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Democracy faces the abyss in 2024, we might just fall off the cliff, says Nobel laureate Maria Ressa

Democracy faces the abyss in 2024, we might just fall off the cliff, says Nobel laureate Maria Ressa
Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, vice-chair of the Internet Governance Forum Leadership Panel, talks to the media about the panel's activities at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on 14 July 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Salvatore di Nolfi)

Maria Ressa, the Filipino-American journalist and Nobel laureate known for her work to defend democracy and combat disinformation, gave a video address at The Gathering Twenty Twenty-Four. Ressa said facts and journalism are vital to democracy, and warned that democracy is on the ballot in the coming elections.

The first step in protecting free speech in the age of disinformation, misinformation, fake news and populism is to understand that we now live in an “extremely fractured world”.

“That the public information ecosystem, our shared reality, has been torn apart, and that’s because of a lot of reasons but largely it’s the distribution system,” said Ressa in the video address at The Gathering on Thursday, 14 March 2024. 

Born in 1963 in the Philippines, Ressa moved to the US with her family at the age of 10. She returned to the Philippines in 1986 after her education abroad and started her work as a journalist after the People Power Revolution

Ressa explained that with the rise of the internet, major technology and social media companies have become the gatekeepers of news while journalism companies have gone out of business.

“What used to be traditional media no longer distributes and big tech’s way of making money actually works on personalising, taking you away from the shared space,” she said. 

Ressa also cautioned against being cynical. 

“It is healthy to be sceptical about what you’re seeing, but it’s incredibly destructive to be cynical. Because we live in a world where it becomes even more important to create communities of action, and the only way you’re going to do that is face to face, is eyeball to eyeball,” she said.

The concept of ubuntu, which can be roughly translated as “humanity towards others”, could also be beneficial. 

“We go back to the core of who we are as people, the core of our humanity, and the societies that we build around it. Democracy has been the most successful so far,” said Ressa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Gathering 2024

Truth in a divided world and the role of journalists as they cover Gaza genocide

Ressa said our shared reality is based on the facts we agree to, but it should not be something we agree to because “we see, we live it, we know it”.

“I think the key part here is to go back to the shared reality, the shared space, and know the facts. After the facts, understand the context, understand the nuances that have been drained out of that shared space that we live in today,” she said.

Ressa said journalists should “call it what it is, be spot-on. Be aware that one death is one death too much” when covering the situation in Gaza

“What is at stake in the world today is this idea of every individual having their rights covered in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Do we watch in silence?” 

Facts and journalism vital to democracy 

A journalist for more than three decades, in 2012 Ressa co-founded Rappler, a digital-only news site dedicated to promoting truth and democracy in journalism that is leading the fight for press freedom in the Philippines.

“The elevator pitch for Rappler is we build communities of action and journalism is the food we feed our communities […] Journalists report the facts, the food that you need, that you as a citizen of a democracy, that civil society needs in order to create a better world,” she said.

Ressa and Rappler’s critical reportage on former president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war led to her enduring constant political harassment, arrests and multiple charges brought during his presidential term. Rappler’s battle for truth and democracy is the subject of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival documentary, A Thousand Cuts. 

Ressa said the Philippines has a constitution patterned after the US and journalists are protected in ways that reflect the power that they derive from the people.

Maria Ressa

Maria Ressa speaks at the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s inaugural Albie Awards at New York Public Library on 29 September 2022. (Photo: Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images for Albie Awards)

“The strange thing right now is that again the distribution system has taken those protections away, and we are living in a time where you have seen more journalists globally harassed, jailed and killed – and that is a trend that has happened for the last decade. Not coincidentally, that trend goes hand in hand with the decline of democracy around the world,” she said.

Without knowing the facts, one would not know how to make things better, and without journalists one would not be able to hold power to account, said Ressa.

In October 2021, Ressa was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, in recognition of her “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”. 

For her courage and work on disinformation and “fake news” she was included in Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year issue, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time’s Most Influential Women of the Century. 

“Journalists help make sure that the guardrails are in place that the public can see. And I always say, you shine the light and when the light is there, people behave in much more civilised ways,” she said. 

In 2022, Ressa published her book How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future, in which she considers the links between authoritarianism and social media, recounting her work exposing disinformation networks seeded by the Duterte government and consequent attempts to silence her. 

2024: The ultimate election year

Ressa has spent years warning that social media giants like Facebook can be weaponised to influence election campaigns.

Research has shown how a social media disinformation campaign helped Duterte win office in 2016 and wield a subsequent reign of terror under the guise of a war on drugs.

By establishing the narrative that the Philippines had a massive drug problem, and that Duterte was the best candidate to fight this menace, disinformation helped legitimise an anti-drug crusade that degenerated into a war against Filipino citizens, and caused thousands of deaths.

At least 64 countries will head to the polls in 2024, including South Africa. 

“I’ve long said 2024 is the tipping point for democracy. We’re looking at jumping off the cliff this year,” said Ressa.

Part of the trigger is not just the real-world problems every country faces, like the power outages and unemployment in South Africa, but also big tech being the connective tissue at the cellular level of a democracy going directly to the people, said Ressa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

“In the old days, before big tech, we would have been able to pull people together, there would be a public debate, and hopefully a solution would be found […] as a government, it becomes more difficult to govern because there are many more forces that are insidiously manipulating people, and we’ve seen this geopolitical power doing that,” she said. 

Ressa reiterated that at this age it becomes even more important to create the shared space.

“I think the key thing to remember for this moment in time as democracy faces this abyss, that we might just fall off the cliff, is that how it survives is not going to be up to someone else out there. It’s going to be up to you. It’s going to be what you’re going to do, how you’re going to mobilise your family and friends, your communities of action,” she said. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • W De Soto says:

    Do you think ActionSA might deserve any support?

  • Citizen X says:

    Poignant point, point of inflection in our democracy, a point where our freedoms and associated responsibilities are at stake. It’s time we put our stakes in the ground and remove the blinkers. Its almost as if we have gone 10 steps back in this world. If we do not get comfortable with the uncomfortable all our children will face a bleak future!!! So I ask what world do we want to leave our children and if we really care, be careful who we actively vote for, hold accountable and standup for!

  • Peter Doble says:

    I would venture that democracy, especially in South Africa, has already fallen off the cliff – if indeed it ever existed. Parliament is not representative and lacks real authority to question and hold responsible, politicians do not act in the interests of the people, there is no direct accountability to the voters, no truthful process of communication and no open method of questioning government ministers or officials.

    • Lawrence Sisitka says:

      Yes, I also don’t really believe that real democracy has ever been tried, certainly not in contemporary societies. Unfortunately we have what we have in terms of the political system and we need to find a way to use this to move to another system which is not dependent on the narrow understanding of politics we seem to subscribe to, and absolutely not dependent on politicians or political parties. It is entirely possible to envisage, even plan for, truly democratic, and fully accountable systems, where the notion of political ‘powa’ is replaced by genuine representivity, but we cannot expect any government elected under the current system to introduce one which will render them obsolete. Therein lies the main dilemma in terms of effecting the radical shifts that we need to get us out of the spuriously ‘democratic’ hole we find ourselves in. But it needs to be done if we are every to break out of the stranglehold of the existing power-based system.

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      Democracy certainly has failed us. I truly hope we see some sort of resurrection of meaningful democracy in the upcoming elections. I am not expecting any miracles though as I think our experiment has lead us into a very dark place. I don’t think the broader population really grasps the true power and understanding of democracy and what its potential is to improve lives. Africa as a whole still lives in the dark ages. Organized chaos is more the order of the day. Having said that, USA is also another prime example of a currently dysfunctional democracy. Its a leaderless, divided and self destructive society at current. Nowhere near the state we are in, but certainly not headed in the right direction.

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        And neither of you (and so many others) provide a shared/agreed understanding of what “democracy” is . No wonder we are in the ‘state’ we are in.

        • Malcolm McManus says:

          Yes, We were waiting for you to help guide us and share what so many of us agree on.

        • Paddy Ross says:

          Stating the obvious, it is the rule of the people, by the people, for the people. To achieve that a functioning democracy needs an informed electorate, a ‘parliament’ that holds the executive to account, and a rock solid legal system.
          I leave others to decide how well South Africa meets those aspirations. One might also like to review the US and Russia while about it. All three claim to be democracies.

        • Dietmar Horn says:

          Why don’t you just explain to us what democracy is?

      • Lawrence Sisitka says:

        That’s exactly what I mean about the need to break out of the current system, everywhere. But how to make that happen well…?

  • Really Honestly says:

    Democracy is not just about “free and fair elections” . We are in an age where government and corporate interference and control undermines our freedoms in nearly every aspect of our lives from how we spend our hard earned money (what is left after governments have stripped out high taxes across the globe), what we do online and in the physical world (cameras everywhere), to group think political ideologies that trample on every right we as humans have. We as the people have been asleep at the wheel, and the silent majority have left radical idealogues to take away nearly all our freedoms, and it is probably too late to reverse it.

  • Cameron murie says:

    The tragic fact is that real democracy has been stillborn for most South Africans. I’ve watched it since 94, to now, and the quality of life trajectory for most people is very different from what was hoped.
    We live with unnecessary grinding poverty, and all of the ills which follow that.
    Speaking strictly for myself, I don’t believe in it, although I once did.
    It’s the very young, I feel their loss the hardest.

  • Andrew Molyneaux says:

    I strongly believe that the resolution to the problems faced by the electorate rest with that very same electorate – A Community must choose the leader of that community – not a political party – Community Leaders need to be standing up, outside of politics and should they fail, then the community must arrange the replacement – Politics is not the answer – Community is !!!
    A system that is driven from grassroots upwards is way more likely to succeed than one driven down from the top.

    • Joe Soap says:

      The only way community approaches being involved is in a constituency type electoral system. Not perfect but better than the current proportional system. Also necessary is constituencies of approximately equal size. To counter a winner takes all perhaps two representatives from each constituency- first and second past the post.

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    Paddy Ross explained democracy very well. The decisive factor is the legal system – equal rights for everyone regardless of the person. The establishment of a democratic legal system alone does not automatically lead to the existence of a society living according to ethical and moral standards. It is then incumbent on the people, as the supreme sovereign, to work towards the development of such a society. The democratic legal system lays the foundation for this and has the opportunity to correct undesirable developments. Trump was recently voted out of office, as was the populist regime in Poland. The Hungarian and South African people still have to prove themselves in this regard. It determines where society develops. The result can be economic-social Darwinism like in the USA or a social market economy like in Scandinavia and West Germany after the Second World War.

  • Malcolma Wyngaard says:

    You have to vote strategically. With over 300 parties, the clever thing to do is hope your doesn’t land in hands of people practicing duplicity. Like The couch cashier and red brigade that where red overalls covering the Gucci attire. As hard as it seems for us ex Anc working middle class Indian, colored and white citizens, voting for a president that publicly said an Anc government gave the 3 above-mentioned races a shit deal in the last 20 years. Fact indeed. I just hope our black brothers and sisters see the change in the Anc, and refuse to be duped and stop being election fodder. Yes we have to stop being abused by the greedy thieving anc.

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