The Changing Power of Rumors

The Changing Power of Rumors
Photo Credit: JULIAN STRATENSCHULTE / EPA / 達志影像

What you need to know

Rumor sharing, or ‘pasa-bilis,' played a crucial role in the eventual overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. Today it finds one of its most supreme expressions in the form of the internet, only with a different function, Ivan Labayne writes.

The proliferation of “fake” news sites has given a new twist to both the functions of rumors, and our attitude towards them. Whereas in the past, rumors served a critical if not a radical purpose, the forms they take in today’s internet age have led to a huge reversal in their ideological role.

While we mostly associate rumors and rumor-mongering with falsity and deception, this has not always been the case. In Philippine history, for example, there have been times when rumors were spread with an arguably positive intent. Rumors were conveyed as a way of speaking out against a colonial order.

The realm of rumors is where the public often feasts while official storytelling and history are for a select group. Yet rumors are not merely outside official discourses; rumors touch the official and can even affect it.

For example, unofficial narratives thrive during times of explicit repression. When much of the mainstream media was closed down during Martial Law in the Philippines, so the Marcos dictatorship could control public information, it did not take long before alternative means of communication and ways to make sense of events emerged. The crony press may have been the only legitimate way by which information was transmitted and meaning shaped for the public, but its very legitimacy did not go unchallenged.

This led to the formation of the mosquito press, mainly represented by campus publications, which burgeoned at this time. Campus writers led the charge in countering the state-sanctioned and self-serving narratives of those in power.

In the face of systematic repression, many campus publications were shut down. Their funds were cut, if not altogether eliminated, and staff members were harassed, expelled, or replaced. Consequently, the mosquito press in had to devise ways in order to launch and sustain their work. Its most memorable tactic? Pasa-bilis.

The idea behind pasa-bilis was that once people had obtained a prohibited piece of reading material, containing information and ideas critical of the Marcos regime, they should pass it on to someone else right after reading. There were two reasons for this. First, these reading materials were reproduced in limited copies and so each copy was precious and its usefulness maximized when read by as many people as possible. Second, it was risky to possess such materials and being caught reading, or just having them, could lead to persecution.

What was circulated via the pasa-bilis were not exactly rumors but something similar in that they went against the grain of legitimate facts and official narratives. Pasa-bilis enabled the circulation of stories that offered alternative ways of making sense of prevailing conditions and thus enabled people to act accordingly. The Marcos dictatorship ended after 21 bloody years, ushering in liberal democracy. The role of pasa-bilis in achieving this, by forming a counter-consciousness, cannot be overlooked.

Decades later, pasa-bilis can be seen in the form of the internet.

In an age of seemingly boundless freedom of expression and participation in social discussions via online platforms and web-enabled devices, key questions must be asked. Can rumors be considered as conveyors of alternative narratives? With so much knowledge and fact at our fingertips, are they even necessary? When the potency of the official and mainstream sources of knowledge and information are undermined by the free-for-all atmosphere provided by the digital arena, what is the point of alternatives?

Clearly as well still wade through the wonders (and pitfalls) offered to us by the World Wide Web, A new way of thinking about rumors is required.

The prevalence of digital technology is celebrated as the new great equalizer. Access to information and increased social participation, among other cultural privileges, are often held up as shining examples of the power of the internet. The diversity of voices and viewpoints are also celebrated. But this usually comes at a cost, with the complexities of various issues and events often overlooked in much of the online babble taking place all over the world every day. The blind celebration of the explosion of opinions and information across the internet is undermining, even discouraging critical and self-reflective thinking.

The seemingly boundless freedom of the internet has birthed questionable, if not outright bogus, sources of information. Limitless liberty has also birthed fakery and irresponsibility.

These are the rumors of our time: fake news, misleading information. And it is partly driven by what the internet does best — opening up the world to more of the world. This liberal atmosphere has sanctioned the emergence of these modern day phenomena, for in the larger scheme of things they feed the internet’s own encompassing interest: obfuscating the social divisions that are still there and still matter.

Yes, most of us are equal in that we can all participate in online discourses, yet we are hugely separated outside cyberspace: some have better internet connection, some just rely on free data, some do not have the privilege or time to engage in online conversations. These challenges and inequalities constitute just the tip of the iceberg. Larger issues like education and employment (or lack thereof) are implicated in our online behavior.

The idealistic view of the internet means that there is no need for alternatives because we are all on an equal footing, all free to voice our opinions, to come up with our think pieces, even if these are bogus pieces of deception — increasingly repetitive and redundant ruses that kill knowledge and truth.

In these times, perhaps we do not need rumors as those who fought against the Japanese colonizers and the Marcos dictatorship needed them. What we need is the defense of truth and the reassertion of reality — and I don’t mean the Truth and Reality (in capitals). I mean the truths and realities continually forged and based, not on rumors, but on a ceaseless roaming around the spaces we inhabit every day and the experiences we all confront there.

Perhaps we need to do a lot more living offline.

This article was first published at New Mandala – a specialist website on Southeast Asian affairs based at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The original can be found here.

TNL Editor: Edward White