Transcript for Episode 18, Maria Ressa

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Margaret Koval: Hello, and welcome to She Roars, a podcast about change and the women who make it happen, during and after their time here on the Princeton campus. My name is Margaret Koval, and my guest today is Maria Ressa, Class of 1986. Maria is a celebrated journalist and a growing icon of free speech. She was born in the Philippines, mostly raised here in the United States, and went back to the Philippines after college where she pursued a career in broadcast journalism. In 2012, Maria founded a news site called Rappler with just a handful of reporters. It’s grown into a very powerful force in the Philippines. TIME Magazine featured her in its 2018 Person of the Year issue, in part for Rappler’s coverage of the tactics used by President Rodrigo Duterte in his brutal war on drugs. As of this recording, she’s out on bail after her second arrest, which is widely viewed as part of an intimidation campaign by the government. So Maria, thank you very much for coming to Princeton and for taking the time out to talk to us.

Maria Ressa: Thanks for having me.

Margaret Koval: I’d love it if you could set the stage a little bit. The war on drugs is not just a rhetorical phrase, I think in President Duterte’s usage, so could you describe what that war has been looking like?

Maria Ressa: The drug war began July 2016. And since then, depending on who you talk to, the latest UN estimate is 27,000 people killed since July 2016. Most of them, the poorest of the poor, not the big fish, right? And what this means is impunity to kill without due process.

Margaret Koval: So these are extrajudicial killings? Just to be perfectly clear.

Maria Ressa: So that’s the UN estimate. What the police will tell you is that as of December 2018, at least 5,000 people killed. So they admit to that since July 2016. And then there’s another subcategory, 30,000 underneath what they call “homicide cases under investigation.” Part of the reason we came under attack is because we kept track of the numbers.

Margaret Koval: “We” being Rappler, now, of course?

Maria Ressa: Yes.

Margaret Koval: Yeah.

Maria Ressa: Yes, so part of it is this parsing of the numbers and putting them in different buckets to make the numbers look smaller. Regardless of how you look at it, even by the police’s own admission, 5,000 is a lot of people killed. Again, the UN says, “It’s at least 27,000 people killed.” This is what spreads fear and is part of the psychology of the way the Duterte administration works, “You’re with us or against us.” There’s a Tagalog phrase, non la bon [phonetic], they fought back. “So because they fought back, we can kill ’em.” And I think what’s interesting to me is to see this shift in the Philippines, a country that was one of the first signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to see the shift in values. And you see it on social media, partly triggered by information operations on social media, but, you know, Filipinos saying, “It’s okay to kill,” that change in values happened over six months; that’s alarming to me.

Margaret Koval: Yeah. So, okay, because you also talk a lot about an information war, and that maybe gets at what you just said, that the change in values, how has that happened? Tell me what this information war is in your description.

Maria Ressa: So Rappler knows both the best and the worst of what social media can do. The Philippines is no. 1 globally in terms of the amount of time we spend on the internet; and no. 1 in the amount of time we spend on social media. Social media, 97 percent of Filipinos on the internet are on Facebook. So when you talk internet in the Philippines, you’re talking Facebook.

Margaret Koval: Why is that? How does that happen?

Maria Ressa: It’s just, part of it is free basics, you know. In 2015, one of the local telcos, and now both of the major telecommunication companies in the Philippines offer Facebook embedded in your phone. You’ll get Facebook, you can see the articles; but if you want to actually read them, you have to pay. Our mass base can’t really pay for that, so it’s very easy to manipulate them. And that’s the foundation of the disinformation networks. Exponential lies; and when you say a lie a million times in this day and age, it becomes fact. And that’s part of what’s splintering our society aside. The very first targets were anyone on Facebook who questioned the drug war. When they started talking about, you know, the extrajudicial killings because remember by July 2016, there would be an average of eight dead bodies a night.

Margaret Koval: Oh my God.

Maria Ressa: And they would be dumped outside a school, on the sidewalk with, like, you know, masking tape and bound arms. And anyone who questioned it were brutally pounded on, in, on Facebook.

Margaret Koval: And this was an organized attack?

Maria Ressa: Extremely organized and what we saw was the weaponization of what was a campaign machinery on social media.

Margaret Koval: Political campaign machine, you mean.

Maria Ressa: Political campaign machinery that helped then-Mayor Duterte win. But after he became president, that was when we began to see the weaponization of social media, and the phrase is “patriotic trolling.”

Margaret Koval: That’s an official phrase?

Maria Ressa: It’s actually, so it was coined by, well, there was a research study that was put together in 2016, the end of 2016, patriotic trolling was coined by Camille Francois; and the definition is “online state-sponsored hate to silence criticism or dissent.”

Margaret Koval: Wow.

Maria Ressa: And you see it in many numerous countries around the world, right? So by November 2017, Freedom House came out with a report that said, “In 27 countries around the world, cheap armies on social media were rolling back democracy.”

Margaret Koval: Wow.

Maria Ressa: Right? Cheap armies on social media. A year later, by 2018, the Oxford Computational Propaganda Project doubled that number. And this is part of, you know, whether it’s the Philippines or the United States, these information operations are pounding fracture lines of society and making sure it, essentially they’re using free speech to stifle free speech. And that is, again, exponential means they can astroturf an opinion, right?

Margaret Koval: Right.

Maria Ressa: President Duterte is popular, but is he popular because the propaganda machine has pushed it? Is it a bandwagon effect or is it real? It’s hard to tell.

Margaret Koval: And who’s paying these cheap armies of internet trolls?

Maria Ressa: So in the Philippines, we’ve done several stories on this, and many of them will say they’re volunteers at the beginning. The head of the campaign of then-Mayor Duterte admitted that they paid roughly $10,000, maybe, 200,000 pesos. Interestingly enough, just two weeks ago, the network that he had created on Facebook was taken down by Facebook for what they call CIB, coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Margaret Koval: Uh-huh.

Maria Ressa: Right? So that’s an information operation. And Facebook, for the first time, named him. His name is Nic Gabunada. And in the same way that in that same week, Facebook also named the Pakistani military information operations, right? This is power, those who have power, are using this to, are using social media in a way that splinters the truth and makes you doubt the facts, which then makes a far more controlled citizenry. That is what’s weakening democracy. I mean, Tim Snyder in his book “On Tyranny” talked about, you know, the lies. If you can’t tell fact from fiction, how can you demand accountability?

Margaret Koval: Yeah. And I was going to say, it, you know, it’s not just bringing into question facts; it’s bringing into question our ability to even ever know the facts.

Maria Ressa: Yes.

Margaret Koval: So that there’s no way to get to truth. So the very concept of truth becomes, I don’t know, random. I think that’s, in some of the ways, we talk about these issues on this podcast fairly frequently and I think to some degree that’s because as a university, you know, we are here in pursuit of truth and in pursuit of methodologies to find truth.

Maria Ressa: Right.

Margaret Koval: And so these tactics seem very, you know, threatening to our core.

Maria Ressa: If you go back, one of the things that helped us deal with it in the Philippines was to look at dezinformatsiya, Russian disinformation, right? The KGB chairman, there’s a quote where he compares the last KGB chairman, he compares disinformation to cocaine. You know, you take it once or twice, you’ll be okay, but if you take it all the time, it’ll fundamentally change you. And that’s kind of what it is. And I look at it as, you know, death by a thousand cuts of democracy because every cut that you have will seep blood. And in the Philippines right now, we are so fragmented that people have no idea what they can believe in. And it’s also ripping apart your faith in traditional news groups, which were seen as credible or anyone who you might want to believe in, because if you attack and tear them apart, then the voice with the loudest megaphone will always win.

Margaret Koval: Yeah.

Maria Ressa: In our case in the Philippines, that’s President Duterte.

Margaret Koval: So how do you fight back? How are you fighting back at Rappler or amongst like-minded people in the Philippines, like-minded journalists?

Maria Ressa: Data, data. You know, Rappler knows the best and the worst of social media, of Facebook. And when I started Rappler in 2012 with a group, with three other founders, we grew 100 to 300% year-on-year; both in terms of reach and revenue. And it was incredibly empowering and amazing. I drank the Kool-Aid. This is a new technology that can, and the tag line we had was always, “We build communities of action.”

Margaret Koval: Uh-huh.

Maria Ressa: And our first community we built was on disaster risk reduction, because the Philippines has an average of 20 typhoons every year. So we could see the best of it, but by 2015 when Facebook introduced Instant Articles, you could sense the impact all around the world by 2016.

Margaret Koval: Tell us what Instant Articles are.

Maria Ressa: So Facebook at that point was running after Twitter, because most news people stayed on Twitter, and they decided that they would create a tool that would bring in, faster loading on mobile phone, bring your articles in. So they offered it to news groups. It’s called Instant Articles, that was 2015. By 2016, we felt its impact around the world, and you first saw it in Brexit and the data shows that there was information operations around that time period. Then Duterte’s election. Actually, sorry, Duterte was elected one month before Brexit.

Margaret Koval: Um-hmm. That’s right.

Maria Ressa: That show, Duterte’s election was the first time a politician actually used social media to win. But in our case, the weaponization happened after he won. And then after that, Brexit, then U.S. elections, and Catalonia elections. And some of the data that we got. So the way we dealt with it was by looking at the data. We found 26 accounts that had repeatedly attacked traditional media in the Philippines and we noticed that they followed each other. This is the first iteration, far simpler times. And because they followed each other, we went and looked and proved to ourselves that these are fake accounts. And then we manually counted how many other accounts did they touch —

Margaret Koval: Uh-hum.

Maria Ressa: — could they influence? From 26 fake accounts, you can influence up to 3 million others.

Margaret Koval: Wow.

Maria Ressa: And once we did that, then we put this in a database and we began collecting. We began collecting where disinformation travels and began mapping the networks.

Margaret Koval: Wow. And you began reporting on this too? I think this is where you got into some serious trouble.

Maria Ressa: So by August 2016. S,o the drug war began July, right? And we began noticing the attacks against normal people, against journalists, against anyone perceived to be critical of government.

Margaret Koval: Attacks online, now.

Maria Ressa: Attacks online, on Facebook. And what we did was, I took the data and went to Facebook in Singapore and I said, “Guys, this is really alarming. This is very different and you’ve got to do something about this because you have U.S. elections. I mean, Trump could win. Ha, ha, ha, ha.” We all laughed. We laughed because in August 2016, it didn’t seem like Trump would win, right?

Margaret Koval: Yeah.

Maria Ressa: And they were like, “No, let’s look at it. We’ll look at it.” I waited a month to two months and nothing happened. And then finally, I asked for data back; none. I asked for a statement; none. We decided to run the story the end of September and we came out with a three-part series, “The Propaganda War.” I wrote two of the three-part series, and the third one is on the 26 fake accounts and how they rippled 3 million others. The weekend after we did that, as soon as we published the series, we got hammered. Of course we knew that we were going to get attacked, right?

Margaret Koval: Right.

Maria Ressa: It’s the first time we called attention to this, but the extent of how much! At one point, at the beginning I was responding to all of them, thinking that it is real people.

Margaret Koval: It’s normal.

Maria Ressa: Yeah, exactly. How naive I was, right? And then at a certain point, I just stopped because it was coming in so fast, all I could do was count them. And it was an average of 90, nine-zero, hate messages per hour. It’s a new weapon against journalists and it is very personal.

Margaret Koval: Yeah.

Maria Ressa: You take your phone to bed with you. You wake up with your phone, right? So it took me two weeks to find equilibrium because what it did is it made me look at, is my data correct? Am I doing the right thing? And our managing editor actually told me, “You know, maybe you shouldn’t write the stories because if you get attacked, all of Rappler feels it.” We were still in an old-world mentality, right? With the data, it’s very clear what’s happening. And that’s part of what gives me strength. I know we’re being manipulated and we will call it out. And I long for a time when we can hold, just like in the drug war, we stopped the impunity. We can do the same thing online. And it should be Facebook working with us to make sure impunity does not happen.

Margaret Koval: Well, I mean as you say, reporters and researchers, academics I know in other universities, for example, were also looking into this, found this springing up in all kinds of other elections, Brexit, in particular. So this was happening all over.

Maria Ressa: All around the world, yeah.

Margaret Koval: And people bringing it to the platforms and getting the response. When did Facebook start to pay more attention?

Maria Ressa: Do something?

Margaret Koval: Yeah.

Maria Ressa: So I spent a year, because we’re partners, we’re alpha partners of Facebook in the Philippines. And in fact, I think at one point, we knew Facebook better than Facebook did. We lived on it, right?

Margaret Koval: Sure.

Maria Ressa: So I spent a year and I must have talked to more than 50 different officers of Facebook. I met Mark Zuckerberg in April of 2017, and we were one of the groups that they highlighted. There’s a small little film that they made on Rappler because we were using it for disaster risk reduction. Nothing, nothing was moving and all I could see are these attacks coming at me. And the first thing that they would say when I would say, “But look at this. This is a lie.” And they’re like, “But you’re a public figure.” That’s not true, right? I just, the rights guaranteed by our Constitution, which is modeled after the United States’ was just stripped from journalists. And when you’re trying to speak truth to power, you need that kind of protection. It wasn’t until Mark Zuckerberg appeared in the U.S. Congress…

Margaret Koval: Uh-huh. And when was that again? That was not very long ago.

Maria Ressa: That’s 2018; 2018, you know. So I kept, I was probably the loudest critic of Facebook, definitely in Asia-Pacific. But I kept bringing it up because this is very real for me and for Rappler, it’s existential. And when Mark Zuckerberg was there in front of Congress, I was like, “Ugh, been there, done that.” We already lived through these exponential attacks. But then in January 2018, they actually hired a whole new group of people. And the man who symbolizes this for me is Nathaniel Gleicher. He used to head cybersecurity at the Obama White House. And so kind of think about this group that he pulled together as a law enforcement, right?

Margaret Koval: He pulled this together inside Facebook.

Maria Ressa: So this is happening now and you can see how the number of takedowns, and they started with Russian disinformation networks followed by Iranian. In the Philippines, we’ve had three takedowns, and the code word they will always use is the code phrase “CIB,” coordinated inauthentic behavior information operations. I think we need to define information operations because this is, these are, you know, it’s not just state sponsored, it is also the digital folks who are manipulating people; groups like Cambridge Analytica, you know. It’s interesting because the most number of compromised accounts globally in the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened in the United States. The country with the second-most compromised accounts, the Philippines.

Margaret Koval: Really?

Maria Ressa: So, you know, I always say you need to care about what’s happening because we are fighting for our lives, for our democracy in the Philippines, and we are the cautionary tale.

Margaret Koval: Yeah, the canary in a sense.

Maria Ressa: We’re the canary in the coal mines. And the irony, of course, is that this crisis was brought about by American technology companies with liberal values, right, liberal democratic values. So, you know, they’ll always say they’re unintended consequences. But frankly what you feel in the United States is nothing compared to what the global south is going through because every day… When Mark Zuckerberg said in Congress that it would take them five years before artificial intelligence from machine learning could do this, I was like, “We don’t have five years because every day that Facebook doesn’t take action, it means in our countries in the global south, people die.” That impact is real and Facebook is grappling with this.

Margaret Koval: Yeah, I mean, they are coming to terms with it, some would say at long last, some would say, you know, as fast as possible. One way or the other, it’s now on their agenda. But your experience of fake news isn’t just the fake news you’ve just described, right? I mean, that term then has been turned on you directly with criminal charges.

Maria Ressa: And again, it’s the United States, right? That’s why, we’re just the tail. It’s the U.S. When President Trump called the New York Times and CNN fake news. A week later, President Duterte called Rappler fake news. And unlike the United States where your institutions are strong enough to fight back, our institutions are extremely weak, and endemic corruption is part of life in the Philippines. So what I felt in 14 months, the Philippine government has filed 11 cases. These are criminal cases and investigations against Rappler and against me. Tonight our Board of Directors is going to an arraignment. I’ve had, I’ve posted bail eight times. I’ve been arrested twice in five weeks, you know. And it’s very clear that I’m going to post bail, that I keep coming back to the Philippines, that I will not be a flight risk. And yet the government wants to make sure that I am also a cautionary tale for other Filipino journalists.

Margaret Koval: Right.

Maria Ressa: “If she speaks too much, you challenge us, this is what will happen to you.” And this is kind of the way the administration has worked, right? President Duterte, it’s a tried and tested tactic. He’s been a mayor on-and-off of Davao City since 1985. He uses fear, and then he takes examples. The example for politicians is Leila de Lima. Senator Leila de Lima was the former Commissioner on Human Rights, Justice Secretary. In February 2017 she was jailed allegedly for being a drug lord. She was in prison for almost two years before her formal trial even began. She’s a cautionary tale for politicians. And so even as we gear up for elections on May 13th, you see most mainstream politicians. The opposition’s extremely weak. They’re trying to find a middle line in a place and time when, frankly, you are either supporting, and I’ll use the line “you’re with us or against us.” What the government has said, you’re either supporting extrajudicial killings, impunity in these things, or you’re not. And this is the dilemma that it brings about for me because as we’ve come under attack, I’m speaking far more frankly, you know. I’m calling a spade, a spade. This is utter abuse of power. The weaponization of social media has been matched, so we’re being attacked bottom up. And then top down, whatever is being astroturfed on social media is repeated by the president himself. And then these, the weaponization of the law in being used against us, and we’re slowly being sandwiched. We’re going to fight back as long as we can. And I think this is a particularly critical time for Philippine democracy because if the Philippines’ senate loses its independence, if it becomes fully pro-administration, the government… The House has already passed a new bill, a new constitution, and can pass it again. If the Senate passes a new constitution, by the end of the year, we can be a fundamentally different nation. We can no longer be a democracy.

Margaret Koval: So what can international institutions or individuals do? I mean, for example, the TIME Magazine cover, does that have a positive impact, should there be more? Is it enough?

Maria Ressa: It’s been amazing. I mean, the only defense journalists have is to shine the light. And part of what’s keeping us safe is because of the coverage that international news groups are giving what’s happening in the Philippines, both the drug war, the information war, and the attacks against Rappler. So it’s funny because this is a global problem, and this is happening as journalists, news groups, are fighting to survive. So in a strange way, this is an existential moment; not just for Rappler, for me. I hope I don’t go to jail, you know, but, it’s also for journalism and for democracy. Can we be doing more? Always, but it’s a world that has… Social media which delivers most of the news, it is now, it’s taken the gate-keeping powers away from journalists. And it’s allowed lies to poison the information ecosystem in all of our countries. And so that toxic slug must be removed. And I’m actually seeing Facebook taking these actions. That’s why we continue to work with them. But there’s so many people around the world who have been misled or are being manipulated without them being aware of it. This period, I hope, this period of creative destruction, that we will come out of it sooner rather than later. And ironically, it will be American social media platforms who will determine how fast we can. Because the solution; short, medium, and long-term, right? Long term, it’s education. Medium term, media literacy, maybe. And then short term, you can’t wait for government regulation. And what if it’s a government like the Philippines? It has to be the people who created this. They created the problem and hopefully they’re smart enough to find a solution.

Margaret Koval: Yeah, let’s hope. Maria, when we sit and talk, it’s easy or when I sit and look at people such as yourself fighting these battles from afar, I watch from afar; it’s easy, you can forgive us for thinking, there’s a Joan of Arc figure out there saving the world.

Maria Ressa: God, I hope not. [laughter] Joan of Arc got burned at the stake. [laughter]

Margaret Koval: Oh, yeah. I didn’t mean that.

Maria Ressa: No, it’s okay.

Margaret Koval: But what would you say to that? I mean, is this a role that is a useful role to play? Is this a role you wish you didn’t get, dare I say, tarred with?

Maria Ressa: Yeah. I mean, I’m extremely uncomfortable with where I am now, especially after TIME Magazine. I’m a reporter, you know; I want to do the story. I don’t want to be the story. And I don’t really know how to deal with this moment except to go back to the data, do the stories, to speak truth, the truth I see and because… You know, I think transparency is the new objectivity. I believe I have greater insight because I precisely see the abuse of power and I will name it for you. And because of that, I hope you can take something and do something with this because this is a global fight for the principles and the values of what democracy stands for. The Philippine Constitution is modeled after the U.S. Constitution. And our Bill of Rights, certainly my rights as a Filipino citizen have been trampled upon. The rights, the free speech, free press, freedom of expression, all of these things are there. What happens to us I hope does not happen to you. The long-winded way of answering your question, I have no choice but to speak because not speaking is worse. I don’t want to see the manipulation continue; and certainly we need to do something about impunity.

Margaret Koval: I want to thank you very much. We’ve run out of time; so thank you for again taking time which is very fraught for you right now, I understand, in speaking with us. Maria Ressa. I’d also like to thank our producer, Daniello Alio and our audio engineer, Dan Kearns; and to ask our listeners to come back for another conversation with a change-making woman from Princeton University.

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