How to Stand Up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa — the dark arts of disinformation

Women in a newsroom
Philippine news company Rappler with founders including Maria Ressa, right, in 2018 © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

Much of the debate about social media has descended into a ritualistic, and rather tiresome, row between free speech absolutists railing against “censorship” and conspiracy-minded campaigners chanting that Big Tech is evil and must be destroyed. Both, in their opposite ways, are equally simplistic and delusional. The first group fails to recognise any problems; the second group proposes few solutions. How to define and defend legitimate free speech has become one of the most intractable challenges of our technology-addicted age.

For a deeper understanding of how this schoolroom debate affects the real world, both groups would do well to read Maria Ressa’s highly personal, powerful and important book. The Filipina journalist, who in 2021 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Russia’s Dmitry Muratov, has long reported from the ever-shifting front lines in the truth and disinformation wars. She shows how hot takes on abstract concepts can have life-and-death consequences in many parts of the world. Her voice is one of much-needed clarity and sanity.

As a CNN television reporter covering south-east Asia in the early 2000s, Ressa was quick to embrace the possibilities of social media as a means of enriching — and challenging — traditional journalism. Participatory media, as she calls it, allows anyone with a mobile phone to witness events, shoot and post videos, challenge the official narrative, mobilise collective action and hold the powerful to account.

After taking over as head of the Philippines’ ABS-CBN News organisation in 2005, Ressa sought to make the most of these opportunities, signing up almost 90,000 citizen journalists and pumping out news on Facebook. She developed that approach even further when launching the independent news site Rappler in 2012 with the aim of harnessing the power of investigative journalism, technology and community. “New technology was giving journalists new power,” she writes.

However, she was soon to learn from bruising experience that the technological tools that could be used for societal good could also facilitate political manipulation and intimidation. With one of the highest rates of internet usage in the world and shallow democratic institutions, the Philippines was particularly vulnerable to those practising technology’s dark arts.

Rodrigo Duterte, a candidate in the 2016 presidential elections who compared himself to Adolf Hitler and demanded the summary execution of drug dealers, emerged as a master of the medium. He and his supporters ran skilful disinformation campaigns, courted biddable social media influencers and directed internet bot farms to stoke voters’ fears and trash his opponents, helping him win power.

Ressa argues that Duterte’s propagandists harked back to the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) strategy deployed by companies such as IBM and Microsoft in the US in the 1970s-90s to smother their competitors with disinformation. But Duterte’s digital mob went much further. Among other tactics, they instigated a false and fear-laden grass roots campaign (known as astroturfing in the trade) about the drug war, set up a Facebook page calling for the death of a student who asked a critical question of the candidate, and posted fake sex videos of an opposition politician online to destroy her credibility.

The digital vigilantes also went after Rappler and its journalists, trying to discredit its reporting and intimidate its staff with vile online abuse and death threats. Ressa herself still faces seven criminal cases against her, brought by Duterte’s allies, that could send her to jail for the rest of her life.

Ressa declares herself “beyond disillusioned” by Facebook’s wilful blindness to the societal damage its platforms enabled. In spite of Ressa’s constant appeals to the tech company to stop its platform being abused in this way, Facebook did little to combat what it quaintly called “co-ordinated, inauthentic behaviour”.

Ressa even raised her concerns directly with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, at a tech event in California, pointing out that 97 per cent of internet users in the Philippines used his service. “Wait, Maria,” he replied in what may have been a lame joke. “Where are the other 3 per cent?”

A wave of rightwing populists around the world have also employed the Duterte playbook, according to Ressa, exploiting social media to break down reality, degrade the truth and trigger paranoia and fear, thereby encouraging violence and normalising fascism. “I believe that Facebook represents one of the gravest threats to democracies around the world, and I am amazed that we have allowed our freedoms to be taken away by technology companies’ greed for growth and revenues,” she concludes.

The best way to respond to these threats, she argues, is to emulate Rappler’s guiding principles of technology, journalism and community on a far bigger scale. Governments must demand more accountability from the tech companies and regulate to defend data privacy and ban surveillance advertising. She also argues for the positive uses of technology to mobilise collective action and makes an impassioned defence (with which this reviewer is not going to disagree) of the role that responsible journalism plays in helping to establish a base level of verified facts.

But ultimately, she concludes, the health of our democracies will depend on the strength of civil society to demand change and hold both rogue corporations and governments to account. Only then do we stand any chance of creating “a vision of the internet that binds us together instead of tearing us apart”.

How To Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future by Maria Ressa WH Allen £20, 320 pages

John Thornhill is the FT’s innovation editor

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