Column: Paid hacks and retards?

Published on April 28, 2015.

The other week, I had the privilege of addressing the national conference of the Philippine Association of Communication Educators on a vexing subject: the quality of discourse in today’s new media. In preliminary remarks, I made two contrasting assertions. In the last couple of decades the overall quality must have risen, because the Internet has made access to the best sources and references possible; at the same time, the volume of offensive language has also obviously increased, creating Augean stables of gratuitous insult and hate speech.

But my main purpose at the PACE convention was to raise two specific questions, based on a reading of online comment threads, including that of the Inquirer. Why are “paid hack” and “retard” the preferred terms of abuse online, and what can the country’s communication educators do to discourage their use?

Allow me to share the last third of my prepared remarks:

Paid hacks? The accusation that a writer is a paid hack is a very common one, freely exchanged online, whether in the comment threads of a news website like INQUIRER.net or in someone’s social feed. This is the right forum, you are the right audience, for asking the essential question: Why? Why is “paid hack” and the various, ever-more-unseemly permutations of “bayaran” common currency in the new media? From “Bayad Muna” or “Akbayad” on the left to “BINAYaran” on the right, the digital version of the “hakot” or paid crowd as insult is everywhere.

Can it be that every single commenter, and every single columnist or reporter or anchor, is a paid hack? This is an impossibility, not only because we know from experience that many journalists are truly professional and independent, but also and mainly because of the simple truth that not everyone can be bought.

To believe otherwise is to undermine the very basis of public discourse.

Why hurl the accusation then? Does it signify an inability on the part of the accuser to argue on the merits? That was my first impression, but having read thousands of less-than-edifying comments, I must say that this is not in fact always true. There are some readers and commenters who can argue a case, yet still feel the need to make that gratuitous insult.

Perhaps the answer is psychological, rather than logical. By accusing someone else of being “bayaran,” the accuser does not have to deal with the other person’s arguments; the accuser is justified in not engaging with the accused at all.

Tards? The accusation that a writer or commenter is a ’tard—that is, a retard—is an even worse insult and perhaps even more common in the new media space. I may be mistaken, but in the Philippines, this accusation became common currency when Mr. Aquino became president. For some of his critics—who must obviously be good-looking specimens of evolutionary progress—the President does not look like the sharpest tool in the shed. It was a short hop from “Noy,” the President’s nickname, to “Abnoy,” Filipino slang for abnormal. And from that, it was a skip and a jump to “Noytards,” meaning the retarded people who support President Aquino.

Now, of course, we have “Nognog Tards” (a reference to defenders of Vice President Jejomar Binay), as well.

This is all very vicious, and completely dispiriting. As in the first insult of “bayaran,” there is a mockery of intellectualism, of education, at work here. The accuser sees himself as intellectually superior to the accused. In his mind, only a paid hack would support the other side. Only a retard would be stupid enough to support the opposite position.

This is of course the opposite of what we want our students to understand by the meaning of intellectual, or educated.

PACE. Given this reality, of the dark side of online or new media discourse, what should communication educators do?

Your first responsibility remains your students. May your words and your work inspire future journalists and future generators of user content. May your classes continue to be spirited workshops in learning the craft and the competence to handle not only story but truth. And may you never produce a highly articulate bigot, or a conscienceless graduate with a high capacity for rationalizing corruption or compromise.

But I would like to suggest a second responsibility. Perhaps communication educators like you can take a more active role in the new media spaces. By your presence and participation, you can help exercise a moderating influence in the comment threads and social feeds of our day. In particular, PACE members, or PACE itself, can serve to call out users and commenters who make gratuitous accusations, who call those they don’t like paid hacks and ’tards.

If any of you are interested in this as an experiment for yourselves or a project for your students, I am happy to offer the comment threads of INQUIRER.net as your very own laboratory. You may be the Hercules we are waiting for.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Speeches & Workshops

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