Maria Ressa will speak her troubled mind

A collection of stories covering Harvard University’s 373rd Commencement.

Amid the AI boom and relentless attacks on the global information ecosystem, democracy is now at a tipping point, says Maria Ressa, a recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize and principal speaker for Harvard’s 373rd Commencement on Thursday. 

An investigative journalist and co-founder of Rappler, a digital news outlet based in Manila, Ressa, 60, has long warned of malign actors polluting social media with propaganda and disinformation in service of anti-democratic goals. She built on and amplified this work during her time as a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and Center for Public Leadership in fall 2021.

Speaking to the Gazette, Ressa, a 1986 graduate of Princeton, talked about life after the Nobels, declines in press freedom, and what worries her most about democracy in the U.S. and around the world. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How has life changed since you were awarded the Nobel? 

I was allowed to travel. Leading up to that, I had been denied travel four or five times. I think in 2019, I had received 10 arrest warrants. When the Nobel was announced, I had just put in a request for a Harvard fellowship. It was going to be my “This is where I’m staking the battle” moment. The Philippines is not North Korea, and I was trying to give the benefit of the doubt even though my rights had been severely curtailed. Soon after that, I was at Harvard for a month, the Shorenstein Center and the Center for Public Leadership. It was like breathing fresh air. 

The government of Rodrigo Duterte charged you and Rappler with a number of crimes amid aggressive coverage of its policies and actions, including a harsh crackdown on drugs that left thousands dead. Where do those cases stand and how have you been treated under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.?

By 2020, I had been convicted of cyber libel. There were 10 criminal charges going. Under the Duterte administration, we were in hell. And I would say both in our legal cases, and in our country under Marcos after Duterte, we moved to purgatory. It’s not yet perfect, but we went from hell to purgatory, so yay! [Laughs.] We keep going. The fear has lifted, and we move forward.

Reporters Without Borders’ 2024 Press Freedom Index ranks the U.S. 55th out of 180 countries. In 2020, the U.S. was 45th. What accounts for that decline and how concerned should we be?

It’s death by 1,000 cuts and it happens fast. Democracy dies quickly. After the election of Duterte in 2016, he began a brutal drug war; fear and violence were used to chill everybody. Within six months, he was able to collapse all the institutions. He became the most powerful man within six months of taking office. Some of that comes from the people he appointed. But beyond that, I call it the three Cs: corrupt, coerce, co-opt. And what’s alarming is that we’re seeing this in the U.S. 

Why is this happening? Because we don’t have a shared reality; because trust is completely broken. And that polarization was created by the algorithms of the distribution platforms of news. The very platforms that are supposed to connect us are insidiously manipulating us for profit. 

This is the challenge for the class of 2024. This is a class that has been used to having their world blown up, in a way. They’re living through new times. They know it’s not business as usual. I think that is both an opportunity and danger. Because we’re going to have the struggle with independent thought, with building communities of action, moving away from the internet, the virtual world, into a world where we’re going to have to redefine what civic engagement is. We’re going to have to move beyond what we’ve done. We’re going to have to accept that a lot of what we used to think is gone and we’re going to have to build better. And we’re going to have to trust. It is all about trust. 

Sixty-five countries, including the U.S. and members of the EU, will hold national elections this year. The results will potentially affect more than 4 billion people. Many experts are calling 2024 a make-or-break year for democracy. Do you share that view? 

Power and money are determining what your reality is. Information operations are easy and will become industrial-grade. Right now, the fracture lines of society in the U.S. are immigration, like in Europe and other parts of the world; Hamas/Israel; and race. The goal isn’t to make you believe one thing. The goal is to make you disbelieve everything, to make you doubt everything, to make you distrust everything, because if you do, then you don’t do anything. And that, to me, is the ultimate danger. This is corrosive. It’s like termites eating wood and before you know it, you just step and fall through. That’s what I’m worried about.

Do you see any signs for hope

This is the bleakest I’ve felt, in so many ways. I feel like it is a far harder world than when we were fighting Duterte. This is part of the reason I said yes to this speech. I want to see the Class of 2024, your future leaders. What do they want? Where will they go? 

This is the tipping-point year. I don’t know if we’ll make it. It will be close.

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