The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An online assault on a female journalist in the Philippines is a worldwide warning

Maria Ressa, executive editor of online news site Rappler, speaks to the media outside the Court of Tax Appeals in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, on March 4. (Rolex Dela Pena/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

MARIA RESSA has been issued 10 arrest warrants in two years and detained twice in six weeks by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s government. She already faces up to seven years in jail for a conviction on trumped-up “cyber-libel” charges. Yet the state-led effort has relied on more than a corrupt legal system to succeed: An onslaught of online harassment against the award-winning journalist is appalling in its own right — and a devious strategy from a regime determined to destroy its most prominent critic.

A report by the International Center for Journalists analyzes almost 400,000 tweets and more than 57,000 Facebook posts and comments directed at Ms. Ressa. These consist in an alarming proportion of attacks against her professional credibility and personal character. For every positive comment on her Facebook page, there are 14 vilifying her. The verbal assaults — most prominently featuring the terms “idiot,” “shut up” and “presstitute” alongside other sexist, homophobic and racist salvos — began after her news website Rappler published her investigation into the government’s social media disinformation machine. The same machine promptly turned against her. Later spikes in aggression coincided with new articles or statements by Ms. Ressa.

The relationship between the online persecution and the offline prosecution has been “symbiotic.” The pro-government accounts seeded the narrative that Ms. Ressa was a criminal years before authorities actually charged her with anything; the government then used the ubiquity of this lie to turn it into reality. Some abuse appears to have been orchestrated from on high, and other abuse has been organic. But even this organic abuse is the result of the bandwagon effect achieved by a troll army that marched in whenever ordered. There’s real danger for Ms. Ressa beyond the courtroom: Female journalists have been murdered after threats overtook platforms; daily, Ms. Ressa is told she should be killed or “publicly raped to death.”

This story not only exposes a horrifying campaign against an individual who has devoted her career to informing the public and holding an aspiring autocrat to account, but it also lays bare broader trends that platforms have a duty to fight — and that countries devoted to preserving democracy online and off must work against. Ms. Ressa is not alone in the Philippines: Sen. Leila de Lima, for instance, this month entered her fifth year in jail for spurious drug charges. Ms. Ressa also is not alone in the rest of the world, where women who work courageously as reporters, activists and more are routinely tormented on social media. That this torment can also become a tool of a cowardly and tyrannical state is only more alarming.

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