Maria Ressa, a former CNN correspondent, formed a news site called Rappler in the Philippines in 2012. The site has been dogged in its coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte since his inauguration in 2016, drawing particular attention to the deadly drug war encouraged by Duterte that has left thousands dead. In September, as Rappler reported, Duterte even apparently confessed to the “sin” of “extrajudicial killings.”
Rappler’s coverage has prompted Duterte’s government to target the media organization. Labeling Rappler “fake news” — Duterte has been called the Philippines' Donald Trump — he banned the organization from covering the presidential palace, and the government has accused the site of evading taxes.
On Tuesday night, Ressa spoke at a dinner hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit organization that works to protect press freedom and to defend journalists targeted by governments and other hostile groups. Her speech centered on Rappler’s contentious relationship with the Philippine government but offered a multipart call to action identifying ways in which her situation mirrored the erosion of press freedom in the United States.
“This is an existential moment for global power structures, turned upside down by technology,” her speech began. “When journalists globally are under attack. When power structures are shifting. Our problems are partly caused by yours: American social media technology platforms, once empowering, now weaponized against journalists, activists and citizens, spreading lies across borders; and, a president so much like ours whose attacks against the press (and women) give permission to autocrats (like ours) to unleash the dark side of humanity and extend their already vast powers with impunity, especially in countries where institutions have crumbled.”
Four of Ressa’s six points of advice have resonance beyond the community of journalists to whom she was speaking.
“Don’t stay quiet when you are attacked. The exponential lies on social media, coupled with the president’s words, manufacture truth. Silence is consent.” The president to whom she was referring was Duterte, but there’s an obvious parallel to the behavior of President Trump. The link between misinformation spread on social media and misinformation offered by elected officials was a constant theme, and Ressa’s lesson was explicit: Challenge it whenever it’s encountered.
“We need to continue reporting without fear or favor. And — you heard these words here last year from my former colleague Christiane Amanpour: ‘We need to be truthful, not neutral.’ ” For those not intimately familiar with internal journalism debates, Ressa is advocating a particular and increasingly popular position. It is the job of reporters to present accurate facts about the world, but there can be a tendency to want to demonstrate objectivity by coupling criticism of one political perspective with criticism of the opposing view.
That’s a zero-sum approach to objectivity, based on the assumption that there are always fair ways to even the scales of objectivity. Her point is that it isn’t always possible to demonstrate equal critiques to both sides of an argument and that, instead of being determinedly equal in critique, the objectivity should derive from thorough accuracy.
In another context, it’s the difference between arguing that there are “good people on both sides” and saying that those advocating racist viewpoints are bad. The media broadly accepts that criticism of racist or white-nationalist views don’t need to be counterbalanced with David Duke’s point of view, but it has, at times, been wary of extending that same sense of accuracy to other issues.
“We need to build global alliances because information is the currency of power, manipulated by global players. You have the Mueller investigation here: Well, if Russia is doing B to C; China is doing B to B.” The analogy she draws here is interesting.
There are several types of business that exist, including those that market directly to customers — B to C, or business to customer — and those that market to other companies — B to B. (Think of a firm that consults with businesses about their human resources processes, for example.)
Her point is that while Russia tried to influence U.S. politics by targeting American voters and seeking to divide Americans directly, China is exporting the digital tools it uses for repression to other countries. She pointed to a report from Freedom House that isolated China’s role in this regard.
From that report:
“China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018, and over the past year, its government hosted media officials from dozens of countries for two- and three-week seminars on its sprawling system of censorship and surveillance. Moreover, its companies have supplied telecommunications hardware, advanced facial-recognition technology, and data-analytics tools to a variety of governments with poor human rights records, which could benefit Chinese intelligence services as well as repressive local authorities.”
Ressa’s response? A partnership among countries that can act more directly as a bulwark against the spread of anti-freedom tools.
“We need to hold tech platforms to account. They need to move away from just business growth — they are now the world’s largest distributor of news so they have to take on the responsibilities journalists had as gatekeepers. They cannot allow lies to spread. They need to protect the public interest — and the public sphere where democracy happens.” Much of Ressa’s commentary centered on Facebook. At one point in her speech, Ressa described the company as “essentially our Internet,” given the social media giant’s centrality as an information-sharing system in the country.
Here, she centers on another current debate: how and when Facebook should monitor and censor untrue information on its platform. Her argument isn’t centered on Facebook’s scale, necessarily, but instead on its ubiquity, particularly in countries such as the Philippines. The United States regulates systems of information distribution like the television airwaves and radio in a way that it doesn’t Facebook. There are practical reasons for that, including, again, the scale at which Facebook operates.
But she offers a very pointed critique: Facebook is prioritizing its business model over the global role that it fought so hard to achieve. It’s an echo of a recent report in the New York Times that outlined a similar case against the company — including allegations that the company had “employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros” and “tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.”
This is not a simple problem to address from a technical standpoint. Her point was that eradicating falsehoods should be seen as a preeminent focus of the company, not simply as something that is eroding profit margins.
The undercurrent of Ressa’s speech was that she was speaking to the United States from a bit farther down a path which both the Philippines and the United States were walking. Hence the first point of advice she offered.
“The time to fight for journalism, for our Constitution,” she said, “is now.”