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Shorenstein Journalism Award Winner Maria Ressa Describes Philippine Broken Information Ecosystem, Democratic Recession

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Maria Ressa speaking at Stanford
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

“Our dystopian present is your dystopian future if nothing significant is done,” cautioned Ressa, urging the Stanford community to pressure technology platforms and social media to stop disinformation spread.

“This is an existential moment for global power structures, turned upside down by technology. When journalists globally are under attack, democracy is under attack.” With these words, the internationally-esteemed investigative journalist and press freedom champion Maria Ressa, winner of the 2019 Shorenstein Journalism Award, opened her keynote address at a lunchtime ceremony, held at Stanford on October 21.

Ressa knows first-hand the terrifying reality of continuously being subject to online attacks and politically motivated attempts by the government to silence and intimidate. As CEO and executive editor of Rappler, she has led the Philippine independent news platform in shining critical light on the Duterte administration's policies and actions. President Duterte in turn has made no secret of his dislike for Ressa and Rappler, accusing the platform for carrying "fake news." Ressa has been arrested twice this year, accused of corporate tax evasion and of violating security laws, and slapped with charges of cyber libel for a report that was published before the libel law came into effect. Since Duterte’s election in summer 2016, the Philippine government has filed at least 11 cases and investigations against Ressa and Rappler.

“And all because I’m a journalist,” she says.

Speaking at the Shorenstein Award’s eighteenth annual panel discussion, Ressa detailed the devastating effects that disinformation has had on democracy and societal cohesion in the Philippines. She vividly explained why each and every one of us should be gravely concerned about the breaking down of the information ecosystem in a country halfway around the world. The Philippines, she said, is a case study of how attacks on truth and facts rip the heart out of civic engagement and gradually kill democracy, “a death by a thousand cuts.”

Ressa was joined on the panel by Stanford’s Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Raju Narisetti, director of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism and professor of professional practice at Columbia Journalism School, who also serves on the selection committee for the Shorenstein Journalism Award. Shorenstein APARC’s Southeast Asia Program Director Donald K. Emmerson chaired the discussion.

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A Cautionary Tale

Modern authoritarians follow a familiar playbook, noted Ressa, for they know well that “If you can make people believe lies are the facts, then you can control them.” Their first step is to lie all the time. The second is to argue their opponents and the journalists are the ones who lie. Then finally everyone looks around and says, "What's truth?" And when there is no truth resistance is impossible.

Ressa went on to describe detailed examples of patriotic trolling in the Philippines, that is, how state-sponsored online hate and harassment campaigns silence and intimidate journalists and others who voice criticism of the Duterte administration. Instead of censoring, she said, state agents now flood the information ecosystem with lies, blurring the line between fact and fiction. These information operations are conducted through the weaponization of technology and social media platforms, first and foremost Facebook. Ressa’s team at Rappler uses network analysis methods to unveil the flow and spread of online disinformation and harassment campaigns on Facebook and from there to other platforms as well as traditional and state media.

Ressa urged the packed audience of campus and community members to remember that “Without facts you cannot have truth, without truth you cannot have trust, and without any of these three democracy as we know it is dead. The public sphere is dead […] our Philippine dystopian present is your dystopian future, if nothing significant is done.”

She closed her keynote by pleading: “Please push tech platforms and social media to do something to stop the lies from spreading. Lies laced with anger and hate spread faster than facts. Fight  for your rights.”

Watch Ressa’s keynote and the entire panel proceedings here or on our YouTube channel. You can also listen to Ressa’s keynote below and on our SoundCloud channel. A transcript of the keynote address is available below.

No Ministry of Truth

Is the attack on truth a technological problem, and can it have a technological solution? It's naïve, said Diamond, to think that there is a purely technological solution or that we can rein in the alarming developments in the Philippines and elsewhere without addressing their technological elements and the economic incentives underlying these elements. “There has to be a macro political element of response,” argued Diamond, “which obviously has to involve advanced liberal democracies condemning and drawing boundaries around the murderous authoritarianism of Rodrigo Duterte.”

2019 Shoresntein Journalism panelists, from left to right: Donald K. Emmerson, Maria Ressa, Raju Narisetti, Larry Diamond.

Left to right: Donald K. Emmerson, Maria Ressa, Raju Narisetti, Larry Diamond.

Narisetti emphasized the need to look at the problem and its potential solutions holistically and bear in mind that solutions must come from multiple areas. “We must remember that technology has value, but it has no values. It's a matter of who is using it and how they're using it.” And while we certainly don't want Facebook to be the Ministry of Truth, continued Narisetti, by no means do we want Congress to take on that role. He pointed to specific possible regulatory solutions, such as insisting Facebook enable its users to port their complete data outside of the platform if they wish to do so, or establishing a system of data and privacy courts.

Commitment to Journalism that Courageously Seeks Accuracy

The Shorenstein Journalism Award, which is sponsored by APARC, was presented to Ressa at a private evening ceremony. “You would be hard pressed to find a person whose work more fully embodies the ideals that define journalism than Maria Ressa,” said James Hamilton, Stanford’s Hearst Professor of Communication, Chair of the Department of Communication, Director of the Stanford Journalism Program, who also serves on the selection committee for the award. Shorenstein APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin joined Hamilton in co-presenting Ressa the award.

The Shorenstein Award, which carries a cash prize of $10,000, recognizes accomplished journalists committed to critical reporting on and exploring the complexities of Asia through their writing. It alternates between honoring recipients from the West, who mainly address American audiences, and recipients from Asia, who often work on the frontline of the battle for freedom of the press in their countries. Established in 2002, the award honors the legacy of APARC benefactor Mr. Walter H. Shorenstein, who was passionate about promoting both excellence in journalism and a deeper understanding of Asia.

Maria Ressa Keynote Transcript
maria_ressa_keynote_transcript_sja19.pdf