“If This Can Happen to Maria, Then This Can Happen to You”
For much of her life, journalist Maria Ressa struggled to determine who she was and where she really came from. Born in the Philippines and raised in the United States, she didn’t feel entirely at home in either.
Growing up in Toms River, New Jersey, she “never felt completely American,” she said in an interview. But after graduating from Princeton University and returning to the Philippines on a fellowship, she “realized that I’m not really Filipino. That’s when I realized how American I was.”
“When I’m with Americans, I feel Filipino,” she said, “and when I’m with Filipinos, I feel American.”
Once she became a journalist — serving as CNN’s bureau chief in both Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and later leading the Philippines’s largest and oldest broadcast news outlet before founding Rappler, an online news organization based in Manila — Ressa came to terms with her dual background. She realized that her roots in both the United States and the Philippines helped her understand and report on a wide range of people and cultures. “I just decided that this was the best of both worlds and that it was good training for being a journalist.”
Ressa’s dual background has served her well over the last five years as she has confronted both the autocratic president of the Philippines and the American social media behemoth Facebook. Her ability to understand both the Philippines and the United States has helped her survive the greatest crisis of her life. Her courage earned her the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. She and her co-winner, Russian editor Dmitry Muratov, are the first working journalists to win the award since 1935, when German journalist Carl von Ossietzky won it while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.
Beginning in 2016, Ressa and her reporting team at Rappler exposed the brutal drug war waged by then-newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. In response, Duterte, a right-wing demagogue, launched an unrelenting war against Ressa, combining trumped-up criminal charges and frivolous civil cases against her with an aggressive government disinformation campaign that sought to discredit her. Ressa says that Duterte’s efforts to destroy her were enabled by Facebook, which failed to curb Duterte’s use of the social media platform to spread lies about her.
Ressa and Rappler began documenting Duterte’s murderous drug war as soon as he became president June 30, 2016. “The killings began within hours of [Duterte’s] oath of office,” Ressa recalled. “It was alarming.” Initially, Rappler’s reporters were counting about eight dead each night but later discovered that the true numbers were much higher, as many as 33 a night.
Ressa and Rappler led the Philippine media in reporting on the drug war killings, but they quickly discovered that Duterte and his government were aggressively using Facebook to whip up lies and hate against them. And Facebook was letting it happen.
“It wasn’t just [Duterte] or the government or the drug war,” recalled Ressa. “It was also Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, which was essentially our internet.” Duterte was combining the drug war with disinformation operations. “If a Filipino asked about these bodies being dropped, they were crushed by [Facebook] accounts that would attack to silence them. Then they went after the journalists, and then they went after the opposition politicians, and then they went after human rights defenders. We saw it in our data.”
“If a Filipino asked about these bodies being dropped, they were crushed by [Facebook] accounts that would attack to silence them.”
The power of the government’s information operations became clear to Ressa in September 2016, when Duterte declared a state of emergency following a bombing in Davao City in the southern Philippines, where he had previously been mayor. Suddenly, a story that Rappler had published months earlier about the arrest of a man with a bomb became the outlet’s most read story.
“We fell right into one of their information operations. I caught it in real time,” Ressa recalled. “The president declared a state of emergency, and the justification for what they did was a 6-month-old story we did on an arrest of a man with a bomb. That story became No. 1 when it shouldn’t have been. They were already shaping the narrative, and that to me was alarming.”
Duterte quickly saw the benefits of his disinformation campaign and became ever more open and aggressive in weaponizing Facebook; when Rappler began to report on his information warfare strategy, the attacks against Ressa intensified.
Ressa expected that the social media company would be concerned enough to stop him. As a purely online news organization seeking to couple journalism with technology, Rappler had worked closely with Facebook, and she initially considered the company an ally.
“We had been working with them since the beginning of Rappler,” she said. “We started Rappler on Facebook, and the growth of Facebook in the Philippines was partly fueled by Rappler. The whole idea was social media for social good. I drank the Kool-Aid.”
“The whole idea was social media for social good. I drank the Kool-Aid.”
But when Ressa met with Facebook officials in Singapore in 2016 to talk about Duterte’s worsening disinformation campaign, the company took no action, she told The Intercept. She told Facebook that Rappler was planning a three-part series on Duterte’s use of Facebook for malign purposes, and it still did nothing. The company wouldn’t even give Ressa a comment to be used in the series.
“When I brought the data to Facebook in Singapore, I expected them to fix it and then come back to me and give me a statement so I could write my story,” Ressa said. “I never got a statement, and I was really naive in thinking that they could fix it. It goes against the business model. Fixing this requires stopping this kind of engagement metric that literally prioritizes the spread of lies laced with anger and hate over facts. Fixing that would mean they would make less money.”
Rappler’s three-part series revealing the Duterte government’s use of social media to target its enemies prompted “an average of 90 hate messages per hour” against the outlet and Ressa, she recalls. The goal of the attacks was “to pound you into silence.”
“We believe in press freedom and support news organizations and journalists around the world as they continue their important work,” a spokesperson for Meta Platforms Inc., the new corporate name for Facebook, said in a statement. “We continue to invest heavily to remove harmful content and bad actors from our platform in the Philippines, and consult with a range of stakeholders on the ground to better understand the risks, and the steps we need to take to keep our community safe.” The company maintains “an open channel of communication with Maria and her team at Rappler,” the spokesperson added.
Facebook’s refusal to take action against Duterte left Ressa in an awkward relationship with the company, since Rappler still serves as one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners in the Philippines. But by 2018, she had begun to publicly criticize Facebook. “When somebody has great power, sometimes all it takes is civil society to come back and say, ‘You are being harmful to society. You are killing democracy. This is something that needs to stop.’”
By 2018, Duterte’s government had brought 11 legal cases against Ressa, both criminal and civil, and tried to revoke Rappler’s operating license. But Ressa and her organization refused to back down, and by 2019, the government began issuing warrants for her arrest. The first came February 13 that year. “My Valentine’s Day gift was a night in detention,” she recalls. Between 2019 and 2021, the government issued 10 arrest warrants against Ressa, and she had to post bail for each one. “These cases are ridiculous,” she said. “Which fantasy world are we living in?”
“The weaponization of the law is a war of attrition.”
Duterte was trying to create a “meta-narrative” that journalists were criminals, Ressa observed. “I wasn’t the only one, but I was a primary target, largely because I think I was a cautionary tale: If this can happen to Maria, then this can happen to you.”
Ressa’s legal battle still isn’t over, even after winning the Nobel. Seven of the legal cases against her are still pending, and Ressa must seek government approval whenever she travels overseas. Last year, she was denied permission to travel to the United States to visit her mother, who was ill. “What I risk is that I could go to jail for the rest of my life,” Ressa told me. “The weaponization of the law is a war of attrition.”
Now the solicitor general of the Philippines is seeking to block her from traveling to Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel on December 10, a move that Ressa is appealing in court.
Facebook’s behavior in the Philippines is just one example of a global phenomenon, Ressa says. The social media behemoth has enabled what she calls “digital authoritarians” to flourish all around the world, including former President Donald Trump in the United States, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary, President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, and President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
“There has been great harm done globally,” Ressa says.
Ressa calls for governmental action to force Facebook and other companies to curb disinformation. She still hopes that Facebook and other companies will do so on their own first, but she says she has been disappointed that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, seems to be digging in his heels in the face of the recent leak of thousands of internal documents revealing that Facebook has known about the harm it has been causing around the world and has done little or nothing to stop it.
“Why would these platforms want to kill democracy? Why would they want to encourage human behavior that is the worst of what we can be?”
“Why would these platforms want to kill democracy?” Ressa asks. “Why would they want to encourage human behavior that is the worst of what we can be? That’s what they are doing. I know the Philippines very well. I’ve watched it torn apart and radicalized. I’ve watched our institutions collapse, and Facebook, YouTube — this is how it all began.”
Ressa says she was stunned when she received a phone call telling her that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize just before it was publicly announced October 8. “I was on a webinar. We were in the middle of a discussion when I saw my cellphone, and it just said Norway. I muted [the webinar], and I picked up the phone. The video was still on, and you can see the moment when I was listening and I realized they were telling me I was getting the prize, and you can see the disbelief.”
Asked whether she will talk about Facebook in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Ressa is succinct: “Inevitably.”
James Risen is the director of the Press Freedom Defense Fund, which has provided financial assistance for Maria Ressa’s legal defense in the Philippines. The fund and The Intercept are both part of First Look Institute.
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