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18 January 2023

Maria Ressa: “The law was bent to the point that it was broken”

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist on why Big Tech rewards disinformation, and how to fight back.

By Katie Stallard

On 18 January 2023, Maria Ressa and her news outlet Rappler were cleared of the tax evasion charges against them. While they face further legal battles with the Philippine government, the win was widely hailed as a victory for press freedom. This article was first published on 17 December 2022.

On a Wednesday afternoon in February 2019 Maria Ressa was giving a presentation to a group of Facebook executives in a glass-walled office at the back of her Manila newsroom. Suddenly, the co-founder and CEO of the Philippines-based news site Rappler was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was her colleague, Beth Frondoso. “Maria, don’t turn around,” she said. “They’re here to arrest you.” Ressa did turn around. She saw a group of plainclothes officers from the National Bureau of Investigation [the Philippines’ equivalent of the FBI] making their way towards her. “Our reporters are livestreaming it,” Frondoso told her. That was the image that stayed with her, she told me recently over Zoom: watching the young reporters holding up their phones, despite the risk to themselves, to broadcast what was happening.

Ressa and her team had planned for this. Rappler was already the target of multiple spurious investigations into alleged cyber-libel, securities offences and tax evasion, as the authorities tried to shut the site down. The reporters understood that, in the eyes of Rodrigo Duterte, then the country’s president, their real crime was the pursuit of independent journalism. As the officers pushed through the newsroom towards her, Ressa arranged for the Facebook executives to leave by a back exit; she was still standing in the glass-walled office when the officers read her her rights.

“I was shocked that it was so petty,” she told me, leaning into the camera as she spoke. “And that the law was bent to the point that it was broken.” Ressa was speaking from Boston, and wore a red anorak as though she had just rushed inside for this interview and would shortly burst back into the world: she was due to catch a plane to London later that day. Under the terms of the legal restrictions imposed on her in the Philippines, she is not allowed to talk about the specifics of her case, and has to apply to the Supreme Court for permission every time she wants to leave the country. But she refuses to be silenced. “I’m the head of a news organisation. This is my 36th year as a journalist,” Ressa, 59, said, gesturing emphatically with her coffee cup. “If the pettiness of the people in power gets to the point where they can turn it this way against a citizen – one citizen, who actually has a little spotlight ­– what does that mean for the poor person in the back alley?” Her voice started to break. “It just flows downhill, and it…” She paused, trying to regain her composure. “Look, it makes me emotional.”

The first bodies started to appear within hours of Duterte being sworn in on 30 June 2016. The new president had promised to wage a “war on drugs” and to “forget the laws on human rights”, and he delivered on the latter. Rappler’s journalists were soon reporting on the discovery of as many as eight corpses a night. They were usually found in the poorest neighbourhoods, often in gruesome circumstances: duct tape covering their mouths and cardboard signs hung around their necks claiming that they were drug dealers. “Duterte’s drug war had begun turning Manila into a real-world Gotham City,” Ressa writes in her new book How to Stand Up to a Dictator, “without a caped crusader.”

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The president’s attacks on her began in earnest in October 2016, soon after she began a series of Rappler articles titled “Weaponising the internet”. The site had begun documenting the extraordinary spread of disinformation campaigns on social media, starting with the president’s election campaign. Ressa was struck by the parallels with the use of technology to radicalise suicide bombers in southeast Asia, where she had spent almost two decades as an investigative reporter and CNN correspondent. “The reason I started looking at social network analysis was because this was how the virulent ideology of terrorism spread, of al-Qaeda,” she explained. “It’s loneliness, or paranoia, or fear, or absolute powerlessness, and so they gravitate to a group. It used to be terrorism and now it’s politics. It’s extremism in different places.”

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Ressa describes the Philippines, where citizens spend more time online and on social media than anywhere else in the world, as “ground zero” for the destructive effects of exploitative technology on democracy. The same pathologies are taking hold across political systems, and at a terrifying pace. “In the Global South, we’ve dropped off the face of the cliff and we can see how fast this goes,” she said. “That’s what I think people in the West miss. You know, maybe fascism is where we want to go, but let’s make the choice with open eyes.”

She speaks with urgency, as though she has only this one Zoom call to communicate the scale and speed of the coming catastrophe. When I ask questions, she nods and flashes enthusiastic double thumbs ups, as if trying to stop herself from jumping in, while also indicating, yes, yes, I know what you are asking, let me at it. Some people approach book promotion as a contractual obligation, but for Ressa it is a chance to save the rest of the world from the collision of authoritarianism and technology that she is living through.

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“Technology, which has been so helpful to us, and helped us progress, has gotten to the point where it has now regressed, and it is using our biology against us,” she told me. “We can’t think, we don’t have a shared reality.” She explained that she had looked back through maps of Twitter interactions in the United States and been struck by how recently, and how rapidly, the divide between Republican and Democratic voters had opened up. “As early as 2010 you could see they were beginning to separate, but there was still a bridge on the Twitter maps that united them. And then the social media companies amped up their surveillance capitalism model.”

This is a reference to the Harvard psychologist and philosopher Shoshana Zuboff’s influential book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. “Look, we didn’t even have a name for this until 2019,” Ressa said, “when she named the business model that these companies are using, and how they essentially created a new market for behaviour, for selling us.” She believes we are living through a new era of the commodification of human lives that is comparable to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. “That was when you had sweatshops, child labour, and robber barons,” Ressa explained. “Then the government created laws and made these things illegal. We created labour movements and demanded our rights.” This time, it is our attention that is being sold, and there has been an abject failure to regulate those doing the selling.

“Governments have abdicated responsibility for protecting us as much as the tech companies,” she said. “So, it’s only us. We’re in a person-to-person defence of democracy. It’s man-to-man, woman-to-woman, hand-to-hand combat. The social media platforms have created an information ecosystem that kills the good, the best of human nature. They want you to keep scrolling, and how do they do that? By making you angry and afraid and paranoid, by making it ‘us against them’.”

She has started to use the example of the Netflix series Stranger Things as a metaphor. “I keep saying, the world is deceptively familiar, but we’re in the Upside Down [a parallel dimension populated by monsters and demons]. The incentive structure rewards lies, but society depends on facts.” The world has regressed to 1989 levels of democracy, she said, as illiberal leaders keep being elected.

The international order is careening towards a “cliff edge” in 2024, she warned, with three key elections that could determine the future of democracy. “You have Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, where the front-runner in that election is Prabowo Subianto [the former son-in-law of the late dictator Suharto]. I covered the end of almost 32 years of Suharto’s rule [in 1998] and I know what it was like, and yet here we have nostalgia.” India will hold a general election in 2024, with the Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi expected to run again; in India, Ressa notes, social media campaigns have already led to pogroms. “Then the third one, in the United States, where Trump has just declared he is going to run.” The results of these elections would not only be felt in those countries, she cautioned. “Like in the Philippines, these leaders cave in their institutions, but then they also ally with each other. This is what [the American historian] Anne Applebaum calls Autocracy Inc. Autocracy Inc is real.”

“We are standing on the rubble of the world that was,” Ressa said, sounding both exhilarated and exasperated that so few people seemed to grasp how much was at stake. “I feel like Sisyphus and Cassandra combined, you know,” she explained. “This is not the old world. It’s deceptively familiar, but everything is corrupted. And if we don’t fix it, then we are in the last two minutes of democracy.”

Ressa was born in Manila in 1963, two years before Ferdinand Marcos came to power. During the two decades that followed, he declared martial law, had his opponents jailed, tortured and killed, and siphoned off an estimated $10bn of the country’s wealth, before being ousted by the People Power movement in 1986. Marcos fled with his family to Hawaii, where US customs officers found 24 gold bars, a gold crown and crates stuffed with cash among their more than 300 suitcases. When the protesters subsequently stormed the presidential palace they found the first lady Imelda Marcos’s now infamous collection of designer shoes, which became a symbol of the family’s corrupt excesses.

That year Ressa graduated from Princeton University in New Jersey. She had spent her early childhood in Manila, where she lived with her paternal grandparents after her father’s death and attended an all-girls Catholic school. But in 1973 Ressa and her sister were “kidnapped”, as she describes it, by their mother, who took them to live with her in America, where she had moved and remarried. Naturally shy and a self-professed introvert (although this is hard to reconcile with the effervescent person on my laptop), Ressa stopped talking for almost a year.

By the time she finished high school in New Jersey, however, she had been voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by her classmates. She describes herself as a “die-hard Trekkie” who devoured science fiction at home, while throwing herself into basketball to avoid being called a nerd. (Ressa, as she says her lawyer, Amal Clooney, is fond of pointing out, is 5ft 2in.) After completing an arts degree at Princeton she returned to the Philippines on a Fulbright scholarship, just after Marcos’s regime had been swept away. She studied political theatre before finding her way into journalism and what she would come to see as her calling in life. She worked at television networks, including as a bureau chief for CNN, before the idea for her own digital news site was born. Ressa and her three co-founders launched Rappler in 2012, on a manifesto that “excellent journalism could change the world”.

She still believes that. “Who is foolish enough in their real life to go up to power and say, ‘Yo, you’re wrong!’” she said, laughing again. “I mean, it’s not even courage. It’s our job.” Ressa dismisses the idea that she is doing anything remarkable, but it is hard not to be in awe of her bravery. Since that first arrest in 2019, she has been arrested nine times; if she is convicted of the criminal charges she faces, she could go to prison for the rest of her life – or, as Clooney tells her, more than 100 years. In 2021 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Dmitri Muratov, editor of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”. They were the first journalists to receive the honour since Carl von Ossietzky in 1935, who died in a Nazi concentration camp after exposing Hitler’s efforts to rearm Germany.

In the end Ressa outlasted Duterte and his thuggish intimidation campaign. She is still the CEO of Rappler, while he stepped down (against the expectations of many) at the end of his six-year term. Yet his replacement offers little cause for relief. On 9 May 2022, 36 years after he fled the country with his father, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr was elected president of the Philippines. Duterte’s daughter, Sara, was elected vice-president. During his campaign the younger Marcos deployed the propaganda tools that Ressa had documented over the previous six years to extraordinary effect. The brutal reality of his father’s dictatorial rule, which many of the population had lived through, was reimagined on social media as a “golden era” of stability and economic growth. The new leader hailed his father as a “political genius”.

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“We now have another President Marcos,” Ressa said, shaking her head as though she still could not quite believe it. “The Philippines is really emblematic of that Milan Kundera, quote: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ If people don’t remember what the past is, then that’s the way dictators begin.” She is not comforted by the recent defeat of Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian presidential election, and of some of the most extreme Trump-supporting candidates in the US midterm elections. “Bolsonaro lost by 1 per cent,” she pointed out, and Trump is running for president again. “It’s funny watching some of the coverage here [in the US] and listening to people say, ‘Well, this wasn’t as bad as it could have been.’ It’s like Stockholm Syndrome: we’re already held captive, but we can still move our hands. Do not get used to it!”

She tries to remind herself of the same thing: that she should not get used to the restrictions she is forced to live under as she navigates the endless court cases and bail terms, along with the threats to her life. (She started wearing a bullet-proof vest when she was on the road in the Philippines 2018.) Despite everything, Ressa is an optimist. She told me she still believed in the good in the world and the generosity of people. “How do you stand up to a dictator?” she asked. “We remember our values. We remember the goodness of human nature. We remember that we do not want to give that up.” Whenever she is feeling down, she said, she thinks about how people came together in their cities after the devastation of the Second World War. “This is one of those moments. It’s just that, this time, the atom bomb was silent.”

“How to Stand Up to a Dictator” is published by Penguin.

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