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Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa Talks Disinformation, Democracy at IOP Salant Lecture

The Institute of Politics is housed at the Harvard Kennedy School of Goverrnment.
The Institute of Politics is housed at the Harvard Kennedy School of Goverrnment. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Joshua S. Cai and Eric Yan, Crimson Staff Writers

Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria A. Ressa discussed her time as an award-winning political journalist in the Philippines at the Institute of Politics’ annual Salant Lecture on the Freedom of the Press Tuesday.

Ressa, who shared the prize in October 2021 with Russian journalist Dmitry A. Muratov, spoke about her experience running and writing for Rappler, a digital news company that focused on the use of social media to challenge pro-government propaganda in the Philippines.

Ressa received the prize for her efforts to “safeguard freedom of expression” through her journalism, according to a statement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

In June 2020, a Filipino court found Ressa guilty of “cyberlibel,” for which she could face up to six years in prison. Ressa also faces seven other charges, including accusations of tax evasion, to which she has pleaded not guilty.

Though Ressa originally planned to give the lecture in person, the IOP announced in an email Tuesday morning that the event would take place virtually after several organizers received notice of potential Covid-19 exposure.

In an hour-long lecture moderated by Kennedy School professor Latanya A. Sweeney, Ressa talked about Rappler’s work in uncovering the Filipino government’s alleged manipulation of social media in a practice she dubbed “patriotic trolling.”

Following a September 2016 bombing near the residence of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, Rappler journalists exposed the circulation of a March 2016 article “Man With High Quality of Bomb Nabbed at Davao Checkpoint” — from nearly six months earlier — which Ressa claimed Duterte supporters used to justify declaring a “draconian” national state of emergency after the bombing.

Ressa said she first suspected Duterte’s supporters were using the article to “massage the conditions” for the government’s actions when she noticed the six-month-old article attracting large traffic volumes and found that the Facebook page “Duterte News Global” was circulating it.

In a three-part series entitled “Propaganda War: Weaponizing the Internet,” Ressa and her colleagues at Rappler alleged that other fake accounts spread “propaganda” about Duterte and former Philippines senator Ferdinand R. “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.

“If you don't have facts, how can you have truth? How can you have trust?” Ressa said. “If you don't have these three, you don't have democracy.”

Addressing possible ways to combat misinformation and disinformation, Ressa said solutions must fix current social media companies’ “algorithms of bias,” which she added “prioritize the spread of lies, hate, anger, and conspiracy theories.”

Ressa also cited the European Union’s Digital Services Act as “the most effective” example of a policy that focuses more on changing “algorithms of bias” than limiting users’ speech.

In addition to changes to technology policy, Ressa also cited the importance of independent journalism in working against disinformation and informing readers “how they are being manipulated.”

“Most of the time, Americans will say, ‘Ah, that doesn't happen here,’ and then you see how quickly democracy can collapse,” Ressa said.

Ressa also noted that the challenges disinformation presents are not unique to the Philippines or the United States.

“One of the things that technology has shown us, and it is both good and bad, is that humanity around the world – we actually have far more in common than we have differences,” she said.

—Staff writer Joshua S. Cai can be reached at joshua.cai@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Eric Yan can be reached at eric.yan@thecrimson.com.

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