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What Rizal taught us about the pitfalls of spreading and reading fake news

6/19/2021 3:15:00 AM

Sa ika-160 anibersaryo ng kapanganakan ni Dr. Jose Rizal , balikan ang mga aral mula sa kaniyang mga akda. Basahin: Maligayang kaarawan, Gat Jose Rizal.

So what is thein the time of fake news? Three timeless writings of Rizal that touch on the issue of truth and reason may enlighten us. First page of El Filibusterismo manuscript. Wikipedia.org Rizal and Fake NewsIf Rizal along with other propagandists like Marcelo H. Del Pilar and Antonio Luna were alive today, they might find the phenomenon of fake news as nothing strange. During their time, they themselves were subjected to similar fabrications and attacks from newspaper editorials. 

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As members of the Propaganda Movement, they were engaged in an information campaign, and part of their advocacy was to push for reforms in the Philippines. They advocated for equal rights, better justice and education, and the transfer of parishes to Filipino secular priests. This advocacy drew the ire of certain people in power in Spanish colonial Philippines, the Spanish friars who cling to their influential stature among them. 

La Solidaridad. Photo from Wikimedia CommonsThe editorial attacks tried to discredit the Ilustrados by spreading exaggerated, prejudiced or even false claims against them. Rizal and his comrades answered back with articles and essays via allied newspapers and magazines and their own newspaper  headtopics.com

La SolidaridadIn Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, one often overlooks the character of Ben Zayb, the writer for a newspaper who exaggerates reports and changes the details to make his stories interesting. He also writes to please authorities and could be considered a “sipsip” (suck-up).

One such instance is when he writes a story where a friar single-handedly faced off with 50 bandits who tried to take away tens of thousands of pesos. Zayb wrote his exaggerated version of the story first without checking the facts. And when he went to confirm the details, to his dismay he found Padre Cammora nursing a concussion after being robbed of a mere 50 pesos by three bandits. Zayb berates the injured friar saying you know nothing of what actually happened to you.

Rizal said on Chapter 36 of El Fili that “his articles can be likened to wine laden with poison… the articles of Ben Zayb take effect may it be read or not by Filipinos”.Reading about the fictional exploits of Ben Zayb maybe comical but they could be interpreted as people who create and spread fake news for one’s personal gain. Rizal said on Chapter 36 of El Fili that “his articles can be likened to wine laden with poison… the articles of Ben Zayb take effect may it be read or not by Filipinos”. In the context of fake news, once it spreads, the damage has already been done. Peddlers of fake news can be likened to Ben Zayb.

Rizal’s Letter to the Young Women of Malolos touches on women empowerment, true Christianity, and the importance of critical thinking. “Rizal, The Reformist” by Martino A. Abellana via joserizal.comRizal’s Letter to the Young Women of Malolos headtopics.com

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 is a must-read not just to understand the importance of empowered women in society but because of the importance of having one’s own mind. The letter is most notable among Rizal’s other writings as it is one of the few written in Tagalog and touches on three key issues: women empowerment, true Christianity, and the importance of critical thinking.

Before ending the letter, Rizal lays down seven points of reflection. On the third point he writes that, “ignorance is slavery, for the mind reflects the person: a person without one’s own mind has lost his humanity; one who blindly follows another else’s will is like a beast led by a leash.”

“Ignorance is slavery, for the mind reflects the person: a person without one’s own mind has lost his humanity; one who blindly follows another else’s will is like a beast led by a leash.”But the most striking would be his sixth point where he writes: “everyone is born equal, naked and without chains. Not created by God to be enslaved, not endowed with intelligence to be blinded, and not adorned with reason to be deceived by others. It is not pride to refuse to worship a fellow man, to enlighten the mind, and to reason out everything. The arrogant one is he who wants to be worshipped, who misleads others, and wants his will to prevail over reason and justice."

 “How to Deceive the Native Land” is a must-read for teachers and students of history and Rizal. Often overlooked as an editorial response to an editorial published by La Voz de España, a pro-friar publication that severely attacks the dignity of Filipinos, it is one of Rizal’s most relevant writing which deals with freedom of expression and the search for truth. Here, Rizal writes that, “neither hiding the truth and fanaticism, nor oppression or superstitions ever have united nor will they ever unite peoples. On the other hand, liberty, rights and love bind different races around the same flag, a single aspiration, and one destiny.” headtopics.com

In thewritings of Rizal, we find the word ‘obscurantism’ which means the deliberate prevention of the spread of knowledge or truth. In their advocacy, obscurantism, not ignorance, is the enemy of reason. For ignorance can be cured with knowledge and reason, while obscurantism is deliberate misinformation.

The editorial attacks were meant to discredit Rizal and the other ilustrados. Discrediting valid concerns and criticism in the pursuit of unity is hypocritical and deceptive. One’s responsibility is to uphold the truth even at the cost of one’s personal comfort nor safety. 

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In the writings of Rizal, we find the word ‘obscurantism’ which means the deliberate prevention of the spread of knowledge or truth.Rizal and other propagandists did not fold to public harassment but rather continued for the sake of justice and reason. In a similar way, modern-day misinformation never unites a nation, it just turns people against one another, and obscurantism furthers this division. Alas, a divided people are easily conquered and oppressed.

Finding the truth might be difficult but should never be taken for granted. Those calling out the wrongs of society should never be dismissed nor discredited for society is not perfect and the first step to addressing a problem is talking about it. All attempts to deceive, misinform, and take advantage of confusion and ignorance are all attempts to suppress truth and free expression.

At this age, fake news and weaponized political narratives are deception. They will persist as long as a few people, especially those in power, benefit from them. Rizal after all warned that “to deceive the native land… is the greatest crime of all crimes”.

 *This article is based on a public lecture “Controversies, Misconceptions, and Fake News: Rizal in Social Media” first delivered in June 30, 2018 in Rizal Shrine Calamba. Read more: ABS-CBN News »

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