May 25, 2022

Nobel Peace Laureate Maria Ressa on Return of the Marcos Dynasty & Social Media Disinformation

11 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Protests continue in the Philippines after Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the only son of the late Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, appears to have won a landslide victory in Monday’s presidential election. The Marcos dynasty returns to power some 36 years after the family fled a mass uprising in 1986 that ended Marcos’s brutal two-decade dictatorship amidst a slew of charges and convictions for corruption and human rights violations. The once-reviled former first family has since used social media to reinvent historical narratives of its time in power. Marcos Jr. is now the first candidate in recent history to win an outright majority in a Philippines presidential election. His vice-presidential running mate, Sara Duterte, the daughter of the current president, Rodrigo Duterte. Monday’s election was plagued with violent attacks at polling stations and delays triggered by glitches in vote-counting machines.
For more, we go directly to Manila to speak with Maria Ressa, founder and CEO and executive editor of Rappler, the acclaimed Filipino news website. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her work defending free expression in the Philippines and her reporting on the authoritarian rule of President Rodrigo Duterte. Her forthcoming book, How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future.
Maria, welcome back to Democracy Now!, our first chance to talk directly to you after you won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now you’re covering the return of another dictator’s family. This is Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Can you tell us about him and about the elections, and your response?
MARIA RESSA: Oh my gosh! Well, first of all, thanks for having me, Amy. Good to talk to you again.
Look, this is something that we saw coming in the Nobel lecture last December. I actually warned about the impact of social media and how it has literally become a behavior modification system. Well, here’s the emblematic case study of the impact on elections. We at Rappler have gone back to look at the information operations that have targeted Filipinos. And on the Marcos side, it goes all the way back to 2014. In 2019, we published data that shows extensive manipulation, insidious manipulation on, at that point, Facebook, the world’s largest distribution platform for news. Well, here we are, 36 years later, after a people power revolt ousted Ferdinand Marcos. His namesake, his only son, is now poised to become the leader of the country that ousted him.
Reaction? I mean, Amy, you’ve heard — I’ve been with you talking about the impact of disinformation, of information operations targeting journalists. Essentially, the same thing happened in the Ukraine, in Crimea, in the United States. Well, here in the Philippines, step one is pound a narrative to silence — in this case, Marcos the dictator. And step two is replace it: Marcos the great leader. And the beneficiary is the namesake, Marcos Jr., winning by an overwhelming — at this point, almost 98% of the votes’ unofficial count has happened, and he’s up by nearly 59%. That’s how many votes he’s gotten.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maria, I wanted to ask you: What is the responsibility or the role of the social media companies, especially in the developing world? In a country like the Philippines, about 110 million people, 90 million people are on Facebook? That’s virtually every adult and most teenagers. Are they operating — are these social media companies operating under different standards in the developing world than they are in the West?
MARIA RESSA: Let’s say they’re operating with worse standards, because most of their restrictions, things that they’ve tried to deal with content moderation, are in English. In the Global South, where institutions are weaker, where the languages aren’t necessarily being used by their machine learning or their artificial intelligence, we’re far more vulnerable.
And I think here’s the other part, Juan. For six years in a row, Filipinos have spent the most time online and on social media globally. When the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie talked about the Philippines, he called us a “Petri dish,” where he said Cambridge Analytica and the parent company SCL experimented with tactics of mass manipulation. And when it worked here, they “ported” — that’s the word he used — they ported it over to you. And just back on that Cambridge Analytica, you know, the country with the most number of compromised accounts in that scandal was the United States, but the country with the second most number of compromised accounts was the Philippines.
So, I guess the reason why it’s important for you to look at what’s happened to us is, these elections are emblematic of the impact of concerted information operations of disinformation, where it literally changed history in front of our eyes. I mean, you know, don’t get me wrong. The Marcoses have had a loyal following. But to actually make it to the presidential palace, where you can technically now, I mean, imagine: Will the Marcoses go after the Marcoses for the rest of the money that they stole in 1986? It is a “back to the future” moment that’s — we’re struggling to get our heads around it. It’ll be very interesting to hear more from the president-elect.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what does this mean in a broader sense about the future of democracy, not only in the Philippines but around the world, if, in essence, a parallel reality, an alternative set of realities are created by — through social media? The polls show that the young people — there were many young people who ended up backing Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Talk about the future of democracy that we’re confronting now.
MARIA RESSA: Existential. This is actually what I pointed out in the Nobel lecture last December. If you think about it, right now the world’s largest delivery platform for news, Facebook, right? Social media platforms, essentially by design, they divide, and they radicalize, right? And lies, laced with anger and hate, spread faster and further than facts. These platforms, because they want to keep your attention, they keep you scrolling.
But here’s the thing. If you have no facts, you can’t have truth. If you don’t have truth, you don’t have trust. If you don’t have any of these things — and I feel like I’ve said this repeatedly over the years — we have no shared reality. Without that, there’s no rule of law and no democracy.
This year there are more than 30 elections all around the world. If you don’t have integrity of facts, how can you have integrity of elections? I certainly hope that what’s happened to the Philippines doesn’t happen to you.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, I remember, Maria Ressa, when you were here in our studio, and this is as you were covering Duterte — we don’t know at this point about Ferdinand Marcos Jr. winning the election — and you said, “Take this as a warning.” This is very important. As you are both an American, you’re a Filipina journalist. “Take this as a warning, America.” Why?
MARIA RESSA: It’s almost like the dominoes — every time the dominoes fall, and it has an impact on our democracy, right? Look, I became a journalist because I believe information is power. But right now our information system is corrupted. In 2016, the election of Rodrigo Duterte was the first of the dominoes to fall. A little less — a little more than a month after that, you had Brexit. Then you had all of the elections of these populist-style leaders who use us-against-them kind of styles, right? And soon after that, you had the election of Donald Trump, the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, many more, right?
Now in 2022, these dominoes, as we fall — and we’re the first again, right? When this happens, the elections that follow are critical. Jair Bolsonaro, a really far-right fringe figure that was dragged to the mainstream by YouTube — elections in Brazil in October. And, of course, the United States midterm elections are in November. Without anything, if we don’t do anything else to put guardrails around the technology, we won’t be able to protect democracy.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the role of the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, in terms of this election. His daughter ran as vice-presidential candidate, and it appears she got even more votes than the presidential candidate. Her impact — or, his impact, Rodrigo Duterte’s, on this election?
MARIA RESSA: Huge, actually, the fact that the children of these two men — it’s essentially a marriage of the north, which is the stronghold of the Marcoses, and the south, the stronghold of the Dutertes. It’s personality-centric. What we’ve seen happen in the Philippines is that President Duterte was elected democratically. He promised violence; he delivered violence. He is now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, right? So, here’s — he comes up, and he’s the first leader to use social media, again. He played a role in this. He’s still extremely popular, again, with the help of social media. If you question the drug war — I think this is where I was in the studio — you know, you get pounded to silence. And again, the metanarratives that have proliferated, and it’s a combination of Duterte, Marcos networks that have operated and have taken over the mainstream of our Facebook ecosystem. He retains his popularity. So, would Marcos have won at the same — with the same margins? No, not if he ran alone. But the kind of putting them together has given him almost 60%. That’s unprecedented.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Maria, about your fellow 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Russian newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov, who was attacked on April 7th as he rode a train from Moscow by an assailant who poured red paint over him, causing his eyes to, he said, “burn terribly.” Muratov closed his independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, after warnings from Russian state censors over its critical coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. The paper now has a European edition staffed by journalists who have left Russia. A U.S. intelligence assessment confirmed the red paint thrown on Muratov contained acetone, the same substance as nail polish remover, and said the attackers were working for unnamed Russian spy services. Muratov has vowed to auction off his Nobel Peace Prize medal to support Ukrainian refugees. When did you last speak to him, see him? And your thoughts on this whole situation of your fellow Nobel laureate?
MARIA RESSA: Last week, Amy, we were together in Geneva. I actually was given permission to travel. And this was one of the things we talked about, was, you know, just four months after we saw each other in Oslo, how much our situations have changed. He had a hard time getting out of Moscow, partly because of the — no planes are flying out right now. And then, when we were there, we kind of talked about: Can you believe how much the world has changed in the last four months? I think this is — if you look even at the Reporters Without Borders — there’s a new Press Freedom Index — our countries have dipped. So, in a strange way, the prescience of the Nobel Committee in giving this award right at the time when everything changed for the worst again.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you have been jailed, you’ve been sued by the Duterte government numerous times. How do you protect Rappler and yourself under this next ruler, under Marcos? And did you ever think you’d be saying “President Marcos” again?
MARIA RESSA: I’m grappling. To be determined. You know, this is actually — coming out of here, we’re sitting down right now to try to figure out: What does this mean? How far will he go? This has been a campaign that’s been largely bereft of issues on Marcos Jr.’s side. The interesting thing is, kind of like a car crash — like when you’re about to crash, when you’re skidding on ice, you know how you’re told to pump the gas and steer into the skid. Well, that’s exactly what Marcos did. So, it’s strangely — it’s brilliant in its own way. What he did is he owned the history of his father. And when his campaign began, it was the music of his father, music that horrified so many victims of martial law. At the same time, he dressed like his father. So, it’s a wait-and-see over the next few days and weeks as members of his cabinet are announced.
And then, it’s been tough covering him for Rappler, because this is like Bolsonaro again, right? Marcos travels with his vloggers. So he has closed-in people carrying cameras, who are not journalists but propagandists. And then the media journalists are kept very far away. And he refused to attend any of the debates for this. So this also is the first president that won election without having to answer any questions from journalists.
AMY GOODMAN: And I just wanted to ask you a quick last question. You won the Nobel for your noble efforts under state persecution. And I’m wondering your thoughts on Julian Assange, who is now, it looks like, soon to be extradited to the United States to face charges that could put him in jail for the rest of his life, 175 years in prison, as he published mounds of information about the Iraq War, Afghanistan and State Department documents. Your thoughts?
MARIA RESSA: I think, Amy, part of the problem is the flattening of words and the robbing of meaning. I have actually said that Julian Assange is not a journalist, and I’ve been clobbered on social media for saying that. I think he is a whistleblower, who deserves the protection as a whistleblower. But oftentimes, whenever I’m asked about this, it’s conflated, right? But I think we need to keep them separate for both his protection and ours. Conflating them robs meaning. Now, having said that, I can’t say that I am across everything, but certainly he has dumped documents there, right? So, it’s hard for me to claim Julian Assange as a journalist. And that’s probably because I’m such a stickler. You know I worked with classified documents —
AMY GOODMAN: Would you call him, then, a political prisoner?
MARIA RESSA: I think we’ll have to see.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Maria Ressa, we thank you so much for being with us, founder, CEO and executive editor of the Philippines news website Rappler, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her forthcoming book, How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future.
Next up, we talk to Starbucks and Amazon workers who have been fired. Stay with us.