Maria Russa: Quality journalism cannot survive on social media

by Fernando Belzunce

Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte waged a bloody war on drugs in 2016, resulting in the extrajudicial killing of thousands in the streets, mostly suspected small-time drug dealers and addicts. The killings – some 27,000 over three years, according to Amnesty International, took place with massive support from alleged government supporters on social media, were organized around a web of lies and fake news. With Facebook attacking and silencing citizens for criticizing crimes, journalist Maria Russa’s determination to investigate human rights violations and denounce manipulation campaigns on the Internet has made her a global icon of freedom of expression. In 2021, he received the Nobel Peace Prize along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.

Ressa, of American and Filipino nationality, has devoted 37 of his 59 years to journalism with extraordinary determination, as reflected in his book ‘How to Fight a Dictator’, where he not only opposes the Duterte regime exposes their fight, but also shares thoughts. and the inspirations of a woman destined to mark an era.

A reporter for CNN in Asia for two decades, and former news director for a national television station, since 2012 she has been directing leading digital media in the Philippines and the main headache rapper for corrupt and authoritarian leaders. A great internet expert, he is one of the most admired journalists in the world and at the same time, one of the most persecuted journalists. Last January 18, he was acquitted of an alleged tax evasion crime, but he is feared to have other legal cases still pending against him, which according to several international organizations are politically motivated.

The President of the Philippines is now “Bongbong” Marcos, the son of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Ressa expects new battles.

Doesn’t the Nobel Peace Prize protect you from political attacks?
I should be prepared for the worst. I never thought any of these cases would go to court and yet we have spent four years and two months fighting charges of tax evasion. It’s pretty clear from the verdict that it was a ridiculous case, but I had to live with it – and I already had the Nobel Peace Prize. There are more cases against us and if I look at Aung San Suu Kyi, who also has a Nobel, and is under detention in Burma… you must be breathing the air of the country you live in. We journalists are being attacked like never before had to deal with it.

The day the dictator Marcos was ousted is a national holiday in the Philippines. Do you think your son would have won the election if there was no social media?
never. The social media operation began in 2014 to clear the name of dictator Marcos. We showed in the wrapper that the goal was to link Marcos’ name to corruption and transform him from a kleptocrat to the best leader the Philippines has ever had. It was like the death of democracy. History changed before our eyes. Writer Milan Kundera has said that the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. But not only did we forget in our minds, but collectively it was transformed. Dictator Marcos suddenly became a hero.

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And his son is in power.
Marcos Jr. rebuilt his father’s political alliances. Some members of his cabinet are children or grandchildren of his father’s former ministers. It is a type of feudal dynastic politics, which has a lot of influence in the regions of the Philippines. He helped them get votes. Furthermore, he allied himself with Sara Duterte, the former leader’s daughter, who ran as his vice president. Had she run against him, the result might have been different.

Did you delay in starting the initiative in which more than 140 associations united against propaganda?
We launched it 100 days before the election and in fact, it was already too late. When we analyzed the data, we saw that the source of many lies lay at the heart of the Facebook ecosystem. Candidate Leni Robredo had no time to react and make a difference.

Why is Philippine society so at risk on social media?
It held the world record for six consecutive years. Ten percent of the population, 10 to 12 million Filipinos, live abroad and need connections. Social networks allow this for free and, moreover, they are fundamental to survival in a country where, due to corruption and weak institutions, favors are required for everything. You need to build contacts, activate your social networks… Infrastructure problems are also important. People skipped the computer phase and immediately turned to cell phones, which is a big problem in this country.

Duterte relied on ‘influencers’; Can good journalism triumph over populism in social networks?
Quality journalism cannot survive in social media. We have been commoditized. I do not allow my reporters to see popularity rankings because popularity cannot be a criterion. Our job is to hold the government accountable.

A Cambridge Analytica executive admitted to you that they tested in the Philippines the manipulation campaign they implemented in the US. What can democracy do to protect itself?
Social networks should be regulated. Accountability must be demanded and impunity must be stopped. Platforms prioritize the dissemination of lies over facts. They insidiously manipulate our emotions so that we cannot separate fact from fiction. Mark Zuckerberg is the biggest dictator in a way. He is more dictatorial than any other leader in the country.

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How did you go from being excited about Facebook to discovering its risks?
when we were attacked. Took power in 2016. In the war against drugs, murders started happening every night. And every time someone reported it on Facebook, they got a big shock. In August 2016 we created the hashtag ‘#NoPlaceForHate’ and we defeated it digitally. I started collecting data and we did a series on the weaponization of the internet. I could never have imagined before that the networks would support the rise of dictators.

Is the distribution of the key information?
This is the basic problem. The incentive structure of social networks rewards bad journalism and lies.

They are seen only as mediums through which data is transmitted.
Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act of 1996 granted impunity to these technology platforms. They are treated like pipelines. like a telephone. But that is not the way they work. The phone allows all calls to come through, while algorithms on social networks determine what gets sent to you. He serves as the editor. Just amend or repeal article 230. As soon as social media platforms are held accountable for lies, they will disappear.

Consensus that used to be universal, such as the idea of ​​truth, suddenly came under question. Are we witnessing the slow death of democracy?
Absolutely. And the journalist is at the forefront. We are facing crisis from many angles. Everything is affected: the tech platform, the advertising market, the business model of journalism… Even now, it is more difficult to ask complex questions to people in power than was common years ago, because if you ask them they will attack you. Let’s attack. Attacks against us – threats, with all their psychological implications – are only the tip of the iceberg.

Rapper was founded by four women and the editorial staff has a female majority. It is surprising to see that there are so many sexual references in your attacks. Do you think they are great because they are women?
This is what the statistics show. The International Center for Journalists analyzed more than half a million attacks I received on social networks. It turned out that 60% of these attacks were aimed at destroying my credibility and 40% were aimed at bringing me down. I am not the only woman who suffers from this. Sexual assault is sexual propaganda. It’s not that men aren’t attacked, but it’s not as personal or effective. There is implicit sexism and misogyny. Many women are coming out.

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Do you feel that your sexuality also fuels attacks against you?
not in the philippines. I’ve been a journalist for 37 years and I’ve worked in countries where being gay is illegal. No problem here.

Are you worried that artificial intelligence could fuel misinformation?
Yes of course. This is all about to get very bad and we all already know that, don’t we? We publish Rappler articles prepared with GPT-3, reviewed by our team and signed with the caveat that this was automated content. The writing is good, but it can’t tell fact from fiction. What data does the program use to put the information together? Garbage goes in, garbage comes out.

The documentary ‘Absence of Truth’ shows President Duterte threatening a young rapper journalist in front of other colleagues for keeping quiet: “You can criticize, but you will go to jail.” Have you felt supported by other Filipino journalists?
This is a complex question. Because silence is complexity; If you stay silent when you see something wrong, you allow it to happen. Some news organizations tried to show support. They were all scared and I understand the caution, especially in the case of corporate firms, but look what happened to ABS-CBN, the TV network I ran before Rappler: they lost their franchise.

You detail in your book that your childhood, marked by a hasty departure for the United States, may have instilled in you a strong sense of rootlessness and emptiness. Do you feel that journalism and fighting against injustice has helped you to face your life?
If I think about it… journalism has given me life. Absolutely. Excuse me for being emotional.

You travel often and the police often wait for you at the airport. Have you been tempted to never return to the Philippines?
No, that would be a big betrayal. I believe in RAPPER and I am very proud of how the team has performed in such difficult times. This is a very important moment for the Philippines. Unfortunately, President Duterte chose us, so I had no choice. If I let go of everything I believe about myself as a journalist and about journalism, I should be throwing it away. You can only know who you are when you are put to the test. I have to be optimistic.

This interview, which was first published in Spanish on February 26, 2023, in the newspapers of the Vosanto group. ,ABC, el correo), reprinted with permission.

The author, Fernando Belzunes, is editor-in-chief of the Vosanto group of newspapers and a member of the World Editors’ Forum board.

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