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April 6, 2022, 10:26 a.m.

“It’s an existential moment”: Maria Ressa’s plan to defend facts against lies

“In 2016, it only took six months for President Duterte to destroy our trust in existing institutions. And I’m not out of the woods. I still have to ask myself, ‘Am I going to jail or not?’ I don’t know.”

Journalists are under attack around the world. Last year, the number of journalists who were jailed for their work hit a record high of 293 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At the same time, the financial lifeblood of journalism — advertising — has shifted away from the press toward Big Tech companies whose algorithms promote content that enrages and entertains rather than informs.

Authoritarian regimes increasingly use this shifting information environment to their advantage by spreading lies and disinformation about their opponents while suppressing independent journalism.

But Maria Ressa has a plan for how journalists can restore a collective truth and societies can hold the tech platforms accountable for promoting falsehoods. Ressa is a journalist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year along with journalist Dmitry Muratov “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

Ressa was born in Manila and moved to the United States when she was 9 years old. After graduating from Princeton University, she returned to the Philippines and eventually began working as a correspondent for CNN, where she rose to bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta, specializing in terrorism coverage. She is the author of two books on terrorism: Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia (Free Press, 2003) and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism (Imperial College Press, 2013).

In 2012, she co-founded Rappler, an online news site that has exposed the violence of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on the drug trade and his use of fake news to harass political opponents and manipulate the public. As a result, she became a government target, facing dozens of charges and arrest warrants. Her book How to Stand Up to a Dictator comes out later this year.

In our conversation, she describes how she wants to hold the tech platforms accountable while increasing investment in journalism. Our discussion, edited for brevity, is below.

Angwin: You have dedicated your life to fighting for freedom of the press and for truth, but it has come at a cost. You and Rappler have been repeatedly targeted by the authoritarian administration led by President Duterte. For our readers who are unaware, can you provide a brief overview of the false allegations against you and the latest updates in these cases?

Ressa: It started in 2016 when we exposed the real toll of President Duterte’s brutal drug war and the disinformation network that silenced anyone who asked questions. About a year later, President Duterte asserted in the State of the Nation address that I was a criminal, and about a week later we got our first subpoena, in 2018. There were 14 investigations by 2019, and I received 10 arrest warrants, an experience I would never wish on anyone.

They threw everything at me. There is one that alleges I’m a foreign agent, forget the fact that I’ve been a journalist for more than 36 years and that my track record is clean. There is also tax evasion, I have five of those, and cyber libel. But the real damage was what Duterte had already accomplished on social media, which was to tear down all journalists’ credibility so that there was no trust in the media.

In January 2018, the government tried to shut us down by revoking our license to operate. We fought back legally and publicly, but nevertheless within four months we dropped exactly 49 percent of our advertising revenue, so it became a do or die situation. We had to come up with an alternative business model to support ourselves.

Angwin: Can you talk a bit about the sustainable business model you developed?

Ressa: When we came under attack, we were actually tracking the narrative and spread [of disinformation]. We realized that what we were doing to defend ourselves is actually what every company is going to need in the social media world. It’s like getting a map of the city, so we built a product that advertisers could use to track attacks and meta narratives using natural language processing. With this we were able to grow 2,000 percent, and this set us up to survive the pandemic. In the last two years, we’ve actually grown rather than letting go of our journalists.

I don’t think good journalism is going to survive without good tech, tech that isn’t about profit but instead about creating a public sphere where people can have public discussions and an exchange of ideas, things that are necessary for a democracy. The lesson I’d take out of this is that they can throw the kitchen sink at you, but it is all about how you handle it, and how you use it to make yourself stronger.

Angwin: I want to talk about your book, How to Stand Up to a Dictator. It feels really relevant right now when the whole world is attempting to stand up to Russian president Vladimir Putin. What lessons do you have that might be applicable to our current context?

Ressa: Last year, when I handed in my first draft, my prologue was about the annexation of Crimea. I think that’s when the splintered reality started and you could see two different realities because of disinformation. The core of the book is about identifying and protecting our common values. For example, is it important to be honest? Yes, it is, and if we agree on that, we must agree that there have to be facts. If we can find the facts, we can find the truth and we can rebuild trust. That’s the crucial part of how to stand up to a dictator, and it begins with each of us. With the election coming up, we are trying to defend the facts with a hashtag #FactsFirst Philippines. If we can assure the facts, then we can begin to build the foundations of democracy again.

Angwin: What do you think it would take for companies to adjust their algorithms to prioritize truth and facts?

Ressa: I have three ideas for this. Facebook, for example, is the world’s largest delivery platform of news, and yet this platform doesn’t distinguish between fact and fiction. In fact, they actually give preferential treatment to the distribution of lies because that will keep you scrolling longer.

We need to hold them accountable for the amplification, make data uses more transparent, and take away the insidious manipulation. That’s where regulation needs to start. The EU has the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, which just last week went through. However, it’s taken two years to get here, and it’s not going to be out in time to help us with our elections.

Second, U.S. lawmakers need to reform or revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The diddling around this has allowed people like me to lose our freedom. It has allowed people in Myanmar to die. Someone’s freedom of speech or ability to make more money has literally not just taken away others’ but has also led to death and destruction.

In the long term we need to look for an entirely new system for the internet. We need the checks and balances we have to extend to the digital world. There is only one world, and to pretend like the virtual world is something different is just a way for companies to continue making bucketloads of money at our expense. We are all victims of this insidious manipulation, and it must stop. Democracy is impossible if we do not have a shared set of facts

Angwin: You have called for intervention to help journalism survive amid collapsing advertising business models. You are co-chairing a fund, the International Fund for Public Interest Media, which is trying to raise money for journalists from overseas development assistance funds. Can you tell us more about this effort?

Ressa: If you want to see the worst of what can happen with disinformation and media manipulation, look to countries in the Global South. In 2016, it only took six months for President Duterte to destroy our trust in existing institutions. And I’m not out of the woods. I still have to ask myself, “Am I going to jail or not?” I don’t know.

The goal of the International Fund for Public Interest Media is to help the Global South, where the worst damage by these American companies has been done. Helping independent media survive becomes critical in the Global South, where we don’t have the philanthropy you have here. Currently, only 0.3 percent of development funds go to the media. If we can raise funding to one percent, then you will give journalists a fighting chance.

Is it an uphill battle? Yes, but as more people begin to understand the impact of technology on our information ecosystems and on journalists, it is getting easier.

Angwin: Finally, in your Nobel prize acceptance speech you said, “[W]e can continue down the path we’re on and descend further into fascism, or we can each choose to fight for a better world.” How far down the path to fascism do you think we are? And do we have a hope of pulling back?

Ressa: It’s an existential moment; people in Ukraine are seeing one reality, and people in Russia are presented with another. How is that possible? It was enabled by our information ecosystem. In the Philippines it is an existential moment. In 37 days we will choose not just our future but our past. For example, if Ferdinand Marcos Jr. becomes president, will we celebrate the anniversary of the People Power Revolution? Probably not, but we don’t know.

If facts lose in every country around the world — and that is what’s at stake — we will lose truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these, any shared human endeavor is impossible, and that includes democracy. I’m calling this an “Avengers Assemble” moment to try to get Filipinos to defend the facts.

I think we’re right on the edge globally of dropping into the abyss. We can still do this, but the time to fix it is getting smaller and smaller. The time to act is now.

Photo of Nobel Peace Prize laureates Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov at the Grand Hotel balcony, greeting the annual Nobel torchlight parade, by Jo Straube.

POSTED     April 6, 2022, 10:26 a.m.
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