When I visited Rappler’s modest Manila newsroom this October, it was ghostly quiet, with an air-conditioned chill. The newsroom had been working remotely for more than a year. Desks were empty, and the gray, glassy conference rooms were deserted. The loudest thing in the room was the splash of Rappler’s signature orange.
The last time I visited in 2019, there wasn’t an inch of calm space. Editors were exchanging banter at the center desk; there was a raucous live social media event in the middle of the floor. In her office tucked in the corner, co-founder Maria Ressa — now well-known as the co-recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize — was mid-interview with a PBS documentary film crew. At the time, Ressa had been named in a grand plan to destabilize the Duterte administration, and local media published an elaborate matrix chart showing her involvement.
“What can I say? I’ve run out of words for ridiculous, ludicrous. I’ll push it to farce,” Ressa told Rest of World then.
Ressa is the public face of the Philippine investigative outlet Rappler, and the attention heaped on her has typically been less than glowing. Her newsroom has been attacked publicly and repeatedly by President Rodrigo Duterte; these attacks have then been amplified on social media by his legions of trolls, who have threatened her and her editorial team’s physical safety. The regime’s online supporters saw news of the Nobel Prize as an opportunity to immediately discredit Ressa. “She lied to the world! Are they ok with Ressa painting the Philippines as a basket case?” read one.
“It’s just an affirmation that we have not won,” Rambo Talabong, a young Rappler reporter who made his name covering Duterte’s brutal war on drugs, told Rest of World. “The battle is still being waged.”
But Ressa is also one of Facebook’s fiercest critics, and her Nobel win had an eerie timeliness, coming just ahead of the public reveal of the Facebook Papers. Though they spilled into Western media with damning details of the company’s slow actions to counter misinformation and hate speech, the reports landed in the Philippines with barely a thud.
There, Rappler and human rights organizations have been singing this tune for years. Alongside the global recognition conferred by the Nobel, there’s a sense that organizations like Rappler — which understood and scrutinized the failings of social media platforms long before Western media — have disproportionately kept these companies accountable.
Today, however, Rappler’s challenges are only mounting. The country is gearing up for the Philippine presidential elections, as new platforms like TikTok threaten to add fuel to the disinformation fire, and reporters battle the limitations of reporting during the pandemic — now, all under the glare of the international spotlight.
The pressure, along with the risks of working for a high-profile outlet, are nothing new, Rappler reporter Lian Buan told Rest of World. “That’s a bad thing,” she added, “Because you don’t want to feel so numb that you’re not moved to change.”
On the Friday that the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, members of the Rappler newsroom had plenty else on their minds. It was the registration deadline for election candidates, and the Slack channel was teeming with live updates. Rappler’s reporters had endured toxic online abuse for months as they followed possible successors, ranging from Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio to the opposition Vice President Leni Robredo. They were exhausted, but pushing on.
At 4:43 p.m., a single message dropped in from Lilibeth Frondoso, the Rappler head of multimedia strategy and growth. “MARIA WON NOBEL,” it read, bluntly. For a beat, there was silence; distracted by the news cycle, they hadn’t expected the result to come so soon. Then the world began to move again. Exuberant messages started streaming in, from inside the newsroom and out.
It’s difficult to describe the relentless stress of running a newsroom under an openly hostile government. Journalism is deadly in the Philippines: A news anchor shot to death in late October was the 21st journalist killed under the Duterte regime.
On the day that I visited the office, some Rappler staff were attending a story planning session for the Philippine elections. One of them was Buan, Rappler’s energetic corruption and justice reporter. She had been assigned to cover Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines for more than two decades, much of it under an authoritarian regime that illicitly amassed a fortune for the family. Today, Marcos Jr. is considered a frontrunner in the upcoming election — if Duterte’s daughter ultimately doesn’t run for president.
Buan anticipates a tough run. “I was assigned to cover a very controversial candidate,” she said. “So I’m bracing myself for that. I can [already] see some hate on my notifications.” (Rappler has a history with the Marcos family.)
Bright and chatty, the 24-year-old Talabong was an intern and researcher when he started at Rappler, covering Duterte’s campaign against the illicit drug trade, which targeted addicts and left thousands of Filipinos dead. Now a police reporter, Talabong said he feels the online terrain is shifting.
Beyond Facebook, short-form video platform TikTok is rapidly becoming a new flashpoint of disinformation and the “war against facts,” as he called it, using wording that echoes Ressa’s. Influencer accounts are spreading political misinformation; Talabong has been aiming to counter them with snappy, explanatory TikTok videos on Philippine politics, geared at young audiences.
“I think it goes back to the question of what is the future of journalism?” he said. “We have to meet readers where they are, how people are consuming media. Because our competition is not with each other. Our competition is all content creators. Our competition is Instagram, our competition is Netflix, it’s Facebook.”
Later, as he moderated a Google Meet call, Talabong began setting up a tripod and ring light to provide fellow staff members a crash course on TikTok’s short-form storytelling.
“How do we grab their attention so that we can give them proper information?” he asked. “I really want to make information fun again.”
The closed nature of Philippine power and Rappler’s outsider status mean that its reporters can’t rely on insider briefings the way its competitors do; they have to find alternative ways to tell stories.
Buan works out of her condo unit in Manila, surrounded by a collection of plants she’s acquired during the pandemic. She closely monitors the Supreme Court of the Philippines, and has kept a tally of lawyers killed during the Duterte administration (the number now stands at 63, she said).
Buan said she’s struggled to cultivate sources at a time when physical interaction isn’t possible. Even outside of the pandemic, Rappler reporters often find Filipinos unwilling to talk to them because of the online attacks on the organization’s credibility.
“Even though a lot of people put their walls up immediately when you say you’re from Rappler, there are a lot of things you can overcome just by being personally in front of that person,” she said.
During the pandemic, one tactic to avoid a journalist’s requests has picked up its own slang name: “seen-zoned,” describing a message featuring a seen receipt, but which receives no reply. Receiving confidential documents from sources has become challenging as well, Buan said; she has to be aware of her sources’ digital security for fear of hacking or surveillance. She has instructed several sources to open a ProtonMail email account for better security, but they don’t always heed her advice.
But she presses on, reaching out to sources through texts or calls, often without a response. “I think the mentality has not changed, because the [Rappler] culture is still very much alive — you do not write to beat a quota, you write to do a good story,” Buan said.
Talabong keeps his messages open on Facebook and Twitter, allowing people to contact him for tips. There’s a price to being open and active online, though. “I’m openly gay, but [trolls] say it in a derogatory manner. “Oh, you’re [a] sad, gay person; you will never find love; you will die someday; you will die alone.’ It got to a point that I have become numb when it comes to that,” he said.
Talabong, who was charged (along with Ressa) with cyberlibel for a story, had to make court appearances throughout the pandemic, until the case was dropped by the complainant in August this year. He took it in stride. “What else can they do to us?” he said with an exasperated tone.
To celebrate Ressa’s historic Nobel win, the team gathered online for a huddle and cheered her. Some stopped working for the night, while others continued reporting that frantic Friday. It was a morale boost. Upon hearing the news, Talabong said his internal voice said: “Oh my God, oh my God, oh God.”
“It was really a light moment, after such a heavy week,” he said.
The Nobel Peace Prize represents multiple good things for Rappler: a vindication, a validation of Ressa’s efforts, and a validation of the company’s work. But it doesn’t necessarily shield them from existential threats.
Ressa is still facing seven cases, ranging from cyberlibel to tax evasion charges. Rappler as a news organization is fighting a closure order pending in court, and the changing of the guard in government adds anxiety. Reporters and staff fear that their jobs could be taken away from them any day, as happened to thousands of ABS-CBN workers who lost their jobs when they were shut down by the Philippine Congress mid-pandemic.
One of the trickiest lines for Rappler to walk is its partnership with Facebook. Rappler receives an undisclosed funding amount to operate its verification program in the Philippines, as one of Facebook’s partners in its fact-checking program. Facebook funds a journalism support and fact-checking program, but critics say it should be doing more.
“It’s critical engagement,” Gemma Mendoza, who oversees Rappler’s fact-checking program, told Rest of World in a call. “Just because we’re part of the partnership doesn’t mean that we cannot speak out when there’s something wrong, right?”
She points at feedback related to red-tagging that eventually resulted in a takedown of a Philippine military-linked network. “It’s very important to push reforms if you’re giving structured recommendations,” she continued. “You cannot just say ‘Facebook, you’re bad.’”
If the past is any guide, Philippine social media will be descending into a battleground for disinformation ahead of next May’s elections. How is Rappler preparing to counter it? I asked. And is there anything to be hopeful about?
“What I’m seeing is people are starting to recognize that disinformation is a problem,” Mendoza told Rest of World. She said that the “explosion of interest around fact-checking” is “a good sign” — a growing understanding that there’s a shared issue.
“At the very least, all these efforts will breed a generation … who will be critical thinkers,” she said. “So that’s the hope.”