Interview — Maria Ressa on Facebook, Disinfo + the Philippine Election
“If you don’t have integrity of facts, how can you have integrity of elections?”
7 May — Monday 9 May is a defining election for the Philippines. Just ahead of the vote, the Real Facebook Oversight Board sat down with RFOB member and Nobel Prize winner Maria Ressa to discuss how disinformation on Facebook has impacted the election. These are edited excerpts of our interview with Maria, interviewed by Varoon Bashyakarla.
Q: For those who may not know what is happening in the Philippines and why it matters, unpack for us what’s happening and what’s at stake.
A: This is an existential moment — will our democracy survive these elections? And part of this is because of the impact of disinformation — disinformation operations that have changed history, literally allowing the namesake of our Dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., to become the frontrunner, by a longshot.
Our battles are emblematic of what every democracy in the world is facing, of the global, existential problem of whether democracy can survive the assault of tech. This year you’re going to have more than 30 elections around the world, the Philippines being a lynchpin.
For the Philippines, 36 years ago “people power” ousted Ferdinand Marcos, chased his family — and 36 years later, his son is back. In 1986 his father was accused of stealing 10 billion USD — truly the first of the kleptocrats. We have only been able to get back a fraction of that 10b as a country. If Ferdinand Marcos Jr. wins, will he continue? Whoever wins these elections is going to determine not only the future of the Philippines and this region, but also the past and how we mark history.
For the World, this is an election that is emblematic of the challenge to democracy in India, in the United States, in Africa, everywhere.
Q: In your Nobel Prize acceptance speech, you affirmed, “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with the existential problems of our times.” Can you help us understand the determining role Facebook has played in this election and in undermining the preconditions necessary for democracy to exist in the Philippines?
A: First of all, Facebook, which is now the world’s largest delivery system for news, doesn’t distinguish between fact and fiction, or facts and lies. The business model of social media is — to use the phrase coined by Shoshana Zuboff, also a Real Facebook Oversight Board member — “surveillance capitalism.” The platform’s goal is not to keep you safe, or to give you more knowledge, or connect you to anyone else. The platform’s goal is to keep you scrolling.
And so Facebook and other platforms prioritise lies laced with anger and hate. These platforms are literally designed to tear us apart and to polarise us.
I call this the toxic sludge — hate, anger, conspiracy theories and the like. In terms of elections if you don’t have integrity of facts, how can you have integrity of elections?
How can people choose who to vote for? How do they know they’re not being manipulated?
And the answer to both those questions is that you are being manipulated, by the platform delivering what you need to make a choice, which is facts, in a distorted way.
In the Philippines, we have tracked the networks of disinformation. The information operations infrastructure was set up by Marcos and his family as early as 2014 — the same time as the first invasion of Ukraine, which is not an accident. We began to see the impact as soon as 2016.
The first domino to fall? Duterte. Then Brexit. Trump. Bolsanaro. Now it’s 2022, and more than 30 elections worldwide are being manipulated by social media, with impunity. Voters are swimming in toxic sludge.
Q — Rappler has published a number of reports on the Marcos disinformation and propaganda machinery behind this historical distortion. Explain to us some of the mechanisms employed in this online machine that’s shaping offline realities.
A — Duterte and Marcos set each other up. The rise of Duterte came in 2016 when you began to see the impact of social media — the rise of polarisation, the weakening of facts. And so look at what happened.
If you look at the leaders who were elected around the world, you see commonalities :
Democratically elected leaders using populist ideas and “us against them” types of leadership. Then think about what social media does, and how it plays into that — it triggers emotions, and it’s the emotions that keep you scrolling. It allows the growth of these digital authoritarians
What do these leaders do when they’re elected? Divide further, using the platforms that already allowed them to take power in the first place. Facebook has allowed polarisation, enabled it, and watched it. When Duterte came into office — and you can substitute Orban, Trump, Bolsonaro — these strongman leaders — their message was — “it’s us against them.” And from there, a leader like Duterte weakens already weak institutions, and allows them to crumble from within. These leaders crumble democracy from within.
Q: What gives you hope? What lessons can the world take from this election?
A -The first lesson: I think you can’t wait — regardless of what anyone else is doing, the solution is both personal and a community solution. We have found that 100 days of doing this is not enough to counter years of historical revisionism and denialism — the impacts of a disinformation infrastructure setup since 2014.
Some now believe that Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was the greatest leader in history; social media allowed that narrative to take hold. You can’t wait.
A second lesson is to remember that the power of myth is so enormous. In my 36 years as a journalist I’ve seen this time and time again — it’s said there are eight great myths, and they really define us. But what if it’s lies masquerading as myth. This is what’s happening.
Lastly though, I want people to remember that all the bad that we are as people and as societies can take a backseat to all the good that we are. As a journalist I’ve seen the worst: corruption, collusion, war, disasters. But in response to these crises in the world I’m seeing tremendous empathy — the best of human nature, the parts that inspire us. That is there.
And this is why I don’t lose hope — the goodness is there. And if we begin to create these safety zones for facts, we can then begin to recreate our society, and the goodness can come through. We can’t do this alone — we need legislation, we need regulation. This is going to take us a while. God forbid, I don’t know what will happen to the Philippines in two days’ time. But we can create safety zones for facts — and we can recreate our society.
For more follow Maria on Twitter, @mariaressa.