When citizens are manipulated on social media, they distrust everything: Maria Ressa
With the increasing presence of strong governments on the Internet, the mission has never been more important to journalists, says the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Journalist Maria Ressa from the Philippines is one of two journalists, along with Russian editor Dmitry Muratov, to have received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. In an interview with The Hindu, Ms. Ressa, the author of the upcoming book How to stand up to a dictator talks about her struggles with the Philippine government and the social media company “Big Tech”.
It was not until 1935 that the Nobel Peace Prize went to a journalist (Carl von Ossietzky) who wrote about the Nazi regime in Germany’s remilitarization plan. What do you think is the message of the Nobel Peace Committee in 2021?
That it is that kind of moment, you know, that it is an existential moment where you had World War II after 1935. And I use this analogy all the time because I keep saying that our information ecosystem is like an exploded atom bomb. And we have to come together globally and find a solution, similar to the world after the Second World War, they created the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, right, these values, because I have to say, I keep calling for “technical values”, beyond making money, and [for tech companies] to take seriously the role of gatekeeper to the public sphere. I also say: this price is for all journalists. I feel like I’m the placeholder for every journalist around the world who has such a hard time just doing their job. And I continue to hope that this creative destruction will lead us to a place better than where we are.
Both the Philippines and India are on the list of the top 10 countries where journalists have been killed or attacked. For journalists, the growing threat worldwide comes from democratically elected, populist and increasingly authoritarian regimes. What do you think led to the rise of populism?
Technology! [These regimes] were always there when you see Hitler and others being democratically elected, but I go back to the last decade when journalists lost our powers as gatekeepers [to social media] Technology. And globally, I would say that the first time various realities were brought out was in Ukraine, for example through Russian military-run information systems or in the [Indian election campaign] in 2014. We saw that the use of social media leads to a loss of confidence in [mainstream media]. When citizens are manipulated by parties on social media, they start to distrust everything. This year, a research project from Oxford University, the Project on Computational Propaganda (now known as the Program on Democracy and Technology demtech.oii.ox.ac.uk) showed that these “cheap social media armies” are the Democracy in 81 countries are pushing back the world.
The hard thing about it is that it manipulates our biology. As humans, we have a lot more in common than we realize, because the same platforms use algorithmic manipulation to change the way we think and feel. According to a biologist who has studied this behavior, our greatest crisis comes from “Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” Technology is godlike because social media has become a behavior change system. And with a lack of accountability and the potential to make significant amounts of money, it’s a business model that takes our data and uses it to manipulate us.
The counter-argument is that social media and big tech companies have democratized expression and given everyone a platform. Why do you think they are, as you describe it, agents of authoritarianism and not agents of the people’s right to information?
Well, I would like to draw your attention to 2011, and how the Arab Spring turned into an Arab winter. At the beginning, [social media] was empowering. But then governments realized they could take advantage of these micro-targeting weaknesses, the weaknesses of what was being used for marketing, and governments began to manipulate these tools. Mark Zuckerberg says all along that this is a free speech issue. But I like to quote the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who said that this is actually a “freedom of range” issue.
We talk about algorithmic amplification, algorithmic distribution, and studies have now shown that lies interspersed with anger can be spread faster and further than facts. If the social media platforms are biased against the facts, then they are biased against fact-seeking journalism. And this conflict leads to a divided society.
In the Philippines, for example, we never argued about facts no matter where we were [on politics]. But after the election of the president [Rodrigo] Duterte in 2016, if you were Pro-Duterte, and you can Pro-[former U.S. President Donald] Trump here too, you’d go further to the right. If you were anti-Duterte you would keep moving to the left. This kind of [algorithmic manipulation] has torn the common reality apart. Freedom of expression is also the idea that you should be able to tell the truth, say what you think, without fear of retaliation. information [surveillance] Operations on social media make this difficult, and as a result, these strong leaders have exposed the worst of human nature and allowed it to be very destructive [online] Behavior.
Tell us a little about your own journey against the strong leader, President Duterte, that led to your arrest in 2019.
In the Philippines, President Duterte was democratically elected, but like many of these digital authoritarians, as President he seized the levers of power and changed it from within. We saw at least 19 journalists killed during his tenure, 63 lawyers, over 400 human rights activists, and then he had this very bloody drug war. Our first battle for the truth was to determine how many people were in the [war on drugs]because the police gave a number and then rolled it back. In 2012 we founded Rappler (rappler.com) with 20 young employees. One of the things that got alarmed was that anyone who questioned the drug war was just getting hammered on social media. The first thing we revealed was [the government’s] Information operations, we showed our people the data as manipulated online. I wrote a series called Weaponizing the Internet about how social media algorithms affect a person. Then we looked at the fabricated reality and how up to three million users can be reached via social media with just 26 fake accounts.
I have to say I did not expect to be 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 can be afraid at the same time, and then we shoot it. (Laughs)
What are your suggestions for journalists who are just starting out? Is there a toolkit on how to deal with a difficult condition?
The first is that journalists, news organizations [must move] from the time we competed against each other. We’re on the same page. When it comes to facts, we’re on the same page, especially on social media. In the battle for facts, collaboration is the way to go. This is an amazing time to be a journalist because the mission has never been more important than it is today.