Maria Ressa has a cheerful way of making apocalyptic pronouncements. “The world as we knew it is rubble,” she says over a Zoom call from Manila. “Facts are debatable, we have alternate realities — the White House will say we have alternate realities.”
Ressa is the CEO of Rappler, a prominent digital news outlet in the Philippines. Over the past few years, she has watched from the front row as the internet helped demolish civil discourse and fracture society’s shared sense of reality. In 2016, Ressa witnessed a flood of digital disinformation help elect Rodrigo Duterte, the firebrand populist who as president launched a “war on drugs” that has killed thousands of Filipinos. That year, the same trends helped put in office U.S. President Donald Trump and push the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.
During Duterte’s 2016 campaign, Rappler analyzed fraudulent social media networks that promoted the president and attacked his opponents, drawing on Ressa’s experience mapping terrorist organizations as an investigative reporter in the 1990s and 2000s.
Over the following four years, Ressa became not only a chronicler of the government’s falsehoods but a target of them. Through intimidation and lawsuits, the Duterte administration has worked to muzzle a number of independent media organizations in the Philippines. Ressa has been singled out: She and her company were charged with a series of spurious crimes, including tax evasion, all of which she has denied. In June, she and a former colleague were convicted of cyberlibel, a charge that stemmed from an article Rappler published in 2012. Ressa is now out on bail pending an appeal but could ultimately face years in prison.
Rather than silence her, these attacks have only given Ressa a bigger platform. Named a Time magazine person of the year in 2019, she has become a global symbol of press freedom and an avatar of courage in the face of rising authoritarianism. As her profile has grown, so, too, has her mission. Today, Ressa’s focus has shifted away from Duterte, whom she sees as only the symptom of a larger problem: Facebook.
Ressa is one of the founding members of the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a group of academics, journalists, and activists formed as a tongue-in-cheek counterpoint to the company’s actual Oversight Board, launched in May. That board was designed to function as a “Supreme Court” of sorts, with the power to decide if the company’s content-moderation decisions “were made in accordance with Facebook’s stated values and policies.” Ressa contends that those values and policies are themselves the problem, and says that Facebook’s persistent failure to effectively combat disinformation and hate speech poses an existential threat to democracy around the world.
“We’re fighting huge powers. Duterte, Zuckerberg,” she says. “Who would have thought you would have put the two of them in the same breath, but that’s what I’ve been living with for the last four years.”
Rappler began as a Facebook page in 2011 and launched as a stand-alone website the following year. Ressa says she was initially enthusiastic about the power of “social media for good.” Rappler even partnered with Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, which gives consumers in developing countries free access to certain websites. The program was instrumental in getting millions of Filipinos online, and also on Facebook: Today, nearly all internet users in the country have a Facebook account. It was the 2016 presidential election in the Philippines that eventually changed Ressa’s mind about the social network. “When the problems began, we were the first to feel it,” she says.
Rappler identified dozens of Facebook accounts that were creating and spreading disinformation in support of Duterte. Some posted fictionalized accounts of terrorist attacks and murders supposedly committed by drug addicts, which fed into the newly elected president’s law-and-order agenda. Ressa alerted Facebook, but she says it failed to take action. So Rappler exposed the accounts in a series of articles, instantly making the site a target of the same troll armies it was reporting on. (Facebook says it removes any content that violates its rules.)
Since 2016, Ressa has become increasingly convinced that Facebook needs to profoundly change how it’s designed and governed. She believes the platform’s algorithms and content-moderation policies are inherently prejudiced against reasoned debate based on settled truths. “The platform itself is biased against facts. It’s really biased against journalism,” she says. “Social media platforms have atomized meaning to meaninglessness. They have completely deconstructed context.”
Her opinions are backed by a growing body of academic research, which shows that social media sites often reward emotional messages over rational analysis, funnel users toward content that reinforces their preexisting beliefs, and spread lies more rapidly and widely than they do the truth.
Ressa says one of Facebook’s most alarming shortcomings is its reluctance to moderate disinformation posted by governments and politicians. The company has justified its restraint by arguing that statements from public figures should remain online for public scrutiny. Although Facebook has removed state-backed propaganda in some instances, Ressa, along with other activists, say that these actions frequently amount to too little, too late. They say Facebook’s inaction has allowed propaganda and disinformation to spread unchecked, overwhelming and delegitimizing the news media.
“What we saw [in the Philippines] was that news organizations were being pushed to the periphery, and the center of the conversation was being taken over by the pro-government, state-sponsored disinformation,” Ressa says.
Without checks and balances on social media, Ressa says, authoritarian governments like Duterte’s can impose their own narratives — that drug addicts and communists run the country, and that journalists like Ressa are criminals and conspirators.
Ressa, who speaks in long, rapid-fire monologues, apologizes throughout her interview for her anger. “It’s very emotional for me,” she says. “I have real skin in the game. If they don’t fix this, this is how the government will normalize the possibility of jailing me. I could go to jail because [Facebook] refuses to address these problems that they created.”
The idea for the Real Facebook Oversight Board began taking shape last year, after Ressa met with Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who, in 2018, first reported that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested Facebook data from millions of users. Since then, a number of high-profile academics and activists have joined the project, including Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, who wrote the best-selling book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, as well as former Estonian President Thomas Hendrik Ilves and NAACP President Derrick Johnson.
The board was created to force Facebook into taking responsibility for the damage it has caused. The group plans to “use stunts, viral video, celebrity endorsement, and skillful media management” to put a spotlight on the threats social media companies pose to democracy. Ressa says she hasn’t fully discounted Facebook’s ability to do the right thing. “They just need to get off their butts and fix it before it is completely broken,” she says.
Ressa is still processing her evolution from journalism to activism, but she says she sees an obvious connection between the two, especially in an environment where facts are under constant attack. “Journalism is activism when it is a battle for truth,” she says. “This is a time when anyone living in a democracy, if you care about democracy, you have to sit there and answer the same question I was forced to answer four years ago, which is: What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?”