Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor of Rappler, an investigative news website in the Philippines, says we talk about disinformation all wrong. The typical framing suggests that the people behind disinformation want us to believe something that isn’t true. That’s not quite right, she says. A higher aim of those efforts is to shake our sense of what’s true and what’s not in the first place. That takes away the power to use good information to fight back. Many of us—and most crucially Facebook, home to much disinformation—have failed to grasp that distinction, she says.
In that way, the sowers of chaos have succeeded, Ressa says. Today, those wishing to sow discord don’t need bots to post and spread their falsehoods and distortions. They have plenty of unwitting people to do that, their beliefs and actions warped by a “behavioral modification system,” as she calls social media. That mistrust has destabilized democracy around the world. “You can’t have facts. You can’t have truth. You can’t have trust,” she says. “How can you have a democracy if you do not have integrity of facts?”
Ressa, who is the subject of the PBS Frontline documentary A Thousand Cuts, about the threat to press freedoms in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, spoke with WIRED contributing editor Steven Levy as part of the WIRED25 event. She joined from Manila, where she is on bail while she appeals a conviction under the country’s “cyber libel” law. Their fiery discussion took place after 1am local time.
Ressa has been the target of Facebook disinformation networks for years based on her journalism. Rappler has been a powerful force for holding the Duterte administration to account, investigating his incitement of vigilante campaigns against alleged drug dealers and countless other infringements on democratic freedoms. Ressa repeatedly warned Facebook of the threat to press freedoms and democratic institutions just as Russian campaigns were working to destabilize the 2016 US presidential campaign.
Those warnings, she says, went unheeded. And for her, the harassment online has continued. This week, Facebook took down two state-sponsored, pro-Duterte networks seeding disinformation in the Philippines—one of them domestic, with connections to the police and military, and the other based in China—in which Ressa was among the targets.
After years of little action, Ressa says Facebook’s recent work to take down disinformation networks—rather than playing “whack-a-mole” with individual false items—is encouraging. But the company needs to do more to police its platform, and to abandon its reluctance to be an “arbiter of facts.” “Whenever I hear that I think, ‘good God get over yourselves, you already are,’” she says. “And the choices you have made have already destroyed democracy and put people like me in extreme danger.”
For Ressa, that danger extends offline—as physical threats and legal harassment. In June, Ressa was convicted on charges of “cyber libel”—a new crime that was created well after the story in question published in 2012. (She was arrested after the paper corrected a typo—enough to constitute a republication that put it under the scope of the new law.) Ressa says she faces eight additional arrest warrants related to libel, tax evasion, and securities violations, together carrying a potential prison sentence of nearly 100 years. Many weeks, she spends most of her time tied up in legal matters. “I feel like Joseph K in The Trial,” she says with a laugh. “It’s Kafkaesque.”
How does she remain hopeful amid all that, beyond gallows humor? “I embrace my fear. If I really hold it tight I can rob it of its power over time. This is also how I run Rappler. We embrace our fear and then we go beyond it.” Ressa and her team of journalists are still very much in this fight.
Portrait by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
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