'Tech tearing apart shared reality': Nobel Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa – Frontline
Ressa thinks her prize is a reminder that ‘we could lose democracy if we lose the facts’. Photo: Aaron Favila/AP/picture alliance
Maria Ressa, a Philippines-based journalist and the co-founder and CEO of the online news site Rappler, recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming just the 18th woman and the first Philippine person to do so. The Nobel Committee chose Ressa and Russian journalist Dmitri Muratov as this year’s recipients to highlight the important role that freedom of the press and freedom of expression play in society, calling them "a prerequisite for democracy and lasting peace."
In an interview with DW, Ressa spoke about the situation in her home country as well as in other places around the world. "Facts, are at the core of any democracy," Ressa told DW‘s Biresh Banerjee, adding that "freedom of speech, freedom of expression is about being able to say what you think without fear of retribution."
Countering intimidation with a smile
A critic of Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, Ressa has repeatedly faced intimidation. When asked about her government’s reaction to the award, specifically presidential spokesman Harry Roque’s claim that the award was not a slap in the face to the Duterte administration because no one has ever been censored in the Philippines, she responded with a laugh.
"Let me put it this way. You know, the largest broadcaster in the Philippines is off the air and the last time that happened was when martial law was declared in 1972. You’ve had at least 19 journalists killed under this administration. You have a journalist who’s 23-years-old languishing in prison for more than a year. And you know, of course, I’ve had 10 arrest warrants in less than two years. So sometimes all you have to do is smile."
Big Tech is the greatest threat to democracy
She warned that the greatest threat to democracy at the moment is the fact that tech companies have usurped the traditional gatekeeper role afforded previously to journalists but bemoaned that they are not being held to the same rules. "I think that the rollback of democracy globally and the tearing apart of shared reality has been because of tech. It’s because news organizations lost our gatekeeping powers to technology — and technology took the revenues that we used to have along with. They took the powers, but they abdicated responsibility."
Ressa pointed to a two-fold problem with tech and facts, first noting that "popularity easily turns into mob rule but in the age of social media, you can’t quite tell whether it’s real or manufactured."
Facebook is ‘biased against facts’
Secondly, she argued: "I think the core of the problem is that all the social media platforms treat lies and facts identically," here again noting, "research has now shown us that on social media, lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts. So you can say that the world’s largest delivery platform of news is actually biased against facts and biased against journalism."
She said that as a direct result of decisions made by tech companies like Facebook, which is hugely popular in the Philippines, "We have cheap armies and social media rolling back democracy in 81 countries around the world, that is from Oxford University’s computational propaganda research project."
Speaking about shifting perceptions among democratic lawmakers, Ressa welcomed the fact that "we’re finally moving away from content moderation, to where we should be, which is algorithmic distribution — algorithmic amplification and how it has insidiously manipulated human beings on the platform."
Politicians using social media platforms to rewrite history
The journalist highlighted the dangers that lie ahead for the Philippines by referring to research on presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr and his ties to disinformation campaigns ahead of the country’s May 2022 vote. The son of the country’s disgraced and deposed former dictator, she says, is attempting to gaslight voters: "Rappler actually exposed the networks of disinformation that had been created to chip away at history, to reorient history."
Speaking of the election, she said: "This is going to be a battle for facts, and we’re going to have to make sure that facts win. And in order to do that, these American social media platforms are going to have to put [up] guardrails and prioritize facts." Although President Duterte has said he will not run for reelection, Ressa said she isn’t counting him out quite yet: "He said this before, in 2015, right before he did a substitution and ran and won for president. We have to wait."
‘We could lose democracy if we lose the facts’
Asked whether she herself has political ambitions, Ressa laughed again before pledging her desire to restore and rebuild journalism as a bigger priority: "I think this is an exciting time to be a journalist. Isn’t that crazy? … I mean, I don’t like that I have to risk so much in order to do my job but at the same time, this is a time where we will help create what the future of journalism is going to become. And that is also a privilege."
Asked about the larger message behind her Nobel Prize, Ressa reflected upon the fact that the last time a journalist had won it was in 1936, but noted that Carl von Ossietzky was in a Nazi concentration camp by then and was not allowed to accept the honor, "so I think that’s the signal that the Nobel Committee is telling us again, that we are kind of at this existential moment where we could lose our rights. We could lose democracy if we lose the facts."