Social media enabling destruction of democracy
Filipino journalist speaks to Kathimerini about what winning the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize means to her and her news agency Rappler
“It’s the enabler of the destruction of democracy. It’s the enabler of the destruction of the facts,” says the Filipino Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa in an interview with Kathimerini from her Manila office. The acclaimed journalist and founder of the Asian news agency Rappler shares this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov for their struggle to defend freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia.
Ressa was recently denied permission to travel to the Greek capital and join the panel of the Athens Democracy Forum in what she called an “exercise of power abuse.” The vocal critic of the Philippine government and President Rodrigo Duterte faces several charges and has filed an appeal on her conviction in the cyber libel case. “It’s like a shot of adrenaline,” she says of the Nobel Prize, which has come at a dangerous time for democracy.
What does this prize mean to you? How are peace and journalism related and what does it tell us about the state of the world?
Peace and journalism… The head of the Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, actually said they had been looking for freedom of expression for a long time because they believe it was the foundation of every democracy, and the keepers of the facts, the defenders of the facts, are journalists. And she explained that freedom of expression is that you can say what you think without fear, that there won’t be any kind of repercussions for it. That’s certainly not the case now. And that’s her explanation. What it did for us at Rappler – it’s like a shot of adrenaline. It reminds you that you are not alone. Actually it’s for more than just us – it’s for the journalists, it’s for all of us, that kind of recognition that it’s extremely tough and increasingly dangerous to do our jobs. Let’s put it this way: The last time the Nobel Committee did that, the last time a journalist won this prize, was right before WWII, when the journalist (Carl von Ossietzky) was languishing in a Nazi concentration camp in the late 1930s. And this is what I was reminded. At Rappler there was an air of jubilee and they were thrilled because we’ve been working so hard. But here’s the thing, right? When the Nobel Peace Prize was given to that journalist, it [showed things] can get better – that’s what we hope, that this global attention will help journalists everywhere, but the second part of it is that it can get worse. It can get much worse. And I think that’s what the Nobel Committee is saying, that this time it’s dangerous. There is a rise of authoritarian leaders, there is a rise of fascism and a good reminder that Hitler and Stalin were democratically elected. As were Duterte and Bolsonaro – and once they got elected, their leadership works better on the technology that delivers the news, it’s us against them, anger and hate, divisive styles of leadership – once they gain power they crumble the institutions from within. So the checks and balances are gone. I think that’s the message of the Nobel Committee and it’s part of the reason why it’s dangerous to be a journalist today.
What is the role of social media in the situation we are facing now?
It’s the enabler of the destruction of democracy. It’s the enabler of the destruction of the facts. Social media has become a behavior modification system, and we, the people, are Pavlov’s dogs, repeatedly being experimented on, using the vulnerabilities of our biology. You know there’s an American biologist who captured the crisis we are facing. It’s E. O. Wilson, who is known for studying ads and emerging behaviors, and he said that the greatest crisis we are facing is Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology. Paleolithic emotions, because this is what is being exploited; social media – the world’s largest distributor of news today is Facebook – so, social media, with its algorithmic distribution actually distributes lies, laced with anger and hate, faster and further than facts. That’s what research has shown. And if you don’t have facts, you don’t have truth. And if you don’t have truth, you can’t have trust. If you don’t have these three, how can you have democracy – or any kind of shared reality where complex problems can be solved? How can you have a peace process if you can’t agree on the facts? So, in geopolitical power play in some of the nations that want power they are using the vulnerability, the microtargeting social media platforms, Russian disinformation networks. There’s a lot of data now which show how it worked in Ukraine, how it targeted the American 2016 elections, how it attacked Hillary Clinton. Did HC lose the presidency because of information operations?
The reason I wanted to go to Athens and to this democracy summit is because it’s really incredible to go to the birthplace of democracy at a really existential moment for democracy, and I think that’s where we are. I always say that an atom bomb has exploded in our information ecosystem and, just like after WWII, after Hiroshima, the world must come together to prevent the worst of human nature from determining our future. Think about it. The social media platforms encourage the worst of human nature. That’s what the incentive system encourages. And the beauty and the resilience and the empathy of humanity is gagged, and instead you have this kind of toxic sludge that transfers from person to person in these networks.
Do we need something like a new United Nations for technology?
Definitely. First recognizing the problem. For far too long, the social media platforms, those American tech companies, have led us down their own path. It isn’t about content moderation, it’s about algorithmic distribution. They will say it’s a freedom of speech issue. This is not a freedom of speech issue, it’s a freedom of reach issue. Sacha Baron Cohen said that many years ago. So, it’s about what they choose to reward. And then we go back to the business model. Shoshana Zuboff wrote this book about surveillance capitalism in 2019 and there you can see how insidious it is. It takes the essence of the humanity of each of us by seeing each post, by using the cell phone as a way to gather data about you, using machine learning to create a model of you that knows you better than you know yourself, and then AI to serve that up, your weakest moment, your most vulnerable moment, to a company. That’s called new advertising, or, to a government, the new propaganda.
So, it requires multilateral global solutions. That includes governments, the democratic states. That includes civil society, tech companies. It must be multilateral and should include countries on a global scale because we are the ones worst hit. It’s already been proven by the UN and FB that genocide happened in Myanmar and yet no one has been held accountable and it continues to happen every day because there has been no concrete changes.
So, what I have done is co-chaired an infodemics working group at the Forum on Information & Democracy. My co-chair was Marietje Schaake and what we tried to do was come up with a dozen systemic solutions for what we can do about infodemics, and more than 250 tactical solutions. I sit on the Real Facebook Oversight Board, along with Zuboff and Roger McNamee, who is a Silicon Valley insider who first invested in FB (he tried to get Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg to listen to him – but this was very dangerous) and Carole Cadwalladr, the British journalist who broke the Cambridge Analytica story. The board is a real-time kind of demand for the incremental changes that will force some meaningful change. And we’re also building our own tech platform at Rappler.
The second big thing is to help independent journalism survive. So a few weeks before the Nobel announcement I agreed to co-chair the International Fund for Public Interest Media with the former CEO of the NYT, Mark Thompson, and that’s where we want to go, to democratic states and turn the Overseas Development Assistance from 0.3% to media today to 1%, and that can raise a billion dollars a year that we can give to news organizations whose business models have collapsed and they can survive a time period when we can put guard rails around tech.
How can journalists regain the lost trust? How do you do that at Rappler?
You understand it’s not in your power anymore. That’s one. When we lost our gatekeeping powers and the new gatekeepers, the social media platforms… The reason we lost is complex. It’s partly because news has been commoditized. Since when does investigative journalism that holds power to account take more money and time to produce? Since when is it reduced to a page view to be compared to your police story or entertainment story? That was the beginning of the commoditization of news and frankly that was the beginning of wrong incentives for news. But think about it again, if you don’t have facts in a battle for facts then journalism becomes activism. But here’s the problem. That key word you mentioned is trust. Trust is incredibly important but part of the reason the Duterte propaganda machine attacks me and Rappler is because – and we know this because UNESCO did a study of almost half a million social media attacks against me – it figured out that 60% of the attacks were meant to tear down my credibility, to tear down Rappler’s credibility and then 40% are dehumanizing, they are sexist, misogynistic, they look for every vulnerability, anything that will shut me up. They meant to tear down my spirit and when I see this and study this it only gives me more resolve to demand accountability that 1) this shouldn’t be happening, and 2) who is doing these information operations? I think FB just announced that they will give greater protection to journalists, something that I’ve been asking since 2016. I came to them with an average of 90 hate messages per hour in 2016 and they told me I was a public figure. That’s not true, I’m not a politician, I’m a journalist, and our constitution in the Philippines is patterned from the US; we have a bill of rights and freedom or the press. The people need the facts. Back to your question, we’ll never be able to rebuild trust if the world’s largest distributor of news remains these American social media platforms that tear apart trust.
Do you feel optimistic about the fact that there are now two whistleblowers against Facebook?
I would say that there are now four whistleblowers on FB. The first was Roger McNamee, the silicon valley investor, who wrote a book called “Zucked,” then there was Christopher Willey, the data analyst who created the machine behind Cambridge Analytica, and then there was Sophie Zhang, who exposed how countries were using information, and finally Frances Haugen, who said what we have thought, and it’s different this time. She had the documents that showed that the leaders knew that their algorithms were harming teenagers, that they were making choices that were harming people on their platforms for more money. This is something we have known for a long time but the shift from content moderation to algorithm distribution happened with Frances Haugen and I hope we’ll see more of that because I feel like a combination of Sisyphus, rolling the rock up the hill, and Cassandra, because I’ve been talking about this since 2016. Back then I wrote a three-part series about propaganda and the internet, how FB and algorithms impact democracy and about manufactured reality. We manually counted the impact of 26 fake accounts, so we proved that 26 fake accounts were used, followed them, and manually counted the impact they had, how many other accounts they influenced, and those 26 fake accounts influenced up to 3 millions other FB accounts. So we came under attack in 2016 because of that, because we exposed the propaganda machine and what my government was doing and the other was the brutal drug war. So in 2016 we demanded to end the impunity of Rodrigo Duterte and his brutal drug war and Mark Zuckerberg and FB.
Is there a lesson here for Europe?
It’s happening everywhere. It’s global. If there’s anything we have learnt, and I’ll turn this into something positive, social media showed us that human beings have a lot more in common than we have differences. Because we tend to look at differences in countries, language and culture, but what social media platforms have proven is that we are all easily manipulable based on our biology, and that can be a good thing. Imagine if they decided to encourage charity or empathy right? Instead what is being encouraged is anger and hate. So, part of it is because this is what brings money, it’s part of the business model Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism. She published that book in 2019. I work with her, but the reality is that it is already happening in your countries. So the first country it really happened in was Ukraine – that one we all watched but we didn’t know it was happening. Then in 2016 is when the dominos all began to fall, in elections. The first elected was Duterte in May, a month later you had Brexit, then you had the Catalan elections, the US elections, Bolsonaro, Macron – for the French elections FB took down 30,000 fake accounts. That was 2017. They didn’t do that in the Philippines in 2016. We were already manipulated. Social media has become a behavior modification system. I say that all the time and it sounds geeky but it is insidious manipulating us for power and money.
Local politics and integrity of facts
The Philippines is heading for an election in May. Do you feel if anything is changing?
We don’t know because of another legal loophole. The Duterte family has held power in Davao City since 1988. So there’s another one of those legal loopholes they use, called substitution. Filing for candidates ended last Friday. And yet what they do now is this shock and awe; it’s the tactics that in the end tear up the spirit of the laws. This is really the battle of facts. There are now 10 candidates for presidency. Five have the political machinery to really compete, which means that no one will have the majority. President Duterte was elected in 2016 with 39% of the votes. About 16 million voters in a country of 110 million people. The son of the former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Junior, declared that he will run for president last week. So, 35 years after his family was chased out of the Philippines into exile by the power of people revolt in 1986, the son of the dictator is now running for president. Rappler did these stories which expose the disinformation networks that Bongbong Marcos has put in place and in fact FB in September 2020 took down information operations from China so you can see the geopolitical power play connected here. These disinformation operations from China were campaigning for the daughter of Duterte, Sara Duterte, it was polishing the profile of Marcos and was attacking me and Rappler. It was also making fake accounts for the US presidential elections two months later and using AI-generated photos to do that. So FB took that down and announced it and that gives you an idea what we are going to face in our elections. You can’t have integrity of elections if you don’t have integrity of facts.
Still work to be done
Have you found any time to celebrate the prize?
A journalist’s only defense is to shine the light. It’s the only thing we can do, to tell the stories. When I came under attack by this administration in 2017, 2018, 2019, I was already old. I’ve been doing this for 35 years so I knew why I was doing what I was doing. So, it was easy to take the path I was on.
When the Nobel Committee spotted what I was doing, I thought this was a boon for journalists, this is for all of us and that means we have to work doubly hard. Because I think the Nobel Committee recognizes that we are under pressure, we could lose democracy, fascism is on the rise – I cringe when I say that, but the use of tech to elect populist authoritarians, digital authoritarians, it’s scary.
But I’m not answering your question, no not yet, because there’s so much work to be done. The announcement came when I was writing a book and the majority I have given to my publisher. I was trying to write the last chapter but now this has changed everything, right? And then the other part is that I’m very conscious, I’m only a place holder for every journalist and I just want to take this spotlight they gave me and shine the light to every country where journalists are under threat.
Yesterday I spoke to editors in Venezuela, which ranks even lower than the Philippines in the freedom of press index – India also. I’m very lucky because I think part of the reason we were able to stay alive is because I’ve spent almost 20 years of my career with CNN. I lived outside, working for international news organizations and most of my colleagues went on to head other news organizations, so they knew me, I knew them. It’s like the Avengers Assemble from the Marvel comics. This is it.
We must win the battle for facts and the battle for news. That’s what I’m writing in my book. This is the fight for our future. I’m so thankful to the Nobel Committee and I know Dmitry Muratov has been fighting his battle in Russia for a long time. I think this is what we can get energy from and win the battles. I will celebrate soon!