In this episode of DemWorks, NDI president Derek Mitchell is joined by Maria Ressa to discuss both the opportunities and challenges that technology presents for democracy, the threat of disinformation and the ways that authoritarians are using technology for nefarious purposes.
Today, NDI partner Maria Ressa, will join me for this discussion from the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, which we are both attending. Maria is a veteran journalist and the CEO of Rappler, the leading independent online news network in the Philippines, which has combated disinformation and exposed human rights abuses under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. For their critical reporting, Maria and her fellow independent journalists have been indicted multiple times on questionable charges and Maria herself has been arrested twice. Maria is a recipient of NDI’s Democracy Award in 2017, and Time magazine’s Person of the Year award in 2018.
Maria is also on the advisory board of the Design 4 Democracy Coalition -- or D4D -- which brings together democracy and technology stakeholders to navigate the challenges and opportunities for democracy in the digital age. D4D partners work to ensure information technology and social media play a proactive role in supporting democracy and human rights globally. At D4D, Maria draws on her remarkable experiences at the nexus of tech, democracy, and journalism to provide her insights.
Derek Mitchell: Hello, everyone. My name is Derek Mitchell. I am president of the National Democratic Institute, and I will be your host for this DemWorks podcast. It's no secret democracy faces substantial challenges around the world. But while the challenges are great, we at NDI believe the opportunities are even greater. For more than 35 years, NDI has been honored to work with thousands of courageous and committed small-‘d’ democrats around the world, to help countries develop democratic institutions, practices and skills necessary for success. Over that period, we've worked in more than 150 countries. Through our DemWorks podcasts and videos, we're engaging in conversation with those who have been on the frontlines of democratic development work around the world. They'll share what they do and how they do it, their on-the-ground experiences, the challenges they face, the obstacles they overcome, and the unique national contexts in which they must operate—and in the process show how DEMOCRACY WORKS.
In this episode, I am joined by someone whom I have admired for a very long time. Maria Ressa is with me here in the margins of the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, where we are both attending, to tape this podcast. Maria—as many of you all know—is a veteran journalist of more than three decades, much of it as Asia bureau chief at CNN. She is now the CEO and executive editor of Rappler, the leading independent online news network in the Philippines, which she co-founded in 2012. Rappler has been honored with numerous global awards for its courageous work to combat disinformation, and attempts to silence a free press in the Philippines. For her efforts, Maria was named Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2018. Nonetheless, Philippine authorities consistently hound Maria and her Rappler colleagues for their work. Maria has been arrested twice, and has more than a dozen cases pending against her. Maria is also an old friend of NDI. She's a recipient of NDI’s Democracy Award in 2017, and is on the advisory board of the Design for Democracy Coalition (or D4D), which brings together democracy and technology stakeholders to navigate the challenges and opportunities for democracy in the digital age. Maria, thank you so much for joining this DemWorks podcast.
Maria Ressa: Thanks for having me, Derek.
Mitchell: So, let me start with your background. My wife is a journalist. It's in her blood, it’s in her family's blood. Where does your passion for journalism come from? Where does this come from?
Ressa: I fell into journalism by accident. I was pre-med in college, and then I didn't know what I wanted to do. But I applied for a Fulbright, to go back to my Philippines roots. And that was 1986. People Power. It was an incredible time. I was learning about what was going on by watching the news, and I fell into it. It has been the most constant—and the force that has shaped my identity, who I am, and the values I believe in: Journalism.
Mitchell: Right, so then how did it go from there to being the CNN bureau chief?
Ressa: It was really CNN. In 1987, my fellowship was about to end. A colleague had asked me if I wanted to start a kind of Filipino version of 60 minutes. It's ironic to have 60 Minutes come to the Philippines—it just came out last week. But when that happened, CNN was looking for somebody in the Philippines, and I had recommended the reporter I was producing and directing for, and they said they wanted me. I had never reported before. I think it was because I was young, I was aggressive, and I had an American accent. And then from there, it was an amazing job. I was with CNN during the renaissance of CNN. It was like a renaissance age. I was the first Asian American—I became a bureau chief. So, first they hired me as a contractor for the first year. Then I set up the Manila bureau. That was a decade. Then I set up the Jakarta bureau. My boss at that point said: “Go.” Twenty years, it was almost 20 years. It really shaped who I am.
Mitchell: But then you made a break. You decided you wanted to do Rappler, which is—obviously, you put yourself in hot water.
Ressa: I don’t know whether I made the right call, yeah [both laugh].
Mitchell: How did that happen though? How did you go from CNN, where you had a comfortable life—
Ressa: Cushy [laughs].
Mitchell: A cushy life, to doing something like Rappler, which puts you on the edge of trouble almost at every turn?
Ressa: It was looking for home again. When I turned forty, I decided that I was going to choose where my home was, and it was a choice between the United States and the Philippines. Indonesia was a far third. I had covered so much. It was interesting to listen to Dino Djalal, because we grew up together. He was the spokesman for East Timor. And I was at that point—I was a young journalist, and Indonesia went from thirty-two years of Suharto to one new president every year. It was incredible to go through that. At that point, when I turned forty, I said: “I'm going to choose home.” Leaving CNN was really difficult, because again it was part of who I was already at that point. When I was thinking of leaving, I was like: “Am I doing the right thing?” Established. And then I went back to the Philippines. I decided to take a job running the largest news group in the Philippines. At that point, I was old enough to have real experience but young enough to do something different. I realized I hadn't really built anything myself, so that was when I joined ABS-CBN. I went back to the Philippines for the second time. I did that for six years. And then I realized that when you run a traditional news group, in the end it comes down to money. It's a P&L, and I hated it by the sixth year. I had already done standards and ethics, and I wanted something different. I wanted to look at technology. That's why we started Rappler. The idea for Rappler was really to take the technology and build communities of action, bottom-up. That was the elevator pitch.
Mitchell: How did it evolve then over time? You said it started with that idea. Then it obviously got into a whole realm of issues in the Philippines that became sensitive in the era of Duterte.
Ressa: I would never have thought that the Philippines could be where it is today. In 2012, when we started Rappler, there were four or five of us above forty, and we had decided: “We're gonna risk it.” These were the senior managers at ABS-CBN, most of them. I had recruited them. We decided to start it with 12 people. It was easier to start with nothing than to take a thousand-people newsgroup, and try to pivot a legacy newsgroup to the internet.
Mitchell: I know what that’s like.
Ressa: Right, you do! And that's why a summit like today’s is interesting to me, because I feel like we're still so stuck in old power dynamics. The world has changed, and we knew it first. That's what Rappler was. I figured if we failed at it, it's one year where we experimented. But if we succeeded—and we wound up succeeding—we were growing exponentially. A hundred percent to three hundred percent year-on-year, our first five years. I was like: “Oh my god, now we're doing this. After the fifth year, the end goal was break-even. We hit the targets, and I was ready to do succession planning, so I could go back to being a reporter. Except the fifth year was also when Duterte was elected president, in May. We had positive net income, April of 2016. In May, President Duterte becomes the head of state. Someone asked me: “Can you ever see the Philippines turning into a dictatorship?” I was like: “No way, we have social media.” Those words haunt me.
Mitchell: We were all optimistic about social media.
Ressa: I lived it. And that's what Rappler was. We were able to challenge—we became the third top online news site, beating the television networks in a year and a half. We own the numbers. We helped make Filipinos adopt Facebook. So we’re partly to blame right now.
Mitchell: We all believed in this. When I was ambassador to Myanmar, the week after Obama came in 2012, I went to Silicon Valley. I thought: “Come on out. It's a place you can open up.” We all thought this was going to be a liberating and opening-up.
Ressa: I thought it actually worked up until Facebook decided to do news, and they didn't really do that until 2015. Then the world felt the impact in 2016.
Mitchell: The strange thing is, the Philippines is known for the People Power movement in the 1980s. I think you said this earlier, when you were in a panel here in Copenhagen, that you sort of established that ‘people power’ idea, and yet today it's regressed. Three decades later, you have people giving Duterte high marks. He has high approval ratings, and in the midst of the extrajudicial killings, and the repression against media and anybody who opposes him. What does that say about democracy in the Philippines? How do you explain this?
Ressa: I think there are two strands, and it's a perfect storm of these two things. The first is really that the trickle-down effect didn't work. The Philippines had high GDP rates, but it was never inclusive enough, just as the United States had their ‘99-percent.’ We had given democracy a shot. The names kept changing but the trickle-down to normal people—our mass base—just didn't happen, and communications were horrendous. I think that's one, and then the second one was social media. This technology—I called it an accelerant. Duterte was the first political candidate to really use it to campaign. He used it to win, very systematically. I don't think it's a coincidence that in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the United States had the most number of compromised accounts on Facebook. Number two was the Philippines. In November 2015, right as President, then-mayor Duterte was getting ready to run for president, Cambridge Analytica was in the Philippines. It was the most organized campaign, but it didn't get weaponized—and what I mean by weaponized is ‘used to attack potential critics, identified critics.’ It didn't do that until after President Duterte won, and that was July of 2016. Not coincidentally, it was the start of the drug war, this brutal drug war. In July of 2016, I remember our reporter and our cameraman would come home every night, and we would get an average of eight dead bodies a night. That's when I knew we're walking to something different. That's part of the way President Duterte runs government. It has to do with violence and fear.
Mitchell: That pressure is on you and your colleagues. Hopefully not to that extent, but I have to ask you: How do you persist? What is it about, what you’re doing, you and your colleagues? You have to endure incredible amounts of pressure in that environment. How do you do it?
Ressa: It's a slippery slope. You don't have where a country wakes up one day a democracy, and then the next day a dictatorship. It's death by a thousand cuts. I think what's very clear is, partly because I've been around a long time, I know who I am. I know the values. I know why we do what we do, and that's embedded in Rappler. Even as early as when the subpoenas started coming, before the cases were filed, it came down to really being clear in your head: “What is this about?” And for me, it was about values. It really was. It was about the mission, and I remember saying that before the government tried to shut us down in January of 2018, and then every time they did this. From January 2018, for the next fourteen months, they filed eleven cases and investigations. And then when they arrested me, when I had to post bail, I threw every one of those out. Then I had first-hand knowledge of how power is abused, because these cases are ridiculous. As that happened, for me personally it was about anger management, but also just shock and alarm that this could be happening in this country, with the way my folks—the way Rappler’s dealt with it. I think the mission has never been stronger. Our young reporters, they're in their 20s, because we hired really smart young reporters. Then what we did is we transferred knowledge really quickly, and learned from them as well. When the attacks first started coming, they said: “I know what it's like to be a journalist.” Standards and ethics are great in good times, but it's actually the bad times that test how important it is to you. It tests who you are. I think Rappler—we're building the next generation of journalists. I am so awed by their courage, and I couldn't do what I was doing—in fact, all I do is hold up the sky so that my team can continue doing the stories. And they do them. They just won an award for a seven-part series on vigilantes who were given a list by the police, and hired to kill these people. No one else touched that story.
Mitchell: I was going to ask if you can give a sense of the types of stories that you do. Clearly, they have trumped-up charges against you on things. But it's for you reporting on stories that others just fear to report. What types of stories, say in the past couple of years—that's one you just mentioned—other things that you report on, to get people a sense of what Rappler does.
Ressa: Broadly, we look at impunity. We look at where there’s this death by a thousand cuts. Now what's big in the Philippines: China. A Chinese vessel rammed a Filipino vessel inside our EEZ (our exclusive economic zone) and our president has said it's okay, essentially. So what we do is we try to hold the government to account. It's a job of journalists—always has been—to be ready and asking questions. Apparently, under this administration, it has consequences. Our administration always says: “Oh, we have free speech. Look, Maria can still talk. Look, she's smiling when she gets arrested. Look.” And then I keep saying: “You keep forgetting the other part of that.” Everyone should be able to say what they think, and there should be no repercussions. The repercussions are very clear, both for me and for Rappler. I guess in the same way that in 2017 I started to look ahead to where we're going to go now, I can see it's been a year and a half and no matter how ridiculous the cases are, we've lost every single petition, every single motion. We did win one: The cyber libel case. A seven-year old story that we published months before the law we supposedly violated was enacted. They threw that out initially, but the man who threw that out was overruled, and the case was still filed. That's what I was arrested for. I mean, if I had to be arrested for a really ridiculous charge, great. It doesn't matter, because you realize that people look away, and I understand this. I wish I could have said this in the panel: Tim Snyder wrote a really thin book which everyone should read on tyranny. It's just twenty lessons. You can see this in many countries around the world: Democracies that should be strong slowly getting wound down.
Mitchell: Right, and you know Madeleine Albright, our chair, wrote a book. Fascism: A Warning. She talks about Mussolini—and she likes to say this in public as well—he talked about plucking a chicken one feather at a time—
Mitchell: —so you don't feel it the same way. We have the analogy of turning up the water’s heat on a frog in a pot. It's not gonna jump out. There are a variety of ways to make the point. If you do it slowly, little by little, death of a thousand cuts, you suddenly look back and say: “All of our rights are gone. All the values have been undermined. Where did it go?” I think it has an impact on what's going on in the world. Do you think that is having an impact on the Philippines? The sense of democracy—in dare I say the United States, I think without mentioning any particular names—all people are concerned about the state of democracy. We're large. Do you think that has an impact on what happens in the Philippines?
Ressa: I think the two main factors that are American are: Number one, the social media platforms are American, with American values. This is again [a case of] unintended consequences, but the global South doesn't have a seat at that table. We feel the impact of these algorithms, and the decisions made by these Americans. That’s number one and the number two: President Trump. The United States is supposed to be the beacon of democracy. What happens when the beacon is turned off? Essentially, President Trump—when he called the New York Times and CNN “fake news,” President Duterte called Rappler fake news just one week later. And again: Cambridge Analytica. We’re a former colony of the United States, and in Southeast Asia when digital products are rolled out, they’re first tested in the Philippines. So it's no surprise to me that the tactics are the same. I think this is global, and I think that needs to be stopped. It goes back to the level of impunity. You asked what got us in trouble. We were the first to put the data out. There are information operations on Facebook—which is our internet, essentially. This is global as well. This connects to the geopolitical power play. I have to say before I forget, you know NDI was the first group that truly gave us confidence to go in this, and it was about disinformation. I was talking to NDI about it, and you know they were like: “We see this, we see this.” And I was like: “Okay, we see this also.” There was a period of time where I was very insecure, because I was personally attacked. I went over the data, over and over, because when you get attacked 90 times in an hour, you first absorb that, and you say: “My gosh, maybe I did do something wrong.” Then I realized: “No, that's what you're meant to feel.” That’s why I come back, and that’s why I keep telling people we need to tell people they’re being manipulated. We need to tell people to start challenging it.
Mitchell: Right. You need the supportive networks, that you're not alone. We're all in this together, which is what the D4D network was designed for. The Design for Democracy network is valid now. You took part in the board meeting that we had here yesterday in Copenhagen, with a cross-section of folks from around the world: Ukraine, from Costa Rica, from India. The people who are on the front lines, in Taiwan fighting against Chinese misinformation, Russian disinformation. Where they try things in these countries first before they try them out maybe on Western countries like the United States, or may apply it to the Philippines. Tell me what you think about what more can be done in that arena, in terms of a global approach. We're struggling with this. You may not have answers, but we all are trying to think about how to deal with the nexus of technology and democracy. It clearly is probably the biggest single factor in the degradation of democracy in the last decade.
Ressa: I believe that. But you know if you look at the summit here, that doesn't seem to be a through-line. Even though people mentioned it, I still think you could do a ton. I think people now know that technology did do something, but it's knowing it viscerally. It's funny, from all the people who were onstage, I could tell who had social media accounts and who didn't. It's very clear.
Mitchell: I can tell you did. You were taking pictures on stage. It was great, but I can tell you were savvy about making sure this stuff is captured and spread.
Ressa: It's not only that. It's also alternative realities. It's ironic that the White House would say “alternative reality.” You know the movie Inception, with Leonardo DiCaprio? You go into the dream world to change the real world. That's what social media is. Because these information operations are astroturf, a false reality. They make people believe something that is false, and real people act on that. I worry about this because if we don't fix this right now, our democracies will further degrade. I can see what's happened in the Philippines, and it's only been three years. We could have a new constitution that would change our democracy forever by the end of the year, all of this enabled by social media.
Mitchell: You have sort of a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Because you do work with them, which is the smart—to try to get them to do the right things. And other technology companies have to step up, as you say. Can you comment about what more they should be doing, what more you think they can do? You have worked with them in constructive ways. I mean, social media or digital technologies are here to stay. We have to figure out how to harness it for good. How are you thinking about that? How are you doing that?
Ressa: I did. I was very pragmatic about this, because the attacks on Rappler occurred in three ways: Bottom-up, from social media, and that began almost a year and a half before the top-down attacks that came from President Duterte, but then also lateral or proxy media that work with government. You can see which ones these are. How do we work with them? I think the only group that has the ability to act and fix things right now are the social media platforms. So, for immediate relief it's almost like the aspirin that you need to take to take your fever down. That's in their hands. Everything else—working with governments—gosh, that'll take forever. I joke I could be in jail by then, there's so many things that are immediate and real terms. Short-term, it's only the social media platforms. Medium-term, that's media literacy, data literacy, getting used to this. Long-term is education. We will go back to the age of industrialization, right? The robber barons were there. There's a new report that came out today, that the wealth— the new robber barons are the tech people who understand tech. I think the biggest problem we have is that this is so transformative, and yet the engineers who built it never had a set of principles. Where's the UN Declaration of Human Rights? They had to come up with this. So what we’re doing with them is we’re fact-checkers. But fact-checking stories is whack-a-mole. That's exponential. The whole principle behind it is, you just say a lie a million times and people believe it's true, and that really is what happened.
Mitchell: It moves faster than the truth. Yes, it's believed by people who otherwise wouldn’t be inclined to believe these things. You can tell them it's not true, but it doesn't matter.
Ressa: I know this firsthand, because the messages are very simple. Forget Maria Ressa, Journalist. It’s Maria Ressa, Criminal. Pounded a million times.
Mitchell: I tweeted out something about you—a positive thing—when we did the video, and of course we got a few folks in the Philippines coming back, and we knew there were trolls.
Ressa: Well, the funny thing here is that Barkha Dutt, who’s a broadcast journalist in India—we were on a panel together, and when she tweeted me I could see her trolls, and she could see mine. It was ironic that the messaging is all identical. Different languages, but identical. But anyway, so where do we go?
Mitchell: You said in your panel you're an optimist. We all in this business have to be. If you're in public service you should be, not that you're Pollyanna about it. But you have to believe that things can be better.
Ressa: I'm 55. I'm far from Pollyanna.
Mitchell: You think things can be better, right? And you have to. So, I wonder what makes you an optimist, and where do you think things go from here?
Ressa: Right now, even as we're fighting the cases—that's a defensive game—we're also building a new platform. We're gonna roll out a new platform. It's a civic engagement platform optimized not for time on site but for action impact in the real world. This is what technology can do. So, part of what keeps me optimistic is just imagining what we can do with the technology. I realize journalists have a role to play in this, because an engineer is not gonna think the same way. Our methodology, and finding the disinformation networks wasn't something that was done by engineers. I began to understand by working with Facebook, and I actually see what they've done. So even as I push them to do more, more, more, it's never enough. I also see the effort that they're putting into this, and the amount of takedowns that have happened globally. For me, it is about building a future, building a better future. It’s the same: “How do we build communities of action, bottom-up?” I guess the other part is—we were building the platform, but the attacks of government and the fact that advertisers were scared when the cases started coming forced us to pivot to a new business model, and that's pretty good considering that advertising is dead. It's also: Do both attacks on news. You have the social media and tech platforms, [that] are taking up to 90% of new digital ad spending. So how are independent news groups gonna survive? We were forced to pivot away from advertising in 2018, and now we're ahead. At the end of Q1, we were two hundred and forty nine percent up versus last year’s Q1. We'll see. Fingers crossed right? I see a lot of money on legal fees. You know we average forty thousand dollars a month on legal fees? That's insane.
Mitchell: That's how they get you. You just start attacking little by little, and undermine your confidence and your resilience.
Ressa: But some of the reason we survive is we started crowdfunding people. There's a legal defense fund that's been started by the Press Freedom Defense Fund and CPJ. Law firms have given us pro bono help. It shows me—actually, it goes to this idea that whatever solution we find is not a local solution. Everyone in the Philippines [is] scared. We're like kryptonite right now. They're behind us, but very far behind. I think this fear that’s there is crippling. It's fear and apathy. So, I don't see the solution locally. The problems that we face need to be solved at a global level, which is why I'm part of Design for Democracy, which is why I engage. I need to understand what's going on, and I think those solutions will then have local impact. But if anything, this is the first time you have 2.7 billion different accounts. I don't know if they’re all people, but 2.7 billion accounts in different countries on one platform. That's a first. That's exciting. That can be used for good. They just have to stop the impunity of the powers that are using it for evil.
Mitchell: Do you get any assistance from neighbors in Asia? Do you find what do they do to help or contribute? My background is on Asia, and I know that they don't necessarily prioritize human rights. But is there any support whatsoever from them?
Ressa: I think what you've seen in the last three years is a decline in both human rights and press freedom. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has actually turned more and more authoritarian. Governments have never really enjoyed having a free press. In our cultures, there's a high power distance index.
Mitchell: No government likes a free press.
Ressa: Not even, right? Not even.
Mitchell: Entirely, I mean. They allow free press, and they respect it, but nobody likes to be criticized. There's always been a sort of tension, but it's within the line.
Ressa: That's part of the reason I think that we need to go back. Where is rule of law in this new virtual landscape? What are the values and principles that govern this? Remember after World War Two when humanity did so much to destroy itself, people around the world came together and decided: “We're going to protect ourselves from our worst nature.” That hasn't happened on the internet, and the internet is far more potent. It's like guns, right? You talk about escalating bot wars. As soon as the platforms figure out how to shut something down, it'll pop up again. It's the same thing for me. That's what we need. I never got a chance to answer this onstage, but what's the solution? I'm hoping Design for Democracy helps. I think there has to be some kind of global coalition of: “What are our values ?” Kind of like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or what NATO did post-World War Two. These countries and people got together and decided that they were not gonna allow this to happen again. I'm hoping that that's what will happen. And then beyond that, we need a kind of digital Interpol. Not government necessarily, but all of the data of the countries and powers that did information operations. Each of these platforms have them. They just don't put them together. They want to, but how do you do that? These are some of the things. They want to put them together. Then let's come up with an Interpol. “Here's your watchlist. You do this again, you get this.” Impunity cannot be allowed to continue.
Mitchell: There are no standards. It's unregulated. We're way behind. The bad guys have figured out they can use this, and the good guys are just starting to put their sneakers on to figure out how to get in the race. We're struggling. Europeans are going one direction, or maybe faster, and the U.S. Congress is still figuring things out.
Ressa: But the ones who have democratic values are almost paralyzed in this. I think there's two things: One is they don't know exactly how to react, and then the second one is they don't necessarily understand this new world. So, both of those things. Hopefully, you figure it out in Washington [both laugh].
Mitchell: No, we’re just trying to—it’s a balance. It's a principle balance between free expression and censorship in a way. At what point do you regulate, and where?
Ressa: I don't think it is a ‘free expression’ concept. In the West, it's framed like that, but this is what I said at the [Democracy Award ceremony] in 2017: Free speech is being used to stifle free speech. So this isn't a free speech argument, and the sooner we move away from that then the sooner we can look at these networks and shut them down. It’s like they build the city with no traffic lights, with no laws to prevent people from killing each other.
Mitchell: Well, thank you. What's most important is your personal safety, and the work that you do, so we're all going to be following this very closely, and doing everything we can to support you, and watching. But it's only so much we can do, given your situation there.
Ressa: Thank you.
Mitchell: But everybody who might listen to this I hope gives to the various crowdsourcing, crowdfunding [campaigns]. You know that people out here are thinking about you. Again, Time magazine's Person of the Year last year, which says everything about the quality of my guest today: Maria Ressa. I just want to thank all my listeners here for joining us. Share DemWorks—both our podcasts and our videos—on social media, to amplify the voice of democracy heroes like Maria. For more details about NDI and its work—including our new 35th anniversary report, fresh off the presses—go to NDI.org, and while you're there, sign up for our monthly newsletter. I'm Derek Mitchell, and this has been DemWorks. Thank you for listening.