredited fact-checker of a global alliance of fact-checkers, the IFCN.

Another point. Challenging the powers that be is a plus factor and Vera Files has been doing that since Day One of its work.

Yvonne (Chua) and Ellen (Tordesillas) were my co-workers at Malaya during its glory years under the late Joe Burgos. The two, I do not want to go overboard on this, practice the kind of lofty journalism that afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. Exposing in the process, quoting Gay Talese, the warts on the world and the imperfections of people and places.

Yvonne and Ellen have been doing what they are supposed to do without fear or favor and the algorithm captured that, too.

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