When journalists are under attack, democracy is under attack
With technology as the accelerant, a lie told a million times becomes a fact. Without facts, we don’t have truth. Without truth, there is no trust. Without all three, you can’t have democracy. This is why democracy is broken around the world.
This is an edited version of Maria Ressa’s keynote address at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference (#GIJC) for 2019 in Hamburg, Germany, at the weekend.
The first time I heard that was more than two decades ago, looking at the virulent ideology that powered al-Qaeda. That was what the terrorists used to justify their attacks. Then, at a pivotal moment, when I was still just learning to deal with the new weapon against journalists, Julie Posetti convinced me that I should be speaking about these attacks on social media – and within 24 hours convinced me to do an interview for a book she was working on for UNESCO. Its title: An attack on one is an attack on all.
This is an existential moment in time – where if we don’t take the right steps forward, democracy as we know it is dead.
The more I study this time – which started with technology’s disruption, then attacks against journalists, then democracy – the more I’m convinced that the attacks against us and our values are so insidious that the equivalent of an atomic explosion has ruptured our worlds – and all we do is chip away at the tip of the iceberg we can see. But please keep this in mind as I speak: an attack of massive casualties has occurred – and most of us don’t know about it.
I’ll talk about three points: The battle for truth; the role of American social media platforms; and what we can do about it.
When journalists are under attack, democracy is under attack. Social media platforms are now the world’s largest distributor of news, but while they’ve taken the revenues, they’ve ignored the gatekeeping powers that news groups have traditionally had.
It takes courage to fight back against the insidious manipulation these platforms have enabled. They’re now used as a weapon against journalists: where lies laced with anger and hate spread faster than facts. (Facts are kinda boring).
This really hit me last December when Time magazine named me one of the guardians of Truth. At that point in time, I realised that among the Capital Gazette (the journalists who were killed there), the Reuters journalists still in prison in Myanmar at the time and Jamal Khashoggi – I was the only one who was both alive and free, making me think that never before has our profession … protecting our democracies … demanded so much from us.
The battle for truth is the battle of our generation. With technology as the accelerant, a lie told a million times becomes a fact.
Without facts, we don’t have truth. Without truth, there is no trust. Without all three, you can’t have democracy. This is why democracy is broken around the world.
In our country, the bottom up exponential attacks on social media astroturfing and creating a bandwagon effect soften the ground before the same lies came top down from our top government officials.
I know this first-hand: in 14 months, the Philippine government filed at least 11 cases and investigations against me and Rappler. I was arrested twice in a five-week period, and I’ve posted bail eight times in about three months. I have committed no crime except to be a journalist and to hold power to account.
I’ve seen social media and our legal system weaponised against those who ask questions, who stand up for values, who demand the rights guaranteed under our constitution, which is patterned after the US constitution.
When I was first arrested early in 2019, the officer said, “ma’am, trabaho lang po”. (Ma’am, I’m only doing my job.) Then he lowered his voice to almost a whisper as he read me my Miranda rights. He was clearly uncomfortable, and I almost felt sorry for him. Except he was arresting me – the last act in a chain of events meant to intimidate and harass me because I’m a journalist.
This officer was a tool of power – and an example of how a good man can turn evil – and how great atrocities happen. Hannah Arendt wrote about The Banality of Evil when describing men who carried out the orders of Hitler in Nazi Germany, how career-oriented bureaucrats can act without conscience because they justify that they’re only following orders.
This is how a nation loses its soul. So you have to know what values you are fighting for and you have to draw the lines now: where this side you’re good, and this side you’re evil. Help us #HoldTheLine.
So what about American social media platforms? As many of you know now, I’m both a partner and a critic of Facebook. Rappler is one of two Filipino fact-checking partners in the Philippines. Facebook is essentially the internet in the Philippines.
We are the canary in the coal mine because globally Filipinos spend the most time online (more than 10 hours a day) and on social media (for the fourth year in a row we’re the top users around the world). But we are also democracy’s dystopian future.
Early in September, I was with Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie (you know he’s just turning 30 years old) and he told me that the Philippines “creates an ideal petri dish where you can experiment on tactics and techniques that you wouldn’t be able to as easily in the West … and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter, you won’t get caught. And if it does work, then you can then figure out how to port that to the West.”
I asked him if the Philippines paved the way for Brexit and Donald Trump. You know what he said? He sidestepped a little, but I’ll read his entire quote so stay with me.
“Filipino politics kinda looks a lot like the United States. You’ve got a president who was Trump before Trump was Trump, and you have relationships with people close to him with SCL and Cambridge Analytica. And you had a lot of data being collected – the second largest amount of data after the United States collected in the Philippines.”
This kid behind the psychological operations web of Steve Bannon backed by Robert and Rebekah Mercer added that “colonialism never died, it just moved online”.
So … this nightmare began for me more than three years ago. Rappler wrote the first pieces about it globally in 2016. I wrote two of the three parts of our first series and was rewarded with an average of 90 hate messages per hour.
If nothing changes, what’s happened to us is going to happen to you. It’s already happening now. Underlying it all is greed and fear, in our case the violence of a brutal drug war that the UN says has killed at least 27,000 people, far more than the official number of 5,500.
People are afraid to stand up for what is right because there are costs: Rappler in the Philippines is a cautionary tale – and one of my arresting officers said it best when he was trying to silence our young reporter who was livestreaming. He said: “Be quiet, or you’re next.”
This microtargeting online ad-driven business model structurally undermines human will. Our personal experiences are sucked into a database, organised by AI, then sold to the highest bidder. It is – as it has always been – about power and money. That has also siphoned money away from news groups, and if nothing is done, this represents a foundational threat to markets, election integrity, and democracy itself.
These social media platforms are behavioral modification systems we voluntarily enter. We are Pavlov’s dogs – and let me quote Wylie again as well as Blackberry co-founder Jim Balsillie: they said that data at this micropersonal level is not the new oil. It is plutonium. And we need to treat it like plutonium – with all the care that requires. Remember, I said, an atom bomb has exploded – and we all don’t know about it. Until we accept that, we can’t solve the problem.
So what can we do?
First, journalists need to collaborate. Throw out your old definitions. This is a new world. Collaborating isn’t easy because we were born to compete against each other. In the Philippines, our data tells us that news groups have been pushed to the periphery of our information ecosystem, and in the centre are disinformation networks – some linked to Russian disinformation networks, some to China. They are all actively sharing with each other – while we are not. This is how alternative realities bloom.
We have to stop taking the bait of emotions. Seek what we have in common over what drives us apart because that’s the way the bad guys are working: they take a fracture line in our societies and pound it open to separate us into Us vs Them.
And it’s not just the journalists … let’s bring in academia, tech, civil society – the truth-tellers – we have to join forces to protect the facts.
We have to fight now, while we’re strong because as we have learned, you only get weaker over time because this virus of lies saps civic engagement. If you have no facts, civil society becomes apathetic, and the voice with the loudest megaphone wins.
Second, we need to demand enlightened self-interest from tech companies because – in the long term, yes, the solution is education; medium term: media literacy – but in the here and now? It’s only the tech platforms that can do something meaningful.
Third, we need to create a global database of disinformation networks, and a global Interpol that stops the impunity that nations and companies are getting away with today. Remember, after the Holocaust and World War II, the world came together to try to stop the worst of human behaviours. That was when we got Bretton Woods, Nato, the UN Declaration of Human Rights. What are the values that govern the internet? How do we punish offenders?
We need to seriously come together and fight because An attack on one is an attack on all.
Power – and bullies – will never stop if you give in to them. We at Rappler live this every day.
Early in September, our presidential spokesman and chief legal counsel to President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to file cases against two news groups, including Rappler, because we called out a glaring conflict of interest. He split hairs and attempted to redefine his actions based on a technicality. One news group apologised. We did not.
Here’s the twist. The apology wasn’t enough for our Palace spokesman. His words ultimately justified Rappler’s decision to #HoldTheLine.
Political bullies who threaten and abuse journalists are never happy until they get complete capitulation.
Our battle is your battle.
Protect the rights guaranteed by our democracies or watch them slowly erode in plain sight. This is the challenge for all of us today – for next year’s Global Investigative Journalism Conference. What can we put in place today to protect our tomorrows?
Remember: An attack on one is an attack on all. DM
Maria Ressa is a reporter, co-founder and CEO of the Philippines title, Rappler, which was the joint winner of the Global Shining Light awards, along with the collaborative trio – amaBhungane, News24 and Daily Maverick’s Scorpio – at the Global Investigative Journalism Network event in Hamburg, Germany, at the weekend. Ressa was Time Person of the Year in 2018.