Have you been infected with the "tsismosavirus?"
If you've been around social media for the past few months, you might have noticed a flurry of people calling themselves Marites feasting on a seemingly weekly spread of rumors and blind items about famous personalities, an activity that some also call "bardagulan."
Rumor-mongering, though, is nothing new. The Israeli public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari in his seminal book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind even theorized that gossiping is an evolutionary survival tool that has helped mankind navigate their ever-growing social circles much more efficiently.
"It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat," said Harari.
Harari even went to call gossip-mongers as "the original fourth estate."
How can it not be so popular when even the president of the Philippines engages in blind items?
"Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for World War One when they meet for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend their coffee breaks at scientific conferences talking about quarks? Sometimes. But more often, they gossip about the professor who caught her husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of the department and the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research funds to buy a Lexus. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders," said Harari.
Though calling rumor-mongers as the forerunners of journalism may make a number of hard-nosed reporters bristle and blue in the face, there is no arguing that gossip is, for better or worse, an intractable part of our lives. The question is, as social media has further made gossiping much easier, where do we draw the line?
Veteran entertainment journalists likewise say that blind items go way back.
The Philippine STAR entertainment editor Nathalie Tomada said that the popular "Marites" persona that many now identify with is simply an expansion of an ever-present culture.
"Nothing has really changed,” Tomada said. “Even before, entertainment sections and blind items have always been a major draw for readers. Readers have always wanted interesting and intriguing content.”
At times, the most explosive stories, not just in entertainment, begin with a blind item.
“Its impact is that consumers of entertainment tsismis, nagkaroon lang ng 'collective identity' now as Marites.”
Nestor Cuartero, a journalism lecturer and former entertainment news editor, said that blind items also had its heyday in the '70s due to the growth of tabloids.
“Blind items are not new in the Philippine setting, especially in entertainment. Even business columnists engage in blind items so it is not a characteristic prevalent only in entertainment," Cuartero said.
Tomada said that social media's features have also further facilitated gossiping.
"With the help of social media, where the audience have the power to comment, tag and repost, mas naging shared experience yung entertainment tsismis consumption,” said Tomada
But beyond the online environment, Cuartero said that Filipinos in real life have also been taking their cue from Malacanang, where the chief executive at times also dispenses with blind items.
"How can it not be so popular when even the President of the Philippines engages in blind items?” he said. “So that must be a reflection of how effective dishing out blind items is.”
President Rodrigo Duterte recently stirred controversy after saying that a 2022 presidential candidate—who came from a known family and father—is using cocaine.
‘LET IT NOT BE SAID LATER ON THAT I DID NOT TELL YOU’— The Philippine Star (@PhilippineStar) November 22, 2021
President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated his claims about a presidential candidate in the 2022 election who is allegedly into cocaine, telling the public not to blame him in the future as he has already given them a warning. pic.twitter.com/r7j1JHAjHg
Social media as tsismis fuel
Cuartero said that with social media, "all hell breaks loose."
“Anybody can just spread a blind item whether it is true or false or in between,” Cuartero said.
"The cat is out of the bag so freely, unlike before when a blind item was subjected to editing and verification by newspapers. May proseso nung araw. But now that practice is gone with everybody posting anything and anybody can just spread a blind item because of the freedom provided by the platform,” said Cuartero.
Ateneo de Manila assistant professor Louie Jon Sanchez also shared the same sentiment.
“Social media has radically democratized the field by allowing just anybody to become story creators and disseminators. No editors, no filters, whatsoever,” said Sanchez.
Information literacy at the core
Cuartero said that some blind items passed off online are also just rehashed and sensationalized versions cherry-picked from established media platforms.
"These people are not exactly within the media, they are observers but they rehash and spin their own versions of what they’ve read. That is the danger there," said Cuartero.
These people are not exactly within the media, they are observers but they rehash and spin their own versions of what they’ve read. That is the danger there.
Tomada said that “the newsroom practice and process of fact-checking and verification are needed more than ever” even as public figures take control of their image through their own channels and accounts.
“Social media has also the power to magnify the reach and impact of our stories. More importantly, it has challenged us to become better reporters because it gives us a pulse for what the public wants. At the same time, it pushes us to be more enterprising in getting entertainment stories that are still not out there."
Helping or hurting?
Tomada said that whatever the medium, a sense of humanity should be at the core of reporting.
“At times, the most explosive stories, not just in entertainment, begin with a blind item. What I learned from my boss before, it's meant to be fun, just to tickle a reader's imagination and that personalities shouldn't be identifiable,” said Tomada. “There were 'blind items' fed to us that didn't ever see print because they were injurious to a person's reputation or their family."
There were blind items fed to us that didn't ever see print because they were injurious to a person's reputation or their family.
Sanchez also noted the exploitative nature of blind items, by delving into an individual’s personal life without consent and accountability. “It taps into human interest but somehow in the wrong way. It exploits a person’s story or situation usually for selfish gains. It keeps the buzz in the name of trending and engagement,” said Sanchez
“This kind of culture also cancels deep thought and authentic dialogue. It tends to take facts away from contexts, and emphasizes emotion and affect over rationality.”
The enlightened Marites
So, is there such a thing as a responsible or enlightened Marites?
“People have to grow more self-aware and sensitive when they represent themselves in social media, and participate in discourse,” said Sanchez. “I think, people are becoming more conscious of their responsibilities, in as much as they are realizing that freedom of expression is fragile, and may at once be curtailed by the powers that be.”
“There are Maritesses because of democracy, and that is important. It is entirely possible to become a more enlightened Marites, one who is more nosy and inquisitive about things that matter in society and not merely about insignificant, trivial pursuits.”
Cuartero believes it takes critical thinking and fact-checking to be a better Marites, or even just be a better person, full stop.
“Do not be a sucker for anything you hear or read or watch. The mantra I’ve been telling people is that one should not take anything or everything at face value. Always give everything you read the benefit of the doubt,” Cuartero said.
There are Maritesses because of democracy, and that is important. It is entirely possible to become a more enlightened Marites, one who is more nosy and inquisitive about things that matter in society and not merely about insignificant, trivial pursuits.
Tomada said Marites, or whatever the gossiping persona may be called, will be here to stay.
“It may be Marites now, the latest incarnation of a term to refer to a culture that has always been there. For example, before, nauso din yung word na chikadora, but it could be Estella in the future.”
“Gossip culture has been there since time immemorial and will be there 'till kingdom come.”
For better or worse, gossiping may not be a virus after all but rather a part of our genetic makeup that we may have to contend with and tame for the rest of our lives.