By FERNANDO BELZUNCE
Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte waged a bloody war on drugs in 2016 that resulted in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of people on the streets, mostly suspected small-time drug dealers and addicts. The killings – some 27,000 in three years – according to Amnesty International, took place with the massive support of alleged government supporters on social media, organised around a web of lies and fake news. With citizens attacked and silenced on Facebook for criticising crimes, journalist Maria Ressa’s determination to investigate human rights violations and denounce manipulation campaigns on the internet made her a global symbol of freedom of expression. In 2021, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Russian journalist Dmitri Muratov.
Ressa, of American and Filipino nationality, has dedicated 37 of her 59 years to journalism with exceptional determination, as reflected in her book ‘How to Fight a Dictator’, where she not only exposes her fight against the Duterte regime, but also shares thoughts and motivations of a woman destined to mark an era.
A CNN reporter in Asia for two decades, and former news director for a national television station, since 2012 she has been directing Rappler, the leading digital media in the Philippines and the main headache for corrupt and authoritarian leaders. A great internet expert, she is one of the most admired journalists in the world and, at the same time, one of the most persecuted. Last January 18, she was acquitted of an alleged tax evasion crime, but she fears imprisonment for other legal cases still open against her which, according to several international organisations, are politically motivated.
The president of the Philippines is now “Bongbong” Marcos, son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Ressa foresees new battles.
Doesn’t the Nobel Peace Prize protect you from political attacks?
I must be prepared for the worst. I never thought any of these cases would go to court and yet we have spent four years and two months fighting the tax evasion charges. It is very clear from the verdict that it was a ridiculous case, but I had to live with it – and I already had the Nobel Peace Prize. We have more cases against us and if I look at Aung San Suu Kyi, who also has the Nobel, and is detained in Burma… You have to breathe the air of the country you live in. Journalists are being attacked in ways we’ve never had to deal with before.
The day the dictator Marcos was ousted is a national holiday in the Philippines. Do you think your son would have won the election if social media had not existed?
Never. The social media operations to sanitise the name of dictator Marcos started in 2014. We showed in Rappler that the goal was to change the association of Marcos’ name with corruption and turn him from a kleptocrat to the best leader the Philippines has ever known. It was like the death of democracy. History changed before our eyes. The writer Milan Kundera said that the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. But not only could we forget in our minds, but collectively it was transformed. Dictator Marcos suddenly became a hero.
And his son is in power.
Marcos Junior recreated his father’s political alliances. Some members of his cabinet are children or grandchildren of his father’s former ministers. It’s a kind of feudal dynastic politics, with a lot of influence in regions of the Philippines. They helped him get the vote. In addition, he allied himself with Sara Duterte, the daughter of the former leader, who ran as his vice president. If she had run against him perhaps the outcome would have been different.
Were you late in launching the initiative in which more than 140 associations united against disinformation?
We launched it 100 days before the elections and, indeed, it was already too late. When we analysed the data, we saw that the source of many of the lies was at the heart of the Facebook ecosystem. Leni Robredo, the candidate, did not have time to react and make a difference.
Why does Philippine society have such exposure to social media?
It held the world record for six consecutive years. Ten percent of the population, 10 to 12 million Filipinos, live abroad and there is a need for connection. Social networks allow this for free and, moreover, they are fundamental for survival in this country because, due to corruption and weak institutions, everything requires favours. You need to make contacts, activate your social network… Infrastructure problems are also important. People skipped the computer phase and moved immediately to cell phones, which are a big problem in this country.
Duterte relied on ‘influencers’; can good journalism win over populism in social networks?
Quality journalism cannot survive in social media. We have been commoditized. I don’t allow my reporters to see popularity rankings because popularity cannot be a criterion. Our job is to hold power accountable.
A Cambridge Analytica executive admitted to you that they tested, in the Philippines, the manipulation campaign they had applied in the US. What can democracy do to protect itself?
Social networks must be regulated. Accountability must be demanded and impunity must be stopped. Platforms prioritise the dissemination of lies over facts. They insidiously manipulate our emotions so that we cannot distinguish fact from fiction. Mark Zuckerberg is, in some ways, the biggest dictator. He is more of a dictator than any other leader of a nation.
How did you go from being excited about Facebook to discovering its risks?
When we were attacked. The power took over in 2016. The killings started every night in the war on drugs. And every time someone reported it on Facebook they suffered a big blow. In August 2016 we created the hashtag ‘#NoPlaceForHate’ and we took a digital beating. I started collecting data and we did a series on the weaponization of the Internet. I couldn’t have imagined before that networks would favour the rise of dictators.
The key is the distribution of information?
That is the fundamental problem. The incentive structure of social networks rewards bad journalism and lies.
They are viewed simply as conduits through which data circulates.
Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act of 1996 gave impunity to these technology platforms. They are treated like pipelines. Like a telephone. But that’s not the way they work. The phone allows all calls to come through, while on social networks algorithms determine what is sent to you. They act as editors. Just reform or repeal section 230. The moment social media platforms are held accountable for lies, they will disappear.
Consensus that used to be universal, such as the very idea of truth, is suddenly in question. Are we witnessing a slow death of democracy?
Absolutely. And the journalist is on the front line. We are facing a crisis from many angles. Everything is affected: technological platforms, the advertising market, the business model of journalism… Even now, it is more difficult to ask complicated questions to people in power, which was normal years ago, because they attack you if you ask them. The attacks against us – the threats, with all the psychological impact – are just the tip of the iceberg.
Rappler was founded by four women and has a female majority in the editorial staff. It is shocking to see that there are so many sexual references in the attacks you receive. Do you think they are greater because they are women?
That is what the data show. The International Center for Journalists analysed more than half a million attacks I received on social networks. It showed that 60% of these attacks were aimed at destroying my credibility and 40% at tearing me down. I am not the only woman who suffers from this. Sexualized attacks are gender disinformation. It’s not that men aren’t attacked, but it’s not as personal or as effective. There is inherent sexism and misogyny. Many women are opting out.
Do you think your sexuality also increases the attacks against you?
Not in the Philippines. I’ve been a journalist for 37 years and I’ve worked in countries where even being gay is illegal. It’s not a problem here.
Are you worried that artificial intelligence could further enhance disinformation?
Yes, absolutely. It’s all going to get much worse and we all know it already, don’t we? We have published on Rappler articles prepared with GPT-3, reviewed by our team and signed with the warning that it was automated content. The writing is good, but it can’t tell fact from fiction. What data does the program use to put the information together? If garbage goes in, garbage comes out.
The documentary ‘Absence of Truth’ shows President Duterte threatening a young Rappler journalist in front of other colleagues who remain silent: “You can criticise, but you will go to jail.” Have you felt supported by other Filipino journalists?
That’s a complicated question. Because silence is complicity; if you remain silent when you see something wrong, you allow it to happen. Some news organisations tried to show support. They were all afraid and I understand the caution, especially in the case of corporate firms, but look what happened to ABS-CBN, the TV network I ran before Rappler: they lost their franchise.
You detail in your book that your childhood, marked by a hasty departure to the United States, may have created in you a strong sense of rootlessness and emptiness. Do you think journalism and the fight against injustice have helped you cope with your life?
If I think about it… Journalism has given me life. Absolutely it has. Forgive me for getting emotional.
You travel frequently and the police often wait for you at the airport. Have you ever been tempted not to return to the Philippines?
No. That would be a great betrayal. I believe in Rappler and I am very proud of how the team has performed at such a difficult time. It is a very important moment for the Philippines. Unfortunately, President Duterte chose us, so I had no choice. If I gave up everything I believed about myself as a journalist and about journalism I should throw it away. You can only know who you are when you are put to the test. I have to be optimistic.
The author, Fernando Belzunce, is Editor in Chief of Vocento group newspapers and a member of the World Editors Forum Board.