Q&A: Nobel Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa won’t be silenced
Maria Ressa, the Filipino-American journalist who last month shared the Nobel Peace Prize, likes to quote the biologist E.O. Wilson: “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” Ressa would know. As the co-founder and CEO of Rappler, an investigative media outlet based in Manila, she has worked to uncover corruption, expose abuses of power, and shine a light on President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, making her a target of the Philippines’ authoritarian regime and online haters. Ressa has also been locked in an uneven battle against Facebook over the platform’s role in allowing the spread of fake news and hate speech in her country.
Ressa faces up to 60 years in prison in the Philippines on charges of cyber libel and tax evasion, both of which human rights advocates decry as a harassment campaign. But the embattled journalist refuses to be silenced.
“You don’t know who you are until you are forced to fight for it.” You said this coming out of a Manila court in 2019 where you posted bail after being arrested and detained overnight.
When you are under constant attack, you start asking yourself some tough personal questions. For example: What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth? This question first came up in 2016, and the answer seemed simple to me then because I didn’t think my government would go as far as it eventually did. It wasn’t until three years later, when I was detained, that I realized the times were different.
Over the past five years, I’ve witnessed violations of the constitution which are beyond imagination, and yet they are done with impunity. Senator Leila de Lima has been in prison since February 2017 without a real trial. Twenty-one journalists were killed. Cautionary tales were made out of businessmen and politicians. I became the cautionary tale for journalists. For most of 2019, I was in and out of court, spending more time with lawyers than I did with my colleagues at Rappler. But I like to think that I gave the government a hard time.
The Nobel Peace Prize was meant not only as a recognition but also a form of protection for you and Dmitri Muratov, with whom you shared the prize. Has it changed President Duterte’s demeanor toward you? In Russia, where Muratov is based, within hours of the Nobel Committee’s announcement, the crackdown on independent media outlets only worsened.
Well, Rappler recently published an investigative series based on the affidavit that ex-policeman Arturo Lascañas, who claims to have been Rodrigo Duterte’s hit man, gave to the International Criminal Court. In the 186-page statement, Lascañas details how Duterte ordered him to kill, and where to bury the victims. It is horrendous. We were the only media outlet in the Philippines that ran the story, and despite that, I was given approval to travel to the US, for the first time in two years. I guess the Nobel Prize had something to do with it. But whether I will be able to fly to Oslo and personally accept the prize is still uncertain.
Next year, Filipinos will vote in presidential and vice presidential elections, which are shaping up to be a race of political dynasties. The son of the ex-dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., teamed up with the daughter of the current head of state, Sara Duterte, to run for the two top jobs. If they win, which is likely, what would it mean for the freedom of press in your country?
We will be fighting for two things: facts and the rule of law. Rappler has pointed out that Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who goes by the name of Bongbong Marcos, has repeatedly lied. We have shown the networks of disinformation that helped change history in front of our eyes, turning his father from a dictator who plundered $10 billion from public funds — and had his family chased out by the People Power Revolution in 1986 — into a respected statesman. Of course the sins of the father are not the sins of the son, but in this case it’s not just about the father. Bongbong Marcos has lied about his degree, and when his lies were exposed, he only doubled down. Without the integrity of facts, we will not have the integrity of elections. This is what social media has enabled, and the next generation will pay for these abuses.
Thanks to whistleblowers, we know that since the early 2010s, Facebook has enabled propaganda to spread and allowed voter opinion to be manipulated in several developing countries, including the Philippines. As you have put it, “The Philippines is the canary in the coal mine for the US.’’ Which events in the US were foreshadowed in the Philippines?
The 2016 presidential elections are one example. Filipinos voted in May, Americans in November, and in both countries, social media platforms enabled manipulating public discourse in favor of populist leaders.
This is digital colonialism, affecting developing countries disproportionately harder because our institutions are weaker and collapse faster.
You often refer to social media platforms as “behavior modification systems.” What do you mean by that?
Every single app on my phone — Spotify, Facebook, Messenger — is a database for machine learning. If I click on something or post something, it becomes a data point. Machine learning systems create a model of me based on these points and offer me personalized content. When I react in the “right” way by clicking on it, I’m fed more of what the platform thinks I want. It’s a perpetual feedback loop, and inevitably it changes who I am.
To illustrate it, I always go back to the Capitol attack on Jan. 6. These people really believed that they were doing the right thing and that they were called out by the US President. It was a classic information operation, working top down and bottom up. Their worldview was changed through the information they received, playing to their cognitive biases, to their fears of “us against them,” and, most important, making them angry.
We know from Frances Haugen’s papers that Facebook algorithms reward anger. The content which stirs anger is more likely to be visible. This is why we need to work upstream and target algorithms, not just content.
You were born in Manila but grew up and studied in the United States. As an adult, you chose to settle in the Philippines, where today you face decades in prison for doing your job, basically. And yet you plan to return. What keeps you going back?
The fact that I’m not a criminal. These are trumped-up charges. I won’t stop reporting because they dangle a threat over my head. It’s just not me. There’s a chapter in my upcoming book titled “Don’t become a monster to fight a monster.” Governments like in the Philippines count on you to police yourself, so my first rule has always been: no compromise. I would rather not be a journalist than be a journalist who’s compromised.
If I left, I would weaken those who are still standing up against the abuses of power. I would also leave my team, and that is out of the question. So to me, it’s like a high-stakes game of chicken. You just keep going. You put one foot in front of the other. I know I’m on the right side of history. Leaving would make my life, my journalistic career, a lie. It took me a while to say it, but now I deeply believe it: Silence is complicity.
Ada Petriczko is the 2021 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation and a research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies.