Needed: An Institute for the Integrity of Information to counter the death of truth

(Note: Former Solicitor Florin Hilbay was one of the resource persons in the hearing on the proliferation on Fake News conducted by the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chaired by Sen. Grace Poe last Oct. 4. Following is his statement.)

Allow me to go straight to my short remarks and legislative proposal.

Let me first emphasize an important constitutional point: there is a difference between false information provided by ordinary citizens and false information peddled by public officials.

The problem is not private citizens—Facebook or Twitter activists—exposing government incompetence, dishonesty, or corruption. The problem is government dishonesty.

Also, as a matter of constitutional law, it is worrisome for government to engage in a witch hunt to expose private speakers on claims these citizens are being too critical or even dishonest. Such actions inevitably produce a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay at the Senate hearing on Fake News, Oct. 4, 2017.


What I consider a threat to our democratic values and a danger to the marketplace of ideas is the prevalence of fake information provided by public officials, whether deliberately, or out of sheer incompetence.

Fake information provided by public officials poses special problems—

1) They are paid with public funds. It is an outrage that they receive taxpayers’ money so they can lie.

2) Their official status provides imprimatur to false information, whether posted in private or official social media accounts.

3) Their public employment provides them access to government facilities, creating a semblance of credibility where otherwise there would be none.

4) Their access to government facilities means that the false information they provide gets widely distributed.

Ordinarily, the mechanisms of government for responding to dishonesty by public officers are disciplinary sanctions by the Civil Service Commission, Office of the Ombudsman, and by heads of agencies, including the Office of the President. Our problem is that these mechanisms are not being triggered.

The two traditional constraints to government dishonesty—freedom of speech by informed private citizens and freedom of the press—have exposed many of these instances of dishonesty and incompetence by government officials. They have been generally dismissed by government as biased or unfair, political attacks rather than efforts to promote honesty in government.

Ordinary citizens are therefore confused by an environment where officials of the executive department are able to disseminate false information while demonizing the press and activist citizens.

Your Honors, this is a structural problem of the information environment: a phenomenon where government disinformation is able to hide behind the mantle of official action and protection, on one hand, and where freedom of speech and of the press are tagged as politically biased, on the other.

The way to counter-balance government disinformation is through the creation of a public institution whose sole task is to identify and publicize government dishonesty. When public officials become dishonest, it is the obligation of the State itself to correct distortions in the marketplace of ideas.

I propose that Congress enact a statute creating the Institute for the Integrity of Information, a sort of Ombudsman for public information provided by government, or an information police for government officials. What are the main features of the Institute for the Integrity of Information?

1) It should be composed of a board whose members are academics, media practitioners, policymakers, scientists, information technology experts of the highest credibility and competence.

2) They should not be appointed by the President or by any of his alter egos. In my opinion, this can be done without violating the Appointments Clause under Article VII, Sec. 16 of the Constitution.

3) Its function is four-fold:

• To create standards for verifying information provided by government.

• To actually verify information provided by government.

• To publicize its findings.

• To issue rewards to citizens who are able to spot fake information provided by public officials.

The Institute for the Integrity of Information should be able to act either motu proprio or upon referral by citizens of a claim of fact made by a government office or official.

I urge Your Honors to focus on a metaphor: that we should recognize false news or information as a calamity that wreaks havoc upon a sensitive ecosystem: the information environment or the marketplace of ideas.

In the same way that government has spent resources informing and warning citizens about impending or ongoing calamities through PAG-ASA, Phivolcs, etc. the government should likewise invest in informing and warning citizens about government dishonesty which distorts the information environment, polarizes political conversation, and manipulates citizens.

There is a need to create the Institute for the Integrity of Information because the integrity of public information is essential to opinion-formation and public discourse. If citizens think and act on the basis of wrong assertions of fact by public officials, then our marketplace of ideas will receive and produce wrong signals, the consequence of which is an impairment of the value of truth.

We live in an age of impunity, and I fear that apart from the thousands of killings on our streets, a tragedy that has received global attention, we have also become witnesses to another form of impunity—the death of truth.

Your Honors, so far as I know, there is no special public institution such as the Institute for the Integrity of Information anywhere in the world.

I hope the Senate considers this proposal not only as an urgent and practical response to government dishonesty but also as an opportunity to create a model legislation for all democracies around the world grappling with attacks on truth.

Thank you and good afternoon.

Let me first emphasize an important constitutional point: there is a difference between false information provided by ordinary citizens and false information peddled by public officials.

The problem is not private citizens—Facebook or Twitter activists—exposing government incompetence, dishonesty, or corruption. The problem is government dishonesty.

Also, as a matter of constitutional law, it is worrisome for government to engage in a witch hunt to expose private speakers on claims these citizens are being too critical or even dishonest. Such actions inevitably produce a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

What I consider a threat to our democratic values and a danger to the marketplace of ideas is the prevalence of fake information provided by public officials, whether deliberately, or out of sheer incompetence.

Fake information provided by public officials poses special problems—

1) They are paid with public funds. It is an outrage that they receive taxpayers’ money so they can lie.

2) Their official status provides imprimatur to false information, whether posted in private or official social media accounts.

3) Their public employment provides them access to government facilities, creating a semblance of credibility where otherwise there would be none.

4) Their access to government facilities means that the false information they provide gets widely distributed.

Ordinarily, the mechanisms of government for responding to dishonesty by public officers are disciplinary sanctions by the Civil Service Commission, Office of the Ombudsman, and by heads of agencies, including the Office of the President. Our problem is that these mechanisms are not being triggered.

The two traditional constraints to government dishonesty—freedom of speech by informed private citizens and freedom of the press—have exposed many of these instances of dishonesty and incompetence by government officials. They have been generally dismissed by government as biased or unfair, political attacks rather than efforts to promote honesty in government.

Ordinary citizens are therefore confused by an environment where officials of the executive department are able to disseminate false information while demonizing the press and activist citizens.

Your Honors, this is a structural problem of the information environment: a phenomenon where government disinformation is able to hide behind the mantle of official action and protection, on one hand, and where freedom of speech and of the press are tagged as politically biased, on the other.

The way to counter-balance government disinformation is through the creation of a public institution whose sole task is to identify and publicize government dishonesty. When public officials become dishonest, it is the obligation of the State itself to correct distortions in the marketplace of ideas.

I propose that Congress enact a statute creating the Institute for the Integrity of Information, a sort of Ombudsman for public information provided by government, or an information police for government officials. What are the main features of the Institute for the Integrity of Information?

1) It should be composed of a board whose members are academics, media practitioners, policymakers, scientists, information technology experts of the highest credibility and competence.

2) They should not be appointed by the President or by any of his alter egos. In my opinion, this can be done without violating the Appointments Clause under Article VII, Sec. 16 of the Constitution.

3) Its function is four-fold:

• To create standards for verifying information provided by government.

• To actually verify information provided by government.

• To publicize its findings.

• To issue rewards to citizens who are able to spot fake information provided by public officials.

The Institute for the Integrity of Information should be able to act either motu proprio or upon referral by citizens of a claim of fact made by a government office or official.

I urge Your Honors to focus on a metaphor: that we should recognize false news or information as a calamity that wreaks havoc upon a sensitive ecosystem: the information environment or the marketplace of ideas.

In the same way that government has spent resources informing and warning citizens about impending or ongoing calamities through PAG-ASA, Phivolcs, etc. the government should likewise invest in informing and warning citizens about government dishonesty which distorts the information environment, polarizes political conversation, and manipulates citizens.

There is a need to create the Institute for the Integrity of Information because the integrity of public information is essential to opinion-formation and public discourse. If citizens think and act on the basis of wrong assertions of fact by public officials, then our marketplace of ideas will receive and produce wrong signals, the consequence of which is an impairment of the value of truth.

We live in an age of impunity, and I fear that apart from the thousands of killings on our streets, a tragedy that has received global attention, we have also become witnesses to another form of impunity—the death of truth.

Your Honors, so far as I know, there is no special public institution such as the Institute for the Integrity of Information anywhere in the world.

I hope the Senate considers this proposal not only as an urgent and practical response to government dishonesty but also as an opportunity to create a model legislation for all democracies around the world grappling with attacks on truth.

Thank you and good afternoon.

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