Ex-presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo trended Thursday for what netizens called a "non-apology apology" to Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz, whom he tagged in a "matrix" of alleged anti-government plotters two years back.
Panelo told ANC that he was sorry that the "matrix" upset the weightlifter, not for her inclusion in the diagram. He described Diaz's pain as "misplaced" as she supposedly only mistook the intention of the matrix, sparking a heated exchange with anchor Karmina Constantino.
"The message is before you feel pain about it, medyo tingnan mo muna kung talagang tama ba yung sapantaha mo. Ang problema kasi ang nangyari naman sa kanya, kaya naman siya naniniwala eh ang dami nag react agad," Panelo said.
Constantino told Panelo that his supposed clarification on the document came "belatedly", after the trolls had come after Diaz.
For Filipinos on the internet who witnessed the interview, many could not help but point out how Panelo was "gaslighting" Diaz, with some saying he deserved an Olympic gold for it.
What is gaslighting?
"It's when someone forces another person to question their own thoughts or events occurring around them. It’s like saying that something did not happen or making the person doubt their sense of reality," Joseph Marquez, a clinical psychologist, told reportr.
"When someone says to you, 'ikaw lang ang nagsasabi niyan', it will likely cause you to doubt yourself na you’re the only one who sees it. It can make you question if what you experienced happened at all," he added.
In his defense, Panelo said he had nothing to apologize for as he was only following the President's orders when he presented the matrix. He said the negative reactions were "based on a wrong premise".
"Why hide behind that?," ANC's Constantino asked, noting the the matrix itself was baseless, and yet it "unwittingly injured a person" by mere inclusion, regardless of intent.
Hidilyn's mother early this week said her daughter's victory was a mix of joy and anxiety, fearing that her daughter's celebrity status would once again make her a target of online threats.
Gaslighting has crossed over to the mainstream from clinical psychology in recent years, as the world becomes more open in discussing mental health issues including emotional abuse, which underlies the phenomenon.
It became prominent even in politics, as journalistic works began using the term to describe emerging political strategies of strongmen like Donald Trump and their penchant for distorting truth.
A paper published by the American Sociological Review argued that despite largely being a psychological concern that is highly focused on interpersonal relationships, gaslighting is "fundamentally a social phenomenon", citing social inequalities such as between genders that give people, typically men, the power to manipulate others, usually women.
"This is not to say men never experience abuse or abusive tactics, but rather that gender inequality makes women more likely to be victimized than men," it said.
'The main lesson'
Noting Panelo was focusing on Diaz's reaction in his defense, instead of apologizing for the falsehoods that defined the matrix, Constantino argued: "Shouldn't the lesson here be more circumspect before you present anything to the media?"
"The main lesson we can get from the way Panelo answered Karmina is that journalists should continue asking the hard questions even if it puts sources on the defensive, even to the point of being embarrassed on national television," said UP journalism professor Danilo Arao, himself wrongfully included in the matrix.
"The duty of the spokesperson is to clarify, not muddle the issue by skirting questions and engaging in 'mental gymnastics.' Many of his points are so hard to believe that he ended up compromising the integrity not just of the Office of the Presidential Spokesperson at the time but also the Office of the President," he added.
Beyond the word war, another "lesson" the public can get from this exchange is the "need to expose the disinformation that the Palace perpetuates not just by Panelo but also by Roque," Arao said, noting the current spokesperson should also be called out for "spin doctoring" when he claimed early this week he knew nothing about the matrix.
"Alam mo 'yung 'sorry, not sorry'? Parang gano'n ‘yung ginagawa mo ngayon, Secretary Sal. You're sorry but you're not sorry," Constantino told Panelo in the end.
In a video call, Duterte congratulated Diaz for her win, telling her to "let bygones be bygones". On Thursday, she told reporters she has "forgiven them already".
"'Yung pinagdaanan ko, it gave me more courage to continue sa dream ko. Sana lang hindi 'yun mangyari sa iba, baka hindi lahat kagaya ko kaya magtiis, kayang balewalain yung nangyari," she said.