When citizens are manipulated on social media, they distrust everything: Maria Ressa

With strongmen governments increasing their presence online, the mission for journalists has never been as important as it is now, says the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

October 24, 2021 11:35 am | Updated 10:37 pm IST

File photo of the Philippines journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, one of 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winners, poses for a portrait in Taguig City, Metro Manila, the Philippines, October 9, 2021

File photo of the Philippines journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, one of 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winners, poses for a portrait in Taguig City, Metro Manila, the Philippines, October 9, 2021

Journalist Maria Ressa from the Philippines is one of two journalists to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 , along with Russian Editor Dmitry Muratov. In an interview to The Hindu , Ms. Ressa, who is the author of upcoming book How to Stand Up to a Dictator speaks about her battles with the Philippines government and ‘Big Tech’ social media companies.


It is not since 1935 that the Nobel Peace Prize went to a journalist, (Carl Von Ossietzky) who wrote about the Nazi regime in Germany’s remilitarisation plan. So what do you think is the message the Nobel Peace Committee is sending in 2021?

That it is that kind of moment, you know, that it is an existential moment, where, what happened after 1935, you had Second World War. And I use that analogy all the time, because I always say that our information ecosystem, it's like an atom bomb exploded. And we need to come together globally and find a solution, much like the world did after Second World War, they created the U.N., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, right, these values, because I got to say, I keep asking for “tech values”, beyond making money, and [for tech companies] to take the role of being the gatekeeper to the public sphere seriously. I will also say: this prize is for all journalists. I feel like I'm the placeholder for every journalist around the world who have found it so hard to just do their jobs. And I keep hoping that this creative destruction will lead us to a place that is better than where we are.

Both Philippines and India are on the list of Top 10 countries where journalists have been killed or targeted. For journalists, the growing threat is coming from democratically elected, populist, and increasingly authoritarian regimes worldwide. What do you think led to the rise of populism?

Technology! [These regimes] were always there, if you see that Hitler and others were elected democratically, but I go back to the past decade where journalists lost our gatekeeping powers [to social media] technology. And, globally I would say the first time we saw different realities being put out was in Ukraine, for example, by Russian military led information systems or in the [Indian election campaign] in 2014. We saw that the use of social media lead to an erosion of trust in [mainstream media]. When citizens are being manipulated by parties on social media, they begin to distrust everything. This year an Oxford University research ‘Project on Computational Propaganda’ (now known as the Programme on Democracy and Technology demtech.oii.ox.ac.uk ) found that these “cheap armies on social media” are rolling back democracy in 81 countries around the world.

The hard part is that it manipulates our biology. As human beings, we have a lot more in common than we realise because the very same platforms are using an algorithmic manipulation in order to change what we think, to change how we feel. According to one biologist who studied this behaviour, our greatest crisis comes from “palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technology”. The technology is God-like because social media has become a behaviour modification system. And with a lack of accountability, and the potential to make significant amounts of money, it is a business model that takes our data and uses it to manipulate us.

The counter argument is that social media, big tech companies have democratised expression, given everyone a platform. Why do you think they are, as you describe, an agent for authoritarianism and not an agent for the people's right to know?

Well, I would point you to 2011, and how the Arab Spring became an Arab Winter. At the beginning, [social media] was empowering. But then, governments realised they could exploit those weaknesses of micro-targeting, those weaknesses of what was used for marketing, and governments began to manipulate those tools. Mark Zuckerberg says all the time that this is a freedom of speech issue. But I like to quote comedian Sacha Baron Cohen who said that this is actually a ‘freedom of reach’ issue.

We're talking about algorithmic amplification, algorithmic distribution, and studies now have shown us that lies laced with anger can be spread faster and further than facts. If the social media platforms are biased against the facts, then they're biased against journalism which seeks facts. And this contestation leads to a divided society.

In the Philippines, for example, we never argued about facts, regardless of where we stood [on politics]. But after the election of President [Rodrigo] Duterte in 2016, if you were Pro-Duterte, and you can substitute pro-[former U.S. President Donald] Trump here as well, you would move further right. If you were anti-Duterte, you would move further left. This kind of [algorithmic manipulation] has torn apart the shared reality. Freedom of expression is also the idea that you should be able to speak the truth, speak what you think without fear of retribution. Information [surveillance] operations on social media make that more difficult, and as a result these strongman leaders brought out the worst of human nature, gave permission for very destructive [online] behaviour.

Tell us a little bit about your own journey fighting the strongman leader President Duterte, leading up to your arrest in 2019.

In the Philippines, President Duterte was democratically elected, but like many of these digital authoritarians, once he was President, he then took the levers of power and changed it from within. We have seen at least 19 journalists killed during his administration, 63 lawyers, over 400 human rights activists, and then he had this very bloody drug war. Our first battle for truth was, just to collate how many people had died in the [war on drugs], because the police would give one figure and then they would roll it back. In 2012, we set up Rappler ( rappler.com ) with 20 young employees. One of the things that had begun to alarm was that how anyone who questioned the drug war was just pounded on social media. So the first thing we exposed was [the government’s] information operations, we showed our people the data of how they were being manipulated online. I wrote a series called “Weaponising the Internet”, on how Social media algorithms impact a person. Then we looked at manufactured reality and how just 26 fake accounts could reach up to three million users via social media.

I have to say, I didn't expect to get arrested. I didn't expect 10 arrest warrants in less than two years. But we just kept doing what we were doing. The four of us, the co-founders of Rappler have this pact that only one of us is allowed to be afraid at one time, and then we rotate that. (Laughs)

What are your suggestions for journalists just starting out? Is there a toolkit on how to deal with a tough state?

The first thing is that journalists, news organisations [must move] from the age when we were competing against each other. We're on the same side. When it's a battle for facts, we are on the same side, and especially on social media. In a battle for facts, collaboration is the way forward. This is an amazing time to be a journalist, because the mission has never been as important as it is today.

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