Maria Ressa’s Fight for Democracy in the Digital Age
When the Nobel Prize committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2021 jointly to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, it praised the journalists “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
Ressa is the CEO and co-founder of Rappler.com, a news organisation in the Philippines that has been under attack from President Duterte for years. “Just to keep doing my job I could go to jail for the rest of my life”, Ressa told the DLD audience earlier this year in her DLD All Stars talk.
“In total, Ressa, Rappler and other staff have faced at least 11 government investigations and court cases”, The Guardian notes, and “throughout the pandemic, Ressa has repeatedly attended court hearings.”
Why is the government coming after Ressa so relentlessly? Observers point to Rappler’s investigative reporting on corruption and abuse of power by the police.
When Lies Become Facts
In addition, Ressa and her team have extensively documented how populist leaders can manipulate voters through disinformation campaigns on social media – and the consequences, the Rappler CEO warns, go far beyond the Philippines.
“Our dystopian presence is your dystopian future”, Ressa told the DLD Munich audience in 2020.
The problem, she continued, was that at an average of more than ten hours per day, Filipinos spend more time on the Internet than people in any other country.
And this makes people easy targets for disinformation on social media, Ressa argues. “It’s really simple: A lie told a million times becomes fact.” But without facts, she continued, “we don’t have truth. Without truth we don’t have trust, and without any of these three, democracy is dead as we know it.”
In her DLD All Stars talk, Ressa explained that being hyper-connected had made people around the globe “easy to manipulate” – especially as technology platforms replaced journalists as gatekeepers to information.
“Technology took the money but abdicated responsibility”, Ressa said. “What the world needs now is to realize that an atom bomb has gone off in our information ecosystem.”
In response, better legislation of digital platforms was needed, along with investments in independent journalism, the Nobel Prize winner argues. “Independent news groups struggle to survive. The mission of journalism has never been as important as it is today.”
Ultimately the goal must be to “strengthen the facts”, Ressa says, because as she pointed out in her DLD Munich talk, “If you don’t know what the facts are, how can you have civic engagement? If you don’t know what the truth is, how can we come together and demand accountability from power?”