The Signal and the Noise

Let’s not allow ourselves to get distracted.

About two weeks ago, I decided to leave social media and to delete my Facebook and Twitter. This was in the aftermath of the Davao bombing, which killed 14. But instead of unity, partisanship continued to fester and rear its ugly head. Opposing camps raised their pitchforks; supporters telling detractors to go ahead and ‘celebrate’ that the President’s beloved hometown was hit, and critics of the President calling it his ‘karma’ for the wars he’s suddenly waging.

My reaction to these was to damn any merits to these arguments; fourteen lives were lost and dozens were injured and all people could think about was whose online arguments benefit from these recent events. Instead I wanted to believe that the online interaction isn’t representative — shouldn’t be representative — of the whole country’s mood and thinking. I wanted to hope in our people, and I was compelled that the only way to see that again was to have a clean break from all the negativity and vitriol.

I lasted about a week. When one of the government’s official social media channels erred on a posting they made about the former President Marcos, I felt morally and socially compelled to learn for myself and tell them off. Since then I’ve been on and off the newsfeeds, trying to focus back on friends and family, while appreciating what I can learn from what people I respect have to say and share about our state of affairs. I am reminded of the distinction between signal and noise — too often we deal with the noisiness of reactions, feedback, and quick takes at the expense of tuning into the signal or the pulse of the matter. (No surprise that this is the title of a book by Nate Silver on data and predictions, which I recommend.)

And over the past few days, social media has offered a lot to get us distracted. A lot of noise.

Last Thursday was the third hearing at the Senate into allegations of extrajudicial killings brought on by the war on drugs. Moreso than the potentially damning revelations of the key though somewhat shakey witness, people’s reaction to the juvenile in-fighting of Senators Cayetano and Trillanes dominated memes and conversation. It made the allegations surfaced that day even more difficult to fathom and comprehend given the overall preposterousness of the entire affair.

And over the past twenty four hours, a minor social media personality firmly in the President’s camp issued a scathing and biting challenge to practicing journalists, experts, and even a satirical Facebook page to debate about the international media’s bias against the government. It’s such a ridiculous move that it is gaining a lot of attention from people who mean very well to put her in her place. Unfortunately, this noise is muffling the other debates that we should be having — the merits of the government’s overall strategy in the War on Drugs, especially now that they seek an extension of their original 6-month deadline.

Because here is what the signal looks like, if we’re able to focus enough and remain free of distractions and noise —

  1. President Duterte is making good on his campaign promise of ‘eradicating drugs’ within 3 to 6 months of his campaign. His strategy of choice is supply reduction through law enforcement resulting to the elimination of drug pushers and traffickers, and ultimately drug lords and cartels.
  2. The operations have been mixed. While internal PNP records and official communications seem to suggest an overall reduction in drugs, a spate of murders, summary killings, and vigilante killings is well-documented though often and awkwardly clustered together under the overall header of ‘extrajudicial killings’ — some cases like murders and vigilante reprisals are criminal acts, plain and simple.
  3. Furthermore, there have been extensive studies and reviews done on countries that have adopted similar strategies in their own ‘war on drugs’ and the consensus is that policies that revolve around violence have been proven to be ineffective overall. These studies also note a dangerous erosion on civil and political rights if these aggressive tactics are brought to their conclusion.
  4. Inquiries in aid of legislation have been initiated at the Senate to look into these alleged ‘EJKs’ and to see whether the Philippine National Police would either need more resources to fulfill their mission or be made to reevaluate their strategy entirely — at least this was the tone that the Senate was able to set at the beginning, but by the third installment (with the introduction of a witness that spoke about not the current EJKs but of the Davao Death Squads of the past) became fully ripe for partisan jousting.
  5. Government has stood firmly by its strategy on the War on Drugs despite an internal probe (Senate) and a steady simmer of unflattering news coverage from abroad. The President has been consistent on his little regard for the human rights of criminals (even just criminal suspects), on his science on how drug dependents cease to be functional members of society, on how all crimes are correlated with drugs somehow, on how he refuses to be dictated upon by foreign agencies and governments on how to conduct our sovereign business, and on how the state’s law enforcement mechanism (the police plus the military) would be all he needs to quell the drug menace in the near-term. (He has expressed frustration that a loftier budget to build rehabilitation centers can only be realized next year since these are currently unaccounted for in the budget.)
  6. Now the President seeks an extension of six-months on his campaign promise to eradicate drugs and criminality in 3-6 months. The President of the Philippines serves a term of six-years.
  7. And as the deadly Davao bombing of September 2 reminds us, there are other conflicts on the President’s plate. While this incident may have its roots in terrorism, investigations into the matter remain inconclusive.

The real debates that must be had in this country are not between tough-minded partisans. It is between the government and its people, and on the merits of their strategies — a lot of the assumptions of which I ended up enumerating in #5.

The above enumeration is by no means an exhaustive summary of the ‘signal’ that requires our focus. But just imagine that in a same way that a radar that blips once to show a signal’s position at one point in time, the above is just one blip. Future blips may show either stability or movement and we’re sure not to miss it when we train our attention less on noise.

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