Rappler’s Maria Ressa: ‘When journalists are under attack, democracy is under attack.’

Top News Feb 8, 2019 at 5:11 pm
Rappler’s Maria Ressa in Toronto.

Rappler’s Maria Ressa in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of Toronto Reference Library)

By Ysh Cabana
The Philippine Reporter

TORONTO–Embattled Maria Ressa stepped into the main auditorium of Ted Rogers School of Management in Ryerson University on Sunday (Jan. 27) with a spirited call for Canadians not to be complacent about democracy.

“Every democracy is based on information; information is power. The first line of defence is journalism,” said the founder and CEO of news website Rappler.
“When journalists are under attack, democracy is under attack.”

Ressa spoke of the responsibility to engage disinformation occurring in social media whenever it is encountered.

She warned about the disinformation, propaganda and hate spread through both real and fake accounts on social media — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram etc. — that may have potential political interference in the fall Canadian elections.

“You guys are having your [federal] elections very soon. You should not think you’re immune. I did. I thought the Philippines was immune. Certainly, we didn’t think things were going to go so wrong so quickly in the United States,” Ressa told a crowd that were mostly civic campaign practitioners.

“In fact, right before we had our elections, someone asked me if dictatorship would ever come back to the Philippines,” she added. “I laughed. I didn’t realize the power of social media.”
Ressa explained how Rappler, the online news site she founded, has created a map of social media networks that spread disinformation and hate through the Philippines and beyond, targeting her and her team.

“Why the Philippines? We’re like a petri dish for social media.” she quipped. “In 2017, we were number one in the number of hours spent on social media, about four hours a day. Where are you, Canada? An hour and 48 minutes.“

Ressa then further described how “insane” the power of social media is.

“There’s a global phenomenon we’ve seen. It’s called ‘patriotic trolling,’ which are online hate campaigns to silence and intimidate. The end goal here is not to censor. It is to flood the market with so many lies that you can’t tell what the truth is. When you cripple faith in institutions and the pillars democracy would normally have, the minute people begin to doubt, you’ve just gotten a crack in democracy because the voice with the loudest megaphone wins,” she said.

Ressa shares her observations how populism and ‘fake news’ have influenced the world. Ressa with CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault at Toronto Reference Library Forum, Jan. 28.  (Photo courtesy of Toronto Reference Library)

Ressa shares her observations how populism and ‘fake news’ have influenced the world. Ressa with CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault at Toronto Reference Library Forum, Jan. 28. (Photo courtesy of Toronto Reference Library)

“War on Truth”

Ressa’s keynote speech is her first major foray after being hailed as TIME’s 2018 Person of the Year together with “The Guardians” from around the world combatting the “War on Truth” marks her return to Manila where she was the former CNN bureau chief and where she is facing charges of tax evasion and failure to file tax returns.

Rappler’s work, often involving fact-checking the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s claims and investigating his tacit support for extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers and users, is part of the reason the charges have been brought against the publication, according to Ressa.

Human Rights Watch estimates that 12,000 people have died in this “war” on drugs.

Founded in 2012 by journalists who she said were tired of working for traditional media houses where owners interfered in editorial decisions on what to report on, Rappler has become the country’s 11th-most-popular website, based on ranking by to the web traffic analysis company Alexa. Much of this is because of social media usage.

As its name is an online-friendly portmanteau of “rap” (to discuss) and “ripple,” it keeps a running list of 14-million Facebook accounts that are either hyper-supportive of the president or disseminating false information. An armed guard had to be stationed at its Manila offices and the social media team has had to be sent for counselling, according to Ressa.

“In the Philippines the attacks are insanely personal. They’re not political, because our political party system is so weak,” she said.

“We don’t really need bots because labour is so cheap. The Philippines has higher than average number of fake accounts. Those fake accounts pretend to be real people. So the hardest thing is keeping your faith in real people, because the stupidity multiplies,” she added.

Ressa said the attacks against her and her news organization began appearing on Facebook in the summer of 2016 after publishing a three-part series on social media propaganda in early October of that year.

“Lies laced with anger travel faster than truth,” says Ressa.

“Lies laced with anger travel faster than truth,” says Ressa.

Fifteen years of Facebook

Online news sites, such as Rappler, have been decimated by the digital revolution fifteen years after Facebook’s birth on February 4, 2004 that continues to snag billions of dollars of revenue from advertisers and incalculable amounts of attention from audiences.

In its bid to fight off skeptics, the social media giant is making by far its biggest investment yet into struggling sectors of the news industry. This year, the platform is pivoting to a three-year commitment to invest $300 million in “news programs, partnerships and content.”

“We’re going to continue fighting fake news, misinformation, and low quality news on Facebook,” said Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, in a company blog post. “But we also have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to help local news organizations grow and thrive.”

Some of the funds will go directly to nonprofit organizations like the Pulitzer Center and Report for America. The cash infusion will also dramatically expand Facebook’s existing effort to help news websites convert readers into paying subscribers.

Social media interaction “can be used for good, mind you, we know this in the Philippines, that’s how Rappler grew so fast,” Ressa said. But “with instant articles, it’s been used for evil and it needs to get fixed.”

Ressa praised Facebook for the recent takedowns of some “benevolent networks,” but she is hopeful the social media giant will take more action.

State of Philippine media

In a joint statement, the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network — composed of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Philippine Press Institute, MindaNews and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism — there have been 99 documented cases of direct and indirect assaults against journalists and media organizations in the first two years of the Duterte administration.

These include at least 12 killings of media workers, seven attempted slayings, three arrests and six cases of intimidation.

Moreover, a report released last December by the International Federation of Journalists ranked the Philippines as the “worst in impunity” in Southeast Asia. The country ranked 7.7 out of 10, with 10 being the worst. The country’s justice system was rated separately, with a ranking of 7.5 out of 10.

The cases filed against the news site were also underscored in the report.