Maria Ressa: "Journalists can't strengthen democracy from an ivory tower. They have to harness their community"

The CEO of 'Rappler' was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov. Here's a transcript of her interview with our Director Rasmus Nielsen in Oxford in 2018
Maria Ressa, journalist and CEO of the Rappler news website, poses before a news conference to launch a commission to draft an "International Declaration on Information and Democracy" hold by Human rights group Reporters Without Borders in Paris, France, September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Maria Ressa poses before a news conference in Paris in 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Prof. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

On 8 October 2021, journalist Maria Ressa, CEO of Filipino news site 'Rappler' and member of our Advisory Board, was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov. The jury recognised their efforts "to saveguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace". 

Maria was a keynote speaker at the 35th anniversary of the Reuters Institute's Journalist Fellowship Programme on 7-9 September 2018. During her time in Oxford, I discussed with her how technology has enabled her outlet to speak directly to audiences and to build "communities of action" in a country where, she says, the "processes of governance are slow". Here's the transcript and the video of our conversation back then.

Q. Could you explain the founding idea behind Rappler?

A. It's very simple. It's building communities of action. What builds those communities of action is journalism. But in the end it's the action part that I was most interested in. Originally, when we started, I was like, "I'm going to take video. I'm going to take video, and put it in your pocket." I was like, "No. What does technology actually allow us to do?" It's a direct connection to build communities. How do you strengthen democracy? You strengthen it bottom up.

I've watched the Philippines from [the time of] People Power in 1986, until the time when we set up Rappler in 2012. While I had faith, the processes of governance are slow. When you don't have institutions, you repeat the same mistakes over, and over. I had great faith that the technology would actually enable journalists to work with their communities, to push change bottom up.

Watch the interview


Q. When you think about the main differences between what you do now at Rappler, and the kinds of journalism you've done in the past at CNN, and the kinds of journalism you see other people do. What do you think is the biggest difference between what you do and what others do?

A.  A direct link to your audience. You know, when I was with CNN, I loved that I could control everything in that box. When you do television, you control all of it. But you don't get anything back, right? So you go and do your story, a minute and a half, and you throw it into the black box. If you work for a western news organisation, which I did, sometimes the reaction of your local community and that of the global community go in opposite directions.

An example is Indonesia. The western world looked at 9/11 in a particular way. But when you're reporting from the country with the world's largest muslim population, you see a different view. So you have to surface both and that was part of the challenge.

As a Filipino-American, there were things I felt western journalists made fun of in our culture. For me as a young reporter, it was about trying to tell the rest of the world why Filipinos were like this. I've learnt the profession of journalism at an age where it was much simpler, and you can learn the craft. The problem today is that you not only learn the craft of it, you have to have two brains and six hands to be able to do things quickly. You don't have the luxury of time to think it through, because it's real time, and you're intimately connected to your community.

So when we started Rappler, one of the first things I thought that was funny was that we would do a nightly newscast. Right? We started it like traditional TV, it was a 30 minute newscast. Then over time it changed and it's now 30 seconds. It's now far shorter. Over this time, when we were treating it like television, I was laughing because our audience would say, "Hey, where are you? We're waiting." I was tweeting back. That's kind of cool. That was really cool and annoying. But it's so interesting when you put that kind of interactivity, the ability to talk directly to your community, when you put it towards climate change issues.

The Philippines is the third most disaster-prone nation in the world. We get an average of 20 typhoons every year. In 2013, we began working with our community and with the government, to come up with a set of hashtags that we've standardised. Then we built a platform where the government can see on the map who needs help, who needs rescue, who has information. It's real time. It's transparent to everyone. That to me is still the closest to what I feel like we can do. We did help save lives during that time period. The reason why the community comes here is not just because of the platform, which is transparent to everyone, but also because they get information they can trust. That's three years before all hell broke loose with Brexit, with the election of Rodrigo Duterte, with disinformation.

Actually, if you go back, 2014 was really when disinformation kicked in in the Ukraine. I didn't know how [social media] could be used for evil, when we started. Seeing it now, I realise that this technology, the people who built it, needed to put in the safeguards. When I talked to Facebook or Twitter or Google, they think that they're separate from reality. They think that the code is something that an engineer can think through, but in reality it's directly connected to human behaviour. Technology is an enabler of authoritarian populist governments because these leaders were able to use the same tools of empowerment to actually clamp down on democracy. That's where the engineers are just going to have to get smarter.

Old power needs to connect with this new power that is algorithmically-based. As journalists, we need to stop looking at it as content and look at these networks of disinformation. Until this happens, it's going to be chaotic.

Q. So you've seen very up close in the Philippines, and in your own work, both the power and potential of these platforms, but also the risks of them. If you could ask just one big thing of platform companies, and actually have them do it, what would it be? What would you ask them to do?

A. These companies have to mirror the power structures of the real world. I don't understand why there is such an aversion to that. The idea for the platforms, the social media platforms, is that they give everyone equal voice. But you know what? They're choosing who gets the voice. They didn't realise that they were going to be gamed. By allowing that, they're disrupting power structures in the real world.

The inherent bias of these algorithms right now is popularity. So it's not a far-fetched assumption that populist governments all over the world are coming to power, because that's what engineers coded. 

These companies have to understand real world geopolitical balance, and somehow be able to reflect that in how they show the news. Okay. The biggest change that has happened is that we used to be the gatekeepers. Journalists were trained to make decisions about who was right and who was wrong. Who gets the megaphone, and who doesn't. Right? We made those calls and we were imbued with a sense of mission.

All of a sudden, social media platforms have been given that power. I think that began in 2015, when they took all the news groups into instant articles. They didn't realise that they would become the world's largest distributor of news. The minute they did that, without the safeguards that we put in, that journalists put in, then I think that's what turned the power's balance, what shifted the power balance. You can see it in the studies, and it began as early as November 2017. 

So those American tech companies have to come out of their ivory towers and realise that their algorithms unleashed in the Global South are killing people. When I heard Mark Zuckerberg in congress say, "It may take us five years," all I thought was, "I don't have five years." We don't have five years. So we need action. I hope quickly.

Q. Let's talk a bit more about, specifically about Rappler's relationship with technology companies. Could you have done what you've done with Rappler, without Facebook?

A. No, absolutely not. You know, I couldn't ... So, this is why I have a love-hate relationship with them. I don't think our world can go back to a time before social media. I think social media is fantastic to challenge entrenched power structures, right? There's always a grain of truth in the 99% who are demanding more from the 1% with power. But what we saw was just ignorance, and arrogance in 2016. It rippled through our worlds. We need quick action. They're faced with what they had unleashed ...

You know, Facebook said, "We move fast, we break things." You broke democracy, now fix it. Just fix it. Right? You're never going to get it right. Unfortunately, we can't stay where we are right now. I think there is good faith, so this is where today, we're working closely with Facebook, with Twitter, with Google. I think our world now is tech-driven. The future of journalism is in data and tech. We need to be able to work closely, and understand how data and tech will change our world.

Q. Maybe let's talk about the role of technology specifically within I itself. So, simplifying somewhat. For a long time, technology in journalism was very stable both in broadcast and certainly in newspapers. That's not the world we live in anymore. Technology's changing all the time. As you said, journalism and technology is intertwined. So at Rappler, how do you work to make the most of the opportunities of the technology you present to journalism today?

A. The big change in technology was actually the ability to get big data and to work with big data. It is information technology, right? I mean, World Economic Forums said this, "It's the fourth revolution." But what does that mean? Once all these big data sets came in, it accelerated everything. It's that exponential growth of the amount of information. How it was harnessed by individual companies initially, like we were talking about. You're talking about companies that are able to leverage information, get it to the right people at the right time.

We were all celebrating, I was celebrating. But all of a sudden I realised, "All of that also goes down to the individual capacity to absorb information." So it came down to a tactic that originally came from Russian disinformation. A tactic to flood you with so much information that you have no idea what is fact of fiction. That was enabled by the algorithms of the social media platforms.

I'm sorry. I was wrapping my head around all of this. How did we deal with the technology? First, we embraced social network theory. If you say that our social network is family and friends, social media is family and friends on steroids. That is the basic thing. So that's how Rappler, in the first year, embraced social media. We knew that, if I can meet you in the real world, and then we can both be on social media simultaneously, we will increase our capacity to reach more people. If we can build it, it's exponential.

There's an old shampoo commercial in the United States, Faberge Organics. They told two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on. Do you know this commercial? If you're an American you know. So it was that exponential growth. We felt it in Rappler, and then beyond that. I started looking at social networks because of the way the ideology of terrorism spreads. That was my first book. My second book is called, From Bin Laden to Facebook. It was about how this moved exponentially. I wrote the book a year before ISIS really perfected this exponential spread of this radical ideology. I thought, "If the terrorists can use it for evil, then why can't we use it for good?" That was the basic idea, that we can harness and build communities of action.

Yeah. It sounds so idealistic in this context now, right? But I think it's still there. I think that's what we should be doing. And actually, after today, one of the things that I realised is that journalists should be coming together. We should be. This is one of the things we're starting to do in the Philippines. We're combining resources, we're combining knowledge, and then we're expanding our reach because we're coming together.

Q. So, how do you think about that? I mean, journalism historically has been almost pathologically competitive and now we have to think about collaboration. So how does one leverage the best of the competitive instinct, but also make sure we can do great things together?

A. You go back to the mission of what journalism is and it's not just us collaborating with each other. It's also collaborating with our communities. Actually, that might be really fun. That's the one part we didn't really talk about today. In the end, journalism now is truly in that period of creative destruction, because we're being destroyed. We're also surviving it in different ways.

How do we get through this? We have to find a new business model, because the old one is destroyed. It's dead. We're going to have to find a way to regain trust, because we've been crippled. In countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, journalists and news groups had the highest credibility. For years, that's what all the surveys showed. Precisely because our institutions were so weak. Now, we've been targeted, and we're seeing that shift. Right? So in my country, in the Philippines, we're fighting it. I still think that we can win this. I think our communities will come through in the end.

Fear only does so much. Use anger, pound the fracture lines of society, and then create a spiral of silence so that people don't jump in when there's something that is clearly wrong. 

The spiral of silence in the Philippines for the drug war lasted about a year. It was a painful year, but it's over. Slowly, people are finding their voices. So I think living through it is painful, but I think it's that kind of creative construction. And I think the community will come out of it knowing more, learning more. I hope that this next generation is more self-aware, and will be able to work in constructive ways with journalists. Then the next step that we have to take as journalists is to understand, to have the humility. We can't do this alone. I think that's really hard. I still long for the old days every now and then. But if we can embrace that, that might be where the future is.

So we're experimenting. That's what we're trying to do at Rappler. Our community, for example, is helping pay our legal fees. That's kind of cool.

Q. Maybe that's a good place to end then. Imagine that young journalists come to you and say, "Maria, some journalists like one-way communication. You like interactivity. Some journalists like to have readers, or viewers, or listeners. You like to have a community. Some journalists don't like social media. You are very conscious of the short comings of social media, but you also believe it can empower journalism. Some journalists prefer to make editorial judgments without looking at analytics or data, you embrace big data." You know, if this young journalist asks you, "Why should I believe your version of the future is better than the past that other people talk about?"

A. I think it's not that I like it, it's that it is the way it is. For me the word is impact. How are you going to use the technology today, to have impact in your community? Again, I think there's a difference between someone like me, who lives in a country where institutions are weak, and someone who lives in the United States or Europe. For me, it was always about trying to help strengthen democracy. Now, apparently, both the West and our countries have to come together to help strengthen democracy. How are you going to do that? You can't do it from an ivory tower. You have to harness your community.

Like I said, I long for the old days. But that's not where we live anymore. We can't turn back the clock. We want to have impact. I think that's the other thing. There's a missionary zeal. That's the reason why you become a journalist, you want to build a better world. We don't do it through politics. We do it through analytical stories.

Here's the last part we didn't talk about. Thinking fast, thinking slow, right? This goes down to the human beings who are reading or watching the stories that you do. Human beings today have been manipulated and act up on the adrenaline, the dopamine of social media. Anger spreads fastest. It is emotionally driven. So here you come with a story, here's your data journalism story, and it's got all these figures. It's not going to make a dent. So we have to find this balance between doing what we do best, which is telling good stories, adding the data, and then embracing the technology. In the end, no journalist wants to be in an empty church. Our goal is to make our societies better, to make our democracy stronger. I believe that the technology will allow us to do that. We just have to get through this creative destruction.

Read the Digital News Report 2021 country page for the Philippines in this link