BINALONAN, the Philippines—A three-hour drive north of the Philippine capital Manila, local leaders have drawn a line in the sand against a swelling tide of scuttlebutt and innuendo.
They outlawed gossip.
In a world awash with fake news and online rumors, more than half a dozen neighborhoods in Binalonan have introduced an anti-gossip ordinance to put an end to too much idle chitchat. Town Mayor Ramon Guico III says the worst time is during the summer, when the scorching heat pushes people to huddle beneath the broad branches of century-old acacia trees, sipping soft drinks or munching on snacks in the shade.
“That’s how it starts,” he complains.
The chin-wagging usually revolves around who might be cheating on their spouse or running up debts. Facebook and messaging apps worsened the problem, but Mr. Guico says the really damaging stuff is gossip— the sort of thing your mother might have warned you about.
So, in an unusual step, he freed up the town’s districts to clamp down on gossip—or chismis, as Filipinos call it.
“It’s such a waste of time. You’d think people would have something better to do,” Mr. Guico said.
The first neighborhood to put in an anti-gossip ordinance, in 2017, was Moreno, where cattle graze between wooden houses, and fighting cocks squawk and show off their plumage. Local council leader Jovelyn Manaois fields complaints from residents and, with the rest of the council, decides what penalty should be imposed for spreading rumors in public.
The first offense starts with a fine of 500 pesos, or around $10, followed by an embarrassing afternoon spent picking up trash.
“We haven’t had to punish anyone for a second offense,” Ms. Manaois said. “No one wants to be seen as a gossipmonger.”
Gossip is hard to let go of entirely. It might even be part of how humans evolved.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford has posited that this impulse to share juicy tidbits was a significant factor in how language developed and hence the growth of the human brain. It also provides a useful way of bonding.
Other anti-gossip initiatives have fizzled.
The Bible warned about “tattlers and busybodies.” The Puritans punished gossips with a “bridle,” a heavy iron cage put over the head.
In 2012, a private college in Atlanta introduced a no-gossip policy, which it wrote into an employee handbook. Spreading rumors, it said, is “an activity that can drain, corrupt, distract and downshift the company’s productivity, morale and overall satisfaction.”
When an employee was fired for breaking the code, the person took the college to court, complaining she had only been discussing its hiring and firing practices. She won.
Binalonan’s leaders say they are on firm ground. The provincial legal officer who assessed the anti-gossip ordinances says they don’t infringe on free speech and protect residents against slander.
The town’s leaders have also taken note of how countries from Britain and Germany to Singapore and Malaysia have introduced or proposed laws to weed out false news and disinformation from the internet.
Yet the accused might not be even aware they are doing it, like Jun Garcia, who recalls being caught out by Binalonan’s new laws and given a warning.
“I was just repeating something I heard from someone else,” he said. “I thought it was true. That family has a lot of debts.”
Ms. Manaois, the community leader in Moreno, said some other offenders try to get out of paying their fine when they are caught. It can be hard going.
“They say they didn’t start the rumor, but I tell them it doesn’t matter,” she said. “If you’re the last one caught spreading it, you have to pay it.”
Mr. Guico, the town mayor, says stamping out gossip is part of his plan to improve quality of life in the town. He has also banned karaoke sessions after 10 p.m.
“We have to take responsibility for ourselves,” said Mr. Guico, who is 44.
“That’s right,” agreed Prudencio Esquillo, the local council chief in the town’s San Felipe Sur neighborhood.
He was sitting cross-legged on a plastic bench in the community hall as he looked over a new batch of posters encouraging vaccinations against measles and other childhood diseases.
“Usually gossip cases are about some conflict over money or property,” he said. “If we can bring the two sides together and settle it before it goes to the police or the courts, then that’s good. We don’t want to get a reputation for being a place with a lot of gossips.”
There are signs the rumor mill might be gearing up again.
Many of Binalonan’s leaders are running for office in elections next month, and Ms. Manaois in particular says she is finding it hard to cope with the rumors and whispers that inevitably bubble up during the campaign.
“Look at all these people,” she told a visitor at her home, glancing toward a long line of people outside her gate. The word on the street is that she is secretly wealthy and able to confer what people here call a blessing—a cash handout, in other words.
“Whatever gave them that idea?” Ms. Manaois asked. “I’m not rich.”
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