Maria Ressa's coverage of how online disinformation campaigns helped support an authoritarian regime in the Philippines led to her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, but she says more work needs to be done to hold social media companies accountable for a gradual decline of democracy around the world.
Ressa, who was born in Manila and moved to the United States at age nine, has challenged corruption and tyranny in the Philippines and elsewhere as a reporter for CNN and the founder of Rappler, an investigative news organization that used the emerging power of social media in 2012 to crowdsource breaking news.
On Monday, she will discuss her book “How to Stand Up to a Dictator" at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto as a part of a collaboration with the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.
The book title refers to then-president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, whose government and its war on drugs Rappler began criticizing in 2016. Rappler reports also uncovered a network of paid followers and bot accounts on Facebook spreading misinformation about Duterte.
She suffered consequences for her coverage, facing arrest warrants and a slew of legal cases she believed to be politically motivated.
In January, Ressa and Rappler were cleared of tax evasion charges, though she's still fighting a 2020 libel conviction with an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Ressa's book emphasizes the short, medium and long-term effects of the role social media can play in harming democracy.
The Nobel laureate spoke to The Canadian Press from Baltimore, Md., about her work and why she enjoys her visits to Canada.
She also touched on Canada's Bill C-18, which would force companies like Google and Meta to pay media for content they link to and preview on their websites. In response, both companies said they would instead stop sharing or linking to mainstream news.
CP: What inspired you to write your book?
Ressa: In 2016, I began to feel like the firm ground that we lived on turned into quicksand. We couldn’t do our jobs. From the time the government began attacking us on social media, up until today, I spent a big majority of my time fighting legal cases, fighting to just get our stories out to our public because the tech distribution platforms prioritize the spread of lies and people cannot tell the difference.
So, I wrote the book initially because people kept asking me, “how do you find the courage to stand up to a dictator?” I kept thinking, “I’m not actually standing up to the target. I’m just doing my job.” Then I realized it's so different the way people think about what journalism is. In some ways this is also a love letter to journalism.
But I felt like I had no choice. I had to write the book because it helped me make sense of why I was so certain that we live in the Upside Down, like in Stranger Things. It’s deceptively familiar but it’s not the world we live in.
CP: Early on in your memoir you said institutions like the United Nations and NATO are needed in the wake of technology's advancement. Were you talking about journalism needing that kind of protection?
Ressa: No. What I talked about was democracy. Essentially journalism is one factor in our information ecosystem. You corrupt the information ecosystem because lies spread faster than facts. Journalists are not going to be able to fight that because we actually have standards and ethics and we have guardrails for ourselves because we’re also legally accountable.
So, we can’t fight against that. When I talked about an international organization, I’m talking about regulations for technology. There’s nothing that’s global. There needs to be an understanding globally on these platforms that we should be protected against this insidious manipulation that prioritizes the spread of lies over facts.
CP: What do you think democratic freedom will look like for countries like Canada if we continue on this current path?
Ressa: I think your lawmakers have tried to deal with this and you have a rousing debate on Bill C-18. But the problem is that in some ways, we see a team trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. It tries to fix the business model without fixing the core problem, which is the design of the tech platforms that are manipulating us.
CP: On the topic of Bill C-18, what do you think should be the desired outcome of this whole back and forth?
Ressa: I’ve always said that the tech companies that took over the gatekeeping roles for the public sphere in 2014, like Facebook, abdicated responsibility for protecting the public sphere. They abdicated responsibility for protecting journalists who are standing up to power.
The second group that abdicated responsibility are democratic governments. It’s their task to protect their citizens from insidious manipulation. And not enough has been done. I think Canada has been aware of this. But the legislation you’re looking at right now is also pushed by power. And the problem is the business model is going to be a factor of the design of the platforms. If you fix the disinformation that is manipulating us, then you fix the cascading failures.
The lack of money of news groups comes from the fact that the incentive structure of the entire ecosystem rewards lies. What can the government do? Tax these tech companies. You don’t tax them.
CP: With all the lies spewing from these platforms, where do you find hope in all of it?
Ressa: I’ve covered the worst. I’ve covered wars. I’ve covered conflicts where people were beheading each other. I’ve covered disasters. Yet inevitably in the middle of all the bad there’s always good. I feel like the technology is manipulating us to be our worst selves. I do believe we’re basically good. Humans are basically good.
CP: How does it feel to be talking about your book to a Canadian audience?
Ressa: I love Canada. I come back quite often. And part of it is the stereotype that Canadians are nice people. Look, Canada is in a rare position in many ways. There’s the United States where we all see what has happened there and I think Canada’s tried to hold the line. You’ve had your own truckers.
I cannot imagine any government today using the information ecosystem having an easy time governing. So, I think Canada has outsized power right now. I love the fact that journalism is key. It still has a place that the Philippines lost during Duterte's presidency. So, I have hope.
CP: Are there any other connections here that get you to come back?
Ressa: I have close friends who are Canadian. Adrienne Arsenault came to the Philippines in the late 90s, early 2000s. She was doing terrorism which is what I was doing and we’ve become good friends since. I’ve loved the fact that I see journalism in Canada through her eyes.
Carol Off is also a friend and Michelle Shephard, who is going to be interviewing me, we'll be on stage together on Monday. Oh my gosh, Margaret Atwood, like genuflect. I just like coming because I’ve got good friends.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2023.