“We hold the line”: An Interview with Journalist and Activist Maria Ressa

Award-winning journalist and activist Maria Ressa presented a talk at the Yale Jackson Institute hosted by Ambassador Harry Thomas, Jr. on March 3, 2020. Read more about her visit at https://jackson.yale.edu/news/journalist-shares-her-battle-against-disinformation-and-harassment/

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On June 15, 2020, Maria Ressa, one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists, was found guilty of “cyber libel.” Human rights groups have condemned this verdict as a politically motivated prosecution by the Duterte government.1 Ressa’s defense lawyer, Amal Clooney, denounced the conviction “as an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines.”2 The case against Ressa indicates a wider “pattern of intimidation” against the Filipino media, as noted by the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner.3

Ressa is an award-winning journalist who has devoted her professional career to fighting disinformation and advocating for freedom of the press. She currently serves as the CEO and Executive Editor of Rappler, a Philippines-based online news website. Following the Duterte government’s high-profile attempt to arrest and detain her in 2018, Ressa was named one of TIME Magazine’s 2018 “People of the Year.” In addition, she won the prestigious Golden Pen of Freedom award from the World Association of News Publishers. In 2019, Prospect Magazine named Ressa one of “the world’s top 50 thinkers.” 

Ressa visited Yale University for a series of lectures and informal lunches from March 2 to March 3, 2020. Students were enraptured by Ressa’s bold, fast-talking, and slightly cheeky manner—many who had planned on only attending her keynote lecture found themselves coming back for additional events. Her speeches and the conversations that followed were wide-ranging, exploring the tenuous nature of democracy, the need for regulation in the technology industry, and the dangers of fake news. Ressa was quick to point out the role we all play in countering disinformation as she encouraged her audience to “define that line between good and evil and define your values and what you stand for.” Her words take on new resonance in the light of her recent conviction.  

On March 3, 2020, Ressa sat down with Sophie Kaldor from the Yale Journal of International Affairs for an interview, in which they discussed the links between social media and rising authoritarianism in the Philippines, global terrorism, and disinformation. Below is a transcript of their discussion, edited for length and clarity. 

 

Sophie Kaldor (SK): Your journalism over the past thirty years has been honored around the world, including for your work in fighting disinformation, fake news, and attempts to silence the free press. Could you name one thing you are most proud of in your career? 

Maria Ressa (MR): I think it’s very easy as a journalist to stand by standards and ethics when you’re not being challenged. But I think what I’m most proud of, not just for myself but also for the people I work with, is that when it mattered, we held the line—even at a cost to ourselves. I’m old; this is my thirty-fourth year as a journalist. The baton was passed to me in the Philippines at a time when freedom of the press was under attack. The thing I’m most proud of is that both as business people—this is our company—as journalists, as Filipinos, we all made the choice that an ordinary businessman would not. We decided to continue doing accountable journalism because that’s more important now than ever. 

It’s like a game of chicken: you just have to deal with what the authorities will do because it’s very clear that it’s a campaign of intimidation and harassment. We just said, “bring it.” And it’s not just me, it’s the team we brought together. Rappler started in 2012 with just 12 people, and in a year and a half, it became 70. Now we capped it at about 100 people. Sixty-three percent are women. The median age is twenty-three years old, so it’s a mix of older folks like me—the founders who are in our fifties—and the reporters, who are the next generation. The courage they have, their mission, this is what journalism is about. 

You don’t know who you are until you are forced to defend it. The values I learned as a journalist really shaped who I am. You work for inclusive societies and you hold power to account, whether it’s the public or the private sector. It’s three words—transparency, accountability, and consistency. If you’re transparent, you can be accountable. If you’re accountable, you can be consistent. That’s the foundation of our democracy. It’s easy to think like that when you’re not under attack, but when you come under attack, things also get clearer.  You realize, “I don’t really have a choice.” That’s why I’m really proud of Rappler, because we all invested in it—not just our resources, but our skills and energy. It matters, because when we look back a decade from now, we at Rappler will know we did everything we could to hold the line.

SK: President Rodrigo Duterte’s approval rating in December 2019 was 87 percent. Why do you think Duterte’s authoritarian leadership is so popular in the Philippines?

MR: I think there are two wild cards that you have to look at. The first one is statistical surveys. You get 1,500 people, plus or minus three percent to do [statistical surveys] in their homes. [The government] has their addresses and their phone numbers. Do you really think if these people are in an area of weak law enforcement that they would say they don’t like Duterte? They’re identified. 

The second thing is the Philippines’ information warfare against its citizens—we call them the “disinformation networks.” The government has spent tremendous amounts of money to “Astroturf” and to change beliefs on social media. And it’s extremely powerful because ninety-nine percent of Filipinos who are on the internet are on Facebook. Facebook is our internet. So, this behavioural modification system works in politics and creates a bandwagon effect: if you hear twenty-five Facebook accounts saying that they love Duterte, it sways you slightly. It’s death by a thousand cuts—of your beliefs, your system, your democracy. For example, you see this from the way that historical revisionism of [former Philippine president] Marcos has happened. Perceptions of Marcos didn’t just jump from “Marcos is bad” to “Marcos is good” —it’s been a gradual chipping away, and slowly perceptions shifted to “Marcos is good.” And so that’s what you see happening. If you look at the Philippine president’s intelligence fund, in his first year in power it increased seven times, then another five times, and just last year it doubled again. The intel funds are confidential. They don’t have to say where the money went, and these funds add up to more than that of the intelligence groups! Having said that, it doesn’t downplay the reality that elite politics—liberal democracy—also failed in a trickle-down effect. The Philippines has had years of high economic growth and yet it didn’t trickle down enough to those that need it most. So it’s easy to highlight the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” and incite this to anger, which is what social media did.

President Duterte promised revenge. Look at the thinking: “Everyone is doing well; I should be doing better; it’s not my fault; someone else took it away from me.” Duterte is inciting anger and hate. I think we see this not just in the Philippines, but also in the United States—it’s the ninety-nine percent vs. the one percent. And the kind of attacks that Russian disinformation networks carry out on social media, you have data on such attacks. They fracture the lines of society until they split wide open. 

SK: What would it take for people to change their minds on authoritarian leaders such as Duterte?

MR: Since before 2014, we’ve had a movement of nostalgia for strongman leaders. It’s not just in the Philippines. In Indonesia, you had the son-in-law of former dictator Suharto running for president, and he was very close to winning, and in India, you had Modi, who was charged with human rights violations. So, we had global nostalgia. I think that part of it is that in an increasingly complex world, people want someone they trust to make decisions for them. There’s that, and then you add technology. Technology enabled the rise of these populist authoritarian style leaders exponentially. 

And it’s a scorched earth policy. So, if you look at the statistics: in November 2017, Freedom House came out with the first study showing that at least twenty-eight countries around the world were rolling back democracy, many aided by cheap disinformation activists on social media. By 2019, twenty-eight became seventy. This was research done by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research project, which said that in at least seventy countries around the world—the Philippines, the United States, England—states employed computational propaganda to shape public opinion. Technology has enabled the breakdown of democracy. Social media was used in the Philippines to attack journalists and institutions with credibility because the end goal is to make people doubt everything. Because if you don’t have facts and if you don’t know what you are fighting for, you cannot fight.

SK: So is full transparency and freedom of speech the end goal? 

MR: No. Mark Zuckerberg says this is a free speech issue. It’s not a free speech issue! It’s a distribution issue. The way social media platforms are designed and built is that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster than really boring facts. There are some interesting insights from Yuri Andropov, the former Chairman of the KGB. He talked about disinformation—dezinformatsiya. He said that dezinformatsiya is like taking drugs. If you take it once or twice, you’re going to be okay, but if you take it all the time, you’re going to be forever changed. When you become a drug addict you’re addicted; you can’t think. Ironic, given this is occurring in the Philippines, right? And so now think about the system, and think about the lies like a virus. They infect real people, and when those people are infected, they change. We have to rehabilitate this; first we have to stop the lies, then we have to rehabilitate society. 

SK: How do we fix the global problem of disinformation? 

MR: I’ve been thinking about that. Our problem in the Philippines is, as long as your information system is poisoned, you can’t have a working democracy. Because if you don’t have facts you can’t have truth, you can’t have trust, you can’t debate. And the way the behavior modification system works is that it actually manipulates you: polarization is built into the design, as well as addiction to stay on the platform. As long as you have this, democracy gets weaker. We can’t fix this, we can’t hold Duterte to account, if the American social media company platforms are allowing the manipulation of everyone around the world. So they have to fix that problem first. This is not a local problem; this is a global problem. 

Positives and negatives, right? When I first became a journalist, every country had its own vertical information ecosystem. Now, social media cuts across those ecosystems. If you include WhatsApp, that’s 2.7 billion social media accounts—and they are all connected. This means a lie in Yale will pop up in Manila a second later. It’s instantaneous. I’m a fan of the possibilities this creates, but I also saw all the manipulation first-hand, and the attacks. So I think the first step is that social media platforms and tech companies must use what we in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) call “enlightened self-interest.” Journalists can be held accountable; you can sue us. We don’t allow the pollution here. But we lost our gatekeeping role and now tech has become the new gatekeeper. The world’s largest distributor of news is Facebook—and they actually say it is okay to lie. That’s the pollution. So long as they do that, democracy will be weakened. 

SK: Does that mean self-regulation is the solution?

MR: It didn’t work, and it should have worked. I had great faith in these companies, but they haven’t been as proactive in dealing with the manipulation of companies like Cambridge Analytica because they make money out of them. When President Duterte’s propaganda machine creates hundreds of thousands of fake accounts, does it matter to them? It creates greater engagement. Facebook is being paid to actually go troll people. And then Facebook sells this. It’s a scorched earth policy.

SK: So how do you change their incentives? 

MR: I have a solution. I sit on the group called the Information and Democracy Commission at Reporters Without Borders—twenty-five of us from eighteen different countries. There are a few of us who are journalists, policy people, government, techand I’ve sat in on a lot of different tech groups that are looking for solutions. I think we need to look at the entire problem of technology, and it starts with data portability. MIT’s Sinan Aral has a book coming out that you have to read. Right now, there’s no incentive for Facebook to take care of the users because it is making so much money. In 2018, Facebook made 55 billion. In 2019, they made 70 billion. That’s a ton of money. And when they spent money to protect privacy, the market actually clobbered them. They posted this in their last quarter earnings. They got clobbered for trying to do the right thing. 

Imagine instead if the legislation is not about content but data portability. Imagine if, as a user, I can take my data and all the content I’ve created out of Facebook and put it in Jimmy Wales’ new social media platform. If I do that my friends and family will probably join me because it’s safer here. This then gives Facebook an incentive to protect me as a user because they want to keep me on their platform. I don’t want to break up Facebook because its scale has been important. But scale without any rules is like building a city without any traffic signs. So imagine if they can create a marketplace of ideas where users are protected. And if we’re not, then I can bring my data somewhere else so that other platforms can scale. 

SK: When you say ‘own’ data, do you mean users should get paid for their data? 

MR: I wouldn’t go that far. I want a short-term solution: I should own the copyright for any of the content and data that I create on the platform. So the tech firms act like a clearing house; they give us the ability to create and exchange content, but we own the associated data. That’s the short-term solution. I always think in short-, medium-, long-term. Long-term, education. Medium-term, media literacy. But these two things are not going to help people stay out of jail. I want something right now that will help my country’s democracy survive. Our institutions collapsed in the last six months. We need solutions now. 

 

About the Interviewer

Sophie Kaldor is a master’s student at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She graduated from Sydney University with a B.A. in Languages in 2016, receiving First Class Honors and the University Medal for her thesis in English and German literature. Between 2017 and 2019, Sophie worked as an analyst at Aon, a global risk advisory firm, where she enabled financial institutions, governments, and tech sector clients to mitigate asset and liability risks through risk transfer solutions. At Yale, Sophie studies international security with a particular focus on preventing polarization, disinformation, and extremism in all its forms.

Endnotes

1. Regine Cabato, “Conviction of Maria Ressa, hard-hitting Philippine American journalist, sparks condemnation,” The Washington Post, June 15, 2020, accessed June 24, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/maria-ressa-rappler-filipino-american-journalist-guilty-cyber-libel-prison/2020/06/14/0dc58872-ae9c-11ea-98b5-279a6479a1e4_story.html.

2. Karen Lema, “Fears for Philippines press freedom as court finds Maria Ressa guilty of libel,” Reuters, June 15, 2020, accessed June 24, 2020. https://fr.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKBN23M040.

3. Rupert Colville, “Press Briefing Note on Philippines and South Soudan,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, February 15, 2019, accessed June 24, 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24171&LangID=E.

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