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Disinformation on Social Media Is Threat to Democracy, Rappler CEO Says

FILE - Crusading Filipina journalist Maria Ressa speaks at the Women In the World Summit in New York City, April 10, 2019.
FILE - Crusading Filipina journalist Maria Ressa speaks at the Women In the World Summit in New York City, April 10, 2019.

Maria Ressa says what she’s living through is Kafkaesque.

The crusading Filipina journalist received a John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award on Wednesday from the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the latest international recognition of her years-long fight to defend independent media in the Philippines against the authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte, who denounces her website Rappler as “fake news.”

Ressa, who was convicted in the Philippines in June on what the Press Club calls “trumped-up charges of cyber-libel,” faces up to six years in prison in that case—and could face nearly 100 years if convicted in all the legal cases against her. She’s appealing her conviction and fighting the charges but lives each day uncertain of her future. Human-rights groups describe Ressa’s case as an assault on press freedom with implications for democracy worldwide.

"It's meant to scare me,” Ressa, a longtime CNN bureau chief who was a Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018, said in an interview with Voice of America. “It's meant to bully me. It's a tool of power.” Yet she sees no way forward except standing up for herself and Rappler’s investigative reporting on those in power, including work critical of the Duterte regime and its violent war on drugs.

“The Duterte administration's actions have placed me in a position where I can't do anything but what I'm doing because my values are very strong," she said. "I helped write the standards and ethics manual of three news organizations. It would be disappointing myself if I didn't live up to these standards. You can't buckle when there is so much at stake.”

Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez told VOA that Ressa's case is a legal dispute between two private parties. “She will always have the right to appeal any court decision before a higher court” as part of due process, Romualdez said in an emailed statement.

Threat to democracy

Ressa is pushing “an emergency intervention” into what she perceives as a dire threat to democracy—social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which she calls “behavior-modification systems” promoting division, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, including in the U.S.

"I think the Philippines is just slightly ahead of the United States,” she said, “and if the technology isn't fixed, we're looking at an abyss. The next few months in the Philippines is an existential moment for us—not just for journalism, but for democracy."

But Ressa’s conviction over the summer was only the latest blow to independent journalism in the Philippines. In May, with citizens in need of information on the coronavirus pandemic, the government shut down the television and radio network ABS-CBN. In July, lawmakers refused to renew the network's broadcasting franchise, which had an estimated weekly audience of 70 million.

Human rights groups saw the move as a particularly egregious crackdown on the press—and specifically on another news outlet that has scrutinized Duterte’s drug war. Human Rights Watch called the shutdown “a grievous assault on press freedom” that “solidifies the tyranny” of Duterte. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines lamented a “profoundly dark day for journalists.”

Romualdez said ABS-CBN’s shutdown was “not an issue of press freedom, but of legislative franchise renewal dependent on the constitutional prerogatives of the Philippine Congress.”

Chilling statements

Throughout his presidency, Duterte has used hostile rhetoric against the press, which he’s labeled “vultures” [[ ]] and “spies.” Just because you are a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you are a son of a bitch,” he said after his election in 2016.

It’s a chilling statement in a country where media workers continue to be killed with impunity. The Philippines ranks seventh on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2020 global index of countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free.

“We live in an environment of violence,” Ressa said.

Ambassador Romualdez said the Philippines holds press freedom and democracy "in high regard," and cited a pair of executive orders Duterte issued on freedom of information and media security. “Our system of government is modeled after that of the U.S., and we hold fast to the same principles on liberty and freedom,” Romualdez added. “That has not changed.”

Duterte has earned praise from U.S. President Donald Trump, who talked of their “great relationship” during a joint appearance in Manila in 2017, and laughed as Duterte referred to journalists as “spies.” (Trump has referred to U.S. journalists as the “enemy of the people.”)

"In years past, U.S. policy was enlightened at one time and less enlightened at another, but basically there was a fundamental agreement to stand for freedom of the press around the world,” said Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “That's no longer been true under the Trump administration.”

In the absence of that leadership, Butler said, governments around the world are learning from Duterte.

“You have places like Pakistan and India where there have been a lot of attacks on the press and they go pretty much unanswered,” he said. “The State Department continues to go on automatic pilot on some of these issues of press freedom, but there's been a complete lack of leadership in the White House. In fact, the leadership in the White House has been leading in the other direction, where it's Ok to attack the press.”

Defenders of Trump maintain the press is unfair and biased against the president and has spent the past four years seeking to undermine his presidency.

Independent media “are an essential pillar supporting the rule of law and a vital component of a democratic society,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA. In an emailed statement, the spokesperson said, “As a key part of U.S. foreign policy, the department strongly promotes freedom of expression and an independent media as critical components of vibrant, functioning democracies.”

U.S.-based media rights experts including head of PEN America Suzanne Nossel and CPJ have said President-elect Joe Biden should commit to restoring American leadership on press freedom.

Algorithms of hate

Another key similarity Butler and Ressa observe between the Philippines and the U.S. is how weaponized social media facilitates the spread of falsehoods and disinformation about politics, with algorithms driving users to increasingly extreme and polarizing content.

Social media’s handling of political content—and how posts should be moderated—is a concern on Capitol Hill, where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified Tuesday. Republican lawmakers allege social-media platforms suppress conservative speech and Democrats are focused on the need for fact-checking and the suppressing of disinformation online.

Technology companies have drawn more government scrutiny in recent years over the proliferation of extreme content on platforms. Facebook announced changes to how it operates in Myanmar after the site was used as part of a campaign against the Rohingya that rights groups say fueled violence against the ethnic group.

“Social-media platforms end up trafficking in extremism,” said Steven Livingston, founding director of the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University. “The extremism is then used to aggregate like-minded individuals, so there's a bit of a feedback loop.”

In this environment, Livingston said, authoritarian regimes will stifle independent journalism under the pretext of addressing disinformation.

"If you don't have facts, you can't have any kind of real human endeavor,” Ressa said. “We are even more fragmented and isolated. You certainly can't have democracy, and here's the reality: All of the research shows us that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts on social media platforms.”

Ressa has personally been the target of intense social-media hatred campaigns from Duterte supporters—torrents of postings aimed at destroying her credibility and attempting to intimidate her into silence. She believes her experience demonstrates the shortcomings of the “attention economy” in the digital age.

“Real, evidence-based, fact-based journalists' analysis is having to compete with lies as if they are equivalent,” she said. That’s why, since 2016, she says she has proudly “challenged impunity on two fronts—of Rodrigo Duterte and of Mark Zuckerberg.”

As Ressa awaits her fate, she’s still hoping checks and balances somehow prevail. “I am submitting myself to the legal system,” she said, “and appealing to the judges and the justices who touch my case to stick to the spirit of the law, not to let politics taint the way they judge.”

To prepare herself mentally, Ressa says she spoken with The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian and Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy of The Investigative Journal, who were both imprisoned. She acknowledges she’s “fatalistically resigned, if needed.”

But whatever happens, Ressa’s message to fellow defenders of press freedom is simple: "You have to ask yourself the same question I've had to ask myself since 2016: What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth? Because that's what's at stake."