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July 19, 2017, 10:03 a.m.
Audience & Social

Facebook rules the Internet in the Philippines. Rappler walks the line between partnership and criticism

“It’s still an empowering platform. I will not take that away from them. But people who deal with the algorithms have to work hand in hand with people who have responsibilities in the public space.”

What’s it like to have a presidential election where misinformation on Facebook clouds what’s informing at least some voters’ decisions? The Philippines found out about half a year before the United States, according to Maria Ressa, CEO of the Philippines-based, social media-savvy news outlet Rappler.

I chatted with Ressa the day before a tense session at the Global Editors Network conference last month in Vienna on the increasing reach and responsibility of platforms, during which Ressa shared the stage with the content lead from streaming platform Plex and the top spokesperson for Russia Today (here’s one exchange, if you’re curious).

In a country where, for many, the Internet and Facebook are synonymous — as a result of the Free Basics program that offers free but limited internet access to smartphone users — riding the Facebook wave can lead to enormous audience growth for social media-savvy news organizations like Rappler. (The five-year-old Rappler’s Facebook page has 3.45 million likes. For context, the country’s top national daily the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s page has 3.38 million.)

“Rappler has seen the best and the worst. Part of our growth in our first few years — 100 to 300 percent growth, year-on-year — that’s Facebook. We caught the wave going up,” Ressa said. (Facebook launched its Internet.org in the Philippines in spring of 2015 and opened its first office in Manila a year later.) “But in 2016…I always say that 2016 is the year Facebook broke democracy.”

Rappler, a media partner of Facebook’s on many projects, was alpha-testing Instant Articles in December of 2015 as one of the first adopters in the Philippines; by early 2016, it had stopped publishing to Instant Articles. It built a chatbot with an eye towards addressing what they saw as an imbalance in what Facebook’s News Feed algorithm often surfaced for users, and also offers crowdsourced corruption reporting through Facebook Messenger.

“Facebook is of course still a partner of ours. I’ve worked with them closely,” Ressa added. “But at the same time, it’s a western organization. They began moving after Trump won in the U.S. They took down 30,000 fake accounts during the French election. If they had done that for the Philippines, maybe the results here would’ve been different.”

Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Shan Wang: The U.S. went through that little thing in November, which has really sparked new interest in misinformation and disinformation. I wonder what we can learn from what Rappler has been dealing with in the Philippines, when it comes to social media and news and possibly diverging realities.

Maria Ressa: The way I see it: Countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, or Myanmar are countries that very quickly came online. Myanmar went from a few percent Internet penetration to maybe 65 percent or more in just a few years, via mobile phones. What all these countries have in common is that our telcos essentially make the Internet — when you get a cellphone, Facebook, for instance, is already there.

In the Philippines, of the more than 52 million people who access the Internet — I think 97 percent are on Facebook. That gives the platform tremendous power. People who are not sophisticated about media to begin with do not realize they’re walking into a curated space and that there are echo chambers formed in those places well before you get there.

And then, the old space for public debate, places where you see others and exchange and listen and change your opinions — that’s gone. In the Philippines, most political discourse happens on Facebook. In our case, we’re about five months ahead of the U.S.; our elections were in May of 2016.

This was our very first social media election. [President of the Philippines Rodrigo] Duterte was like Donald Trump. It’s interesting to me how much they have in common.

What we’ve seen is that in a year — and it’s been just a year — he’s done everything he said he was going to do. He declared martial law in Mindanao, declared a “state of lawlessness” in Davao City last September. In a year, we’ve had over 7,000 deaths in this “war on drugs.” Then we see this rising propaganda machine, for which journalists were the last line of defense. That’s been degraded over the last year.

Wang: How is Rappler dealing with this? I think Facebook is almost singularly responsible for your enormous growth, and you seem to have in the past wrangled it productively for your various audience engagement efforts?

Ressa: Rappler has seen the best and the worst. Part of our growth in our first few years — 100 to 300 percent growth, year-on-year — that’s Facebook. We caught the wave going up, but in 2016…I always say that 2016 is the year Facebook broke democracy.

I’ve been a war correspondent. I’ve covered many conflicts. Yet I’ve never had as many threats as I do now. You can’t tell the difference. You don’t know if what’s online will become real, or when it’s just intimidation. In the real world, I can tell when someone is really threatening me and I’m in danger. On Facebook and Twitter?

I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot. News groups, we’ve lost our gatekeeping powers. It began in the U.S. in 2015, when news groups were pulled into initiatives like Instant Articles.

Wang: Several have stopped publishing Instant Articles altogether — The New York Times, the Guardian.

Ressa: Rappler actually pulled out February of last year. We were in it December of 2015, and pulled out by February of 2016.

What the platforms didn’t realize is that all speech isn’t equal. News determines your version of reality, and when you treat news the way you would treat a Trump for President blog, there are consequences.

First, we were using social media for social good. People used it for disaster risk reduction platforms, we used it for anti-corruption projects — we had a very vibrant ecosystem on Facebook. In 2016, things moved.

Platforms have allowed vested interest to manipulate public opinion in ways that weren’t previously possible. Look how fast the Philippines have changed in a year. In a year, human rights got thrown out the door. These are things I struggle with.

Wang: You’re still doing major social campaigns and projects through Facebook?

Ressa: We’re trying.

Wang: How much harder is it to keep those audience engagement projects on social going? Has the relationship with Facebook itself changed? Are you in touch with representatives directly who seem to understand your version of what’s been happening, and have been helpful?

Ressa: It’s much harder. If you were saying something on Facebook about extrajudicial killings, the trolls would attack you. They would not attack you based on ideas, they don’t need any reason.

Facebook is of course still a partner of ours. I’ve worked with them closely. But at the same time, it’s a western organization. They began moving after Trump won in the U.S. They took down 30,000 fake accounts during the French election. If they had done that for the Philippines, maybe the results here would’ve been different.

It’s still an empowering platform. I will not take that away from them. But people who deal with the algorithms have to work hand in hand with people who have responsibilities in the public space.

When you’re a journalist, you know you have gatekeeping powers. A platform will create an algorithm, but an algorithm doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What signals go into that algorithm? Who is the gatekeeper there? The second part: What’s the position of platforms on human rights? What’s the line between freedom of expression and dangerous expression? Where does it move into inciting hate? Because that’s where it’s moved into in the Philippines.

Platforms can no longer stay in tech land. They’re in the new world with us, and will have to solve problems with us. 2016 was a tipping point for platforms’ powers, and the echo chambers that have been created pushed folks further away from each other.

You have groups like Cambridge Analytica or the propaganda machine in the Philippines that want to take advantage of that. Those things are real. What is the response platforms have? That’s what I’m waiting for. I know our response: We keep doing what we’re doing, reporting.

Wang: So aren’t you terrified then? I know for you guys at Rappler, Twitter sort of cratered as a means of reaching these wider audiences. If Facebook is this powerful, it’s a terrifying route to go down, to rely on a single platform for revenue, for audience, for technical infrastructure. They’re helping you now — what if they decide news is a dead end, “never mind, we’re giving up on that”?

Ressa:Two things are happening simultaneously. We’re seeing the business models of news crumbling and in every country around the world, Google and Facebook are taking a lion’s share of digital revenue. There’s that recent report about how 99 percent of all new digital ad spend is now going to Facebook and Google. In the Philippines in 2016, the figure was 72 percent. In 2016, in the Philippines, it was 72 percent. Rappler didn’t grow as fast as I would’ve wanted, because we weren’t Facebook or Google.

But these platforms need news. They need content. Otherwise, they’re going to have to hire and train news people, and who would pay for that? I hope that with the Facebook Journalism Project, it isn’t just lip service. From everything I’ve seen, they’re trying.

Wang: Are there ways Rappler has found to leverage Facebook to break through the widening divide among people of different political leanings? To slow this weaponization of the Internet that you’ve talked about? What’s next for Rappler?

Ressa: Facebook allows traditional news groups to reach audiences exponentially. That’s still there. And then, and I mean this truly: real-world engagement. On July 7, for instance, we have our disaster preparedness summit.

The funny thing is, when we do real-life workshops for Filipinos, there’s a disconnect. All the vitriol on Facebook disappears in the real world. What’s real and what’s not? That’s the question we always have now.

We’re five years old this year. We hit EBITDA positive last year. We’re on track. But I don’t know what this year or next year will be like.

Journalists have been second-guessing themselves all year this past year. I wonder, the people who built those Facebook algorithms — do they second-guess themselves the same way? Just last year, Facebook wasn’t here at these conferences. Google wasn’t here. Now they’re here. So our worlds are converging.

I’ve run news groups where even the largest television networks, we’ve run stories we know will anger politicians, we know that will have a business impact. We run it. It’s a public good. Will Facebook ultimately make decisions that go against its own business interests?

Wang: Maybe?

Ressa: They have to! They must. Maybe you think I’m too idealistic — but it would screw up the world, if they don’t.

Photo of Maria Ressa at the 2017 Global Editors Network Summit, courtesy of GEN.

POSTED     July 19, 2017, 10:03 a.m.
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