With files from Edwin Mercurio

Christian Esguerra, a 2020-2021 Marshall McLuhan Fellow, spoke on the topic “Democracy at Stake: How the Media Combats the Disinformation Phenomenon” during a packed conference attended by about a hundred Filipino community members at the St. Paul Centre in Toronto, Ont. on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022.

The Marshall McLuhan Fellowship has been awarded yearly to a recipient embodying outstanding qualities in the field of investigative journalism (in the Philippines), according to marshallmcluhan.org.

Here are some excerpts of Esguerra's speech:

1) On past Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte: "The interesting thing about Duterte is that he was able to castrate the media, without padlocking the newsrooms, unlike during the first (Ferdinand) Marcos administration. Perhaps we lost our grit, perhaps it was because of the pandemic, perhaps it was the confluence of many factors. We didn't think President Duterte would actually shut down ABS-CBN (Philippine News network)."

2) On being fired from his job at ABS-CBN: “I paid the ultimate price. When you work for a big news network company and their business is threatened, the first one to suffer are the journalists. We're still seeing it now.

"I'm happier now. I don't have to censor myself."

3) On current Philippine President Bongbong Marcos: "He's benefited from the shenanigans of his family and he's reaping the fruits of Duterte's administration. I was getting messages saying 'don't talk about the Marcos administration too much'.

"The censorship is now too much, the after-effect of what Duterte did for the past six years. If you ask the question 'where is the president in the midst of a calamity?', those questions raised by the media are easily drowned out because of the disinformation structure put in place in the Philippines.

"Right now there is a 'multiverse of truth' in the Philippines, also happening in other countries, meaning we exist in our own separate bubbles.

"(The last election) was not a perfect election, but I haven't seen evidence that 31M votes were rigged. It's impossible to rig. It was a 'perfect storm' of political events that led to the kind of Philippines that we have now."

Marshall McLuhan Fellow Christian Esguerra delivered a talk on Philippine democracy in Toronto on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. Photo by Yona M. Harvey, Mabuhay Canada Media

4) On disinformation: "The problem is not the politicians: the biggest problem is disinformation. The (politicians) benefit from the systematic disinformation structure in the Philippines. Worse, many of us are willing, unwitting victims conveniently rejecting facts, embracing our own version of the truth, which makes the job of a journalist difficult."

"When I started as a reporter, I thought it was established that the Marcoses were thieves, that they plundered the Philippine coffers. Later on, I realized that a big part of the (Filipino) population did not subscribe to that truth, even if you throw a lot of evidence at them.

"In the case of the Marcoses' ill-gotten wealth, there was revisionism. The problem was the distortion of truth, of denialism."

5) On social media: "A lot of people in social media are critical, but are non-thinkers. If people are getting information from Tiktok and Facebook, we (journalists) have to reimagine how to reach those people."

6) On why certain candidates win an election: "Why do we vote for (politicians and) celebrities with no track record? Because that's how it is, that's how we vote. We're not rational, we're emotional. That's why when candidates want to win, they don't appeal to the intellect, they appeal to the heart."

7) On troll networks in the Philippines: "People are running 'troll farms'. People are running different wraith accounts-usually with 50 (staff), working under a moderator. They earn between P18-20,000 a month, for moderators P30-35,000. These people have big jobs.

"A political candidate can get the services of a troll network. If you're running for president you cannot survive without a troll network. What would (troll networks) offer as services? For defense: they (look at) news reports, they comment, invade platforms and they defend the candidate.

"The worst part is the offense: they go after (their) enemy. They talk negatively, comment on platforms and they adjust their language. They may pose as an ordinary Filipino, like a carpenter, using crass language. Or they may sound as an intellectual. These people are very good."

8) On Philippine journalism: “Philippine journalists find themselves needing to exert their value in a democracy, their reason for being and why they need to exist. Filipinos don't realize how big a problem disinformation is to our democracy."

Esguerra will also give talks in Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver. Upon his return to the Philippines, he will commence a tour to share his experiences to journalism students in Cebu, Dumaguete, Davao, Cagayan de Oro and Baguio City.