We’re All Being Manipulated the Same Way

This piece was adapted from Ressa’s remarks at Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy, a conference hosted by The Atlantic and the University of Chicago, on April 6, 2022. Maria Ressa is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the CEO of Rappler, and a recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

“really, this is like when 140,000 people died instantly in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same thing has happened in our information ecosystem, but it is silent and it is insidious. This is what I said in the Nobel lecture: An atom bomb has exploded in our information ecosystem. And here’s the reason why. I peg it to when journalists lost the gatekeeping powers. [..]

Content creation was separated from distribution, and then the distribution had completely new rules that no one knew about. We experienced it in motion. And by 2018, MIT writes a paper that says that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts. This is my 36th year as a journalist. I spent that entire time learning how to tell stories that will make you care. But when we’re up against lies, we just can’t win, because facts are really boring. Hard to capture your amygdala the way lies do. [..]

All of our debate starts with content moderation. That’s downstream. Move further upstream to algorithmic amplification. That’s the operating system; that’s where the micro-targeting is. What is an algorithm? Opinion in code. That’s where one editor’s decision is multiplied millions and millions of times. And that’s not even where the problem is. Go further upstream to where our personal data has been pulled together by machine learning to make a model of you that knows you better than you know yourself, and then all of that is pulled together by artificial intelligence. [..]

Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these, we have no shared space and democracy is a dream. [..]

So what did we do? We realized it’s systematic, that it is taking a lie and pounding—that it is using free speech to stifle free speech, because when you are pounded to silence, you kind of shut up, unless you are foolish like me. We took all the data and gave it to our social-media team. Rappler is one of two Filipino fact-checking partners of Facebook. I’d say we’re frenemies. [..]

A lie told a million times became a fact. My meta-narrative? Journalist equals criminal. And then a year later, President Duterte came top-down with the same meta-narrative, except he did it in his State of the Nation Address. And then a week later, I got my first subpoena. That year, we had 14 investigations. In less than two years, by 2019, I got 10 arrest warrants, posted bail 10 times. [..]

The UNESCO report looked at almost half a million social-media attacks against me. There was a point in time when I was getting 90 hate messages per hour. Sixty percent were meant to tear down my credibility. There’s a reason why you don’t believe news organizations anymore; that is an information operation. And then the other 40 percent were meant to tear down my spirit. It didn’t work, but it’s really painful. [..]

Here’s the solution: tech, journalism, community. Those are the three pillars of Rappler, even from the beginning. Part of the reason I’m here is because I testified at the Senate subcommittee on East Asian affairs and I asked for legislation. It’s not where I started in 2016, because I thought tech platforms were like journalists and could have self-regulation. They’re not. Technology needs guardrails in place. [..]

As a journalist, I grew up looking at each country and every culture differently. But what the tech platforms actually showed us is the silver lining: We’re all being manipulated the same way. We have a lot more in common. So even things like identity politics, what happened in the U.S. in 2016, when both sides and Black Lives Matter was pounded open. Be aware. Think slow. Not fast.”

Full article, M Ressa, The Atlantic, 2022.4.6