The Unholy Alliance between Authoritarianism and Big Tech
By Maria Ressa*
intervention at the webinar “From Repression to Resistance: Combatting the
Lawfare against Press Freedom,” Manila, Nov 21, 2020)
On June 15, 2020, I sat in a decrepit,
windowless courtroom and listened to Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa deliver her
verdict. It started with a fundamental truth about press freedom, then twisted
it upside down to justify her guilty verdict, then closed with a quote from
Nelson Mandela. It took a lot of legal acrobatics to get me and Rappler there,
and it will impact Filipinos: the statute of limitations for libel was changed
from 1 year to 12 years; and a new definition of “republication” was
I was convicted for a crime that didn’t
exist when we published a story 8 years ago, one that I didn’t write, edit, or
supervise. Oh, and while my former colleague Rey Santos, Jr. and I were found
guilty, Rappler was declared innocent. Kafkaesque.
Of course, I’m challenging this verdict
because I have done nothing wrong.
I’m a journalist, not a criminal. Yet, this
is what it takes to try to hold power to account today.
I know first-hand why and how democracy is
dying, and why journalists at the frontlines are constantly under attack. Part
of it is because I have a front-row seat: as a target, I see the evolution of
the online attacks as well as the weaponization of the law; as an investigative
journalist, I’m faced with near daily decisions challenging our profession;
and, as a business and technology head, I’m watching our business model
destroyed by technology, and trying to reimagine and build the future of news.
There are 3 developments that are turning
our world upside down:
1. The pandemic and its impact on power;
2. The behavior modification system we call
3.The impact of all this on civic
engagement – and our attempts to save democracy
So let’s go to the pandemic, which like in
most countries only exacerbated the underlying problems. The Philippines has
had one of the world’s longest lockdowns: a largely security-led response to
this virus. Like Bolsonaro in Brazil, President Duterte appointed mostly
retired military generals to lead our response. Our lockdowns had curfews and
quarantine passes, rules that weren’t implemented equally. When you break
these rules, you get arrested or sometimes shot — more than 100,000 people were arrested for quarantine
violations from March to September.
The Duterte administration asked for and
received broad emergency powers and a lot of money from Congress. Despite that,
many say it didn’t do enough in terms of the basics: tests, contact tracing,
and aid for our people.
Instead, it used the pandemic to
consolidate power, and with a captured legislature, to further constrict our
rights guaranteed by the Philippine constitution. On May 5, a small regulatory
agency ordered our largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, to shut down. Within a few
hours, the network went dark. The last time that happened was when Ferdinand
Marcos declared martial law in 1972; that shutdown lasted 14 years.
Shortly after, a working committee in our
House of Representatives took away television network ABS-CBN’s franchise for
good. While it took months to do that, Congress passed a draconian
“anti-terrorism” bill in about 5 days during the lockdown. President Duterte
signed it into law.
Under this, anyone labeled a “terrorist” by
a small group of cabinet secretaries can be arrested without a warrant and held
in prison for up to 24 days. 37 petitions have now been filed at the Supreme Court
demanding it be declared unconstitutional. Still, it achieves its purpose: to
make Filipinos afraid to speak and challenge power.
What has enabled our democracy’s death by a
Technology, once an enabler, is now the
destroyer, building division, “us against them” thinking, into the design of
social media platforms. It’s not a coincidence that divisive leaders perform
best on social media.
Propaganda has always been around, but
personalized, atomized, individual news feeds tailored to each person’s
weakness, this is brand new.
Social media are the new gatekeepers NOT
protecting the public sphere. Facebook is now the world’s largest distributor
of news. Except there’s a catch: lies laced with anger and hate spread faster
and further than the boring facts of news. They create a bandwagon effect of
artificial consensus – for the lie.
You say a lie a million times, it becomes a
fact. Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust.
Without these, democracy as we know it is dead. All around the world, populist
digital authoritarians use this scorched earth policy to get elected, then they
use the formal powers of their posts – the tools of democracy – to cave
institutions in from within. Then they use both social media and their top down
power to attack the truth-tellers.
I know this first-hand: in 2016, we
challenged the impunity of Duterte’s drug war, which human rights groups say
has killed tens of thousands (while the government keeps rolling back the numbers), and the
impunity of Facebook, which allowed the exponential attacks and hate speech
against journalists like me. That was when I was deluged with about 90 hate
messages PER HOUR.
It’s meant to pound me to silence.
Simultaneously, this astroturfing – a fake bandwagon effect – is meant to
influence others to believe the lies. Then it went a step further, using
microtargeting to seed false narratives. Senator Leila de Lima was among the
first target; Vice President Leni Robredo has been a daily target.
My last 4 years show you how this works:
In 2016, pro-government accounts seeded
“journalist = criminal” referring to me and Rappler. I laughed then: by 2021, I
would have been a journalist for 35 years, and I have a public track record.
Yet, I watched that lie repeated a million times make many Filipinos believe
that ridiculous charge.
In 2017, that same narrative came top-down
from the most powerful voice: President Duterte attacked Rappler in his State
of the Nation address, and a subpoena followed about a week later.
In 2018, the government weaponized the law
and filed 11 cases against me and Rappler.
In 2019, it issued 8 arrest warrants
against me, 8 criminal cases against Rappler, arrested me twice in a 5-week
period (and detained me overnight) to try to intimidate us to silence. It only
fuelled our mission because we now had first-hand knowledge of the abuses of power.
Of course, in 2020, there was the
conviction for cyberlibel. You could argue that conviction happened because we
stuck to our convictions.
This is how alternative realities are
formed. If you don’t know what to believe, then you can’t act. Which gives more
power to the person already in power.
We input our atomized selves, and for each
post, machine learning builds a model of who we are: it knows us better than
our family and friends, better than we know ourselves. Then artificial
intelligence takes our most vulnerable moment to a message and sells it to the
highest bidder. It could be a company or a country. This pattern of insidious
manipulation creates its own feedback loop that keeps the machine learning and
Cheap state-sponsored armies on social
media are in at least 70 countries around the world in 2019, according to the
Oxford University Computational Research Project. It is a scorched-earth
policy for power and money, now part of the global dictator’s playbook.
We fought back and survived the last 4
years by understanding the data and by realizing how social media abdicated
responsibility to protect the public sphere. We built our response on the 3 pillars of Rappler: technology, investigative
It’s a strange coincidence – or maybe not –
that the Philippines’ anti-terror law and Hong Kong’s draconian security law
rolled out at about the same time. Those are top-down measures of control, but
far more insidious are the influence operations – state-sponsored social media
attacks against human rights activists and journalists, robbing citizens of free
will and facts.
There’s one crucial question every
Filipino, every citizen in a democracy needs to answer.
What are you willing to sacrifice for the
Ressa is the Chief Executive Officer of Rappler, an innovative influential
online news agency. The recipient of
multiple media awards, she has become the international symbol of the free
press’s resistance to authoritarian efforts to suppress it. She has been served nine arrest warrants,
arrested twice, and convicted for cyberlibel.
She is threatened with imprisonment should her appeal against her