Maria Ressa: Democracy & Social Media

Nobel Prize-winning Filipino journalist Maria Ressa spoke to the East-West Centre's International Media Conference in Hawaii this week, urging journalists across the region to fight for their profession and democracy. Graeme Acton reports  

“Nietzsche was right,” says Maria Ressa. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”

The Nobel Peace Prize winner was in front of an international audience in Hawaii this week, calling on journalists from the Asia-Pacific and around the globe to do nothing less that preseve democracy.

The 58-year-old Filipino journalist is in Hawaii for this year's East-West Centre International Media Conference, an event attracting over two hundred 300 journalists, editors, academics and researchers to discuss “Connecting in a Zero Trust World.”

Her address to the conference came just hours after she was informed the Philippine government was moving to close her Rappler news organisation.

Ressa told the conference the Philippines Securities & Exchange Commission had confirmed its earlier decision to revoke the certificates of incorporation of Rappler Inc and Rappler Holdings Corp.

At issue are Philippines regulations regarding foreign ownership and control.

Rappler has been judged as being in breach, although Ressa told the audience a shutdown of the company would not be happening.

“We will adapt, survive and thrive,” she said.

Rappler is one of the few Philippines media outlets critical of President Rodrigo Duterte's government.

 The regulator's ruling comes on the eve of Duterte's departure from office, to be replaced by Ferdinand Marcos Jr. who won an election in May.

It's just the latest salvo in a conflict that has raged for years, a topical case study in government oppression of free media, and a battle that has pushed Maria Ressa to the front lines of a global debate over the future of the media, and democracy itself.

She has already been convicted on charges of libel, but remains on bail while her appeal proceeds through the courts.

Maria Ressa speaks to journalists following her presentation at the East-West international Media conference/ photo G Acton

Born in Manila, Maria Ressa migrated to the east coast of the US in 1973, just as Ferdinand Marcos came to power.

She went on to gain a degree from Princeton University and eventually returned to the Philippines on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1986, working with news organisation ABS-CBN, and also with CNN at their bureau in Hong Kong.

She wears a bracelet, she tells the East-West audience, given to her by a high school teacher back in New Jersey.

It’s inscribed with a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘ A Midsummer Night’s Dream“ which reads: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Her incisive presentation to the East-West Centre conference went on to detail strategies to combat disinformation, and how to proceed when “lies laced with anger and hate spread faster than facts.”

“When you say a lie a million times it becomes a fact” she added. ‘And we have been the ones under attack.”,

“The goal is not to make our people believe one thing, it is to make people distrust everything,."

"By design the platforms pull us apart.”

She goes on to describe the levers of this dysfunction, chief among them the business model for commercial news as presented by social media, and the lack of regulation around it.

“Building codes - if you build a building without the correct codes you could be sued.. what about the code that literally determines what goes in our brains, how our emotions are affected, how we change our world view ?”

The most salient example Maria outlines is the ‘Stop The Steal” social media phenomena that flooded the web in the USA in late 2019 following the election that brought Joe Biden to power and left former president Donald Trump insisting he had been robbed at the polls.

With help from the Election Integrity Partnership, she outlines a timeline describing the development of the “Stop The Steal’ election fraud meme from small social media circles, via the RT TV network, Republican party supporters such as Steve Bannon, to the Q-Anon social media accounts, and on to the mainstream US media such as Fox News..

“If you don’t have integrity of facts, how can you have integrity of elections?” she asks.

“This year there are more than 30 elections around the world in the next year-

“Kenya in August, Brazil in October, the US midterms in November, and next year Indonesia and India… “When people democratically elect an liberal leader, and the balance of power in the world shifts, how much time do we have before we move into a fascist world ?”

“We have to look at what civic engagement means in the age of social media.”

  • Asia Media Centre