The biggest lie I was ever told

Manila, 14 July—But first, I want to open with something true: my teammates and I were in Argao, Cebu to hold a Millenniors program there with their seniors. Together with senior high school students from Colawin National High School, my Cebu-based teammates taught some three dozen seniors the basics of smartphones, social media and internet safety. Despite being in-and-out of Cebu in less than 24 hours (first flight in/2nd to the last flight out), I ended the day feeling somewhat energized.

We also met Tanduay, the dog who joined his elderly human throughout the day-long workshop. Nanay Miliang is 82, perhaps one of the older participants, and she has been Tanduay’s human for nine years. So technically: Senior dog accompanies senior citizen to a senior citizen tech workshop. I love it.

My teammate Samie took this photo. :)

Anyway, at the Argao session, we also broached the topic of information literacy among the seniors as part of the an internet safety segment. The elderly are among the more vulnerable members of our online community, so it’s important to warn them of the dangers lurking in the darker corners of the web, and that includes, among other things, disinformation.

I came across this article on Forbes that offers this sobering reminder: The ‘fake news’ problem is an information literacy problem, and not a technology one. Along the way, we may have unearthed many distasteful things about how the prime movers of Web 2.0 have ultimately betrayed the very people they sought to connect in this promised ‘global village’, but it’s been three years since the Big Con of 2016, and it feels like we still have a long way to go before we actually even figure out the actual problem.

And it’s not like the entire machinery was just brought to life at the start of the 2016 campaigns—it’s been simmering all along, priming audiences and introducing an entire core values system based on its main currency: Attention.

I still remember how mainstream news outfits began infiltrating social media. I was already on Twitter, living a semi-benign life livetweeting Lipgloss episodes without the benefit of a private account, when one by one, newsrooms started setting up camp in this corner of the web and making their way into my feed. It was welcome at a time of Ondoy, when crowdsourcing tweets and accounts from people was new and helpful. People tweeted complaints and got instantaneous responses. Rescuers got more information, people putting together donations and relief efforts reached more people where they were, regardless of whether they were out and about holding their phones or their tablets, or sitting at their desks. It was a Good Thing.

And then there was Arab Spring. Suddenly, social media as a force for democracy became an even bigger thing, despite warnings for media not to overemphasize their roles in such big movements. Only it was so new, the sexy stranger in the room, and it was hard not to call it revolutionary.

So naturally, more than setting up social media accounts, newsrooms set up entire social media teams to manage these accounts and create content for them. Now with headcount and budget, it was necessary to fold social media into the overall content and distribution strategy. The best thing about digital is that it offered a treasure trove of data—analytics could tell you who was clicking what when, how long they stayed, where else they went. And as social media platforms expanded and became more universal, so did the power of their aggregated information. Best of all, users handed over their data for free, in exchange for the opportunity to participate in this global village where everybody else lived.

Suddenly, from the opaqueness of the print reader’s habits—would you know how long an average print reader spends poring through the day’s Editorial? I’d love a number, a reader profile, anything—we now could see so clearly through everything, it was just a matter of selecting the metrics that matter.

Page views? Engagement? Impressions? Click-through? There’s a term for everything an average user does once they interact with anything on the Internet, because the Internet is always watching, and it keeps counting.

That’s a good thing, right? Absent reader feedback, we can’t really tell how any sort of content is performing. We all want to write world-changing pieces, but how is any of it going to change the world if it isn’t, at the very least, read?

And so, clicks and page views became important. I wanted so badly for there to exist a metric that does not merely count how many times a page is loaded from everywhere. I wanted a better metric, one that measured comprehension, one that measured concern. It was, and still is, a difficult ask.

The quest for clicks and page views soon became a battle for the average Internet user’s ever-dwindling attention span. Clickbait became a thing. Breaking news became the Holy Grail, because when you’re first to break, you get the first views, and it snowballs from there. From front pages competing side by side at newsstands in the morning, the news cycle was transformed into an hourly competition of breaking news after breaking news.

First-to-break became the prime challenge for print reporters everywhere—reporters that could have used their limited resources in better ways than breaking everything. Context can come later—at the moment, there is this.

The audiences got what they were served. Bits and pieces mostly, for the moment. They’d be put together later, in longer, more insightful articles, we were assured, but algorithms, man. No one read articles longer than xxx words, so they were shortened, whittled down. Brevity, right? Who reads things anymore right? And on the Internet, too?

And here we are, a decade or so later, wondering why no one reads past headlines when all along the premium has been on breaking news snippets, and meeting metrics targets has meant gaming the algorithms with clickbait despite the fact that it erodes reader trust.

The news cycle is broken. You and I know this. I mean, sure, we’ve all been raised on a culture of deadlines, but we have to admit that something a bit more sinister has grown out of this misguided effort to prioritize speed over accuracy and completeness.

It’s bigger than metrics. It’s about birthing an entire generation of media consumers that are no better equipped to protect themselves against disinformation, and as a media worker who used to spend her hours trying to put context on everything, it is simply infuriating. It felt like being part of an assembly line and being assigned to tie knots, only to be undone somewhere down the line.

The call is coming from inside the house, so to speak. And I think there’s only one way to answer it.