Without losing her smile, without raising her voice, without showing excessive concern, the Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, 59, explains that, despite having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, despite having been designated a person of the year by Time magazine in 2018, he risks spending the rest of his life in jail.
She was a reporter for CNN in Asia for several decades, but the coming to power of President Rodrigo Duterte made her a world leader in freedom of expression.
Although she achieved a legal victory on January 18 by being acquitted of tax evasion, she still faces other complaints that, according to various human rights organizations, are also politically motivated.
Her judicial future has been unknown since the arrival of Bongbong Marcos, son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for whom her family went into exile in the US.
The key, according to Ressa, is that she cares much more about international opinion than Duterte.
And right now, she is a figure of international relevance, championed by star lawyer Amal Clooney.
Maria Ressa, the Filipino journalist "not exempt from being murdered"
From the outlet he founded and directs,
Rappler —the main
digital newspaper in the Philippines—, he launched a series of investigations into the human rights violations ordered by Duterte, who promoted a campaign of police assassinations against anyone who used or dealt with drugs ( and which has caused 27,000 deaths according to Amnesty International, 6,000 according to the Philippine police).
His relationship with the former president can be summed up in a sequence from the documentary Absence of Truth, directed by Ramona Díaz and which can be seen on Filmin, when Duterte blurts out to him in an interview: "You think that because you are a journalist you cannot be assassinated."
Before winning the Nobel Prize, he could have gone into exile—he is a US citizen—but he has decided to stay in his country and continue a fight that he believes goes beyond the Philippines.
He believes that the enormous spread of fake news, thanks to social networks and big technology companies, endangers global democracy.
And she is convinced that these multimillion-dollar companies are aware of what is happening, but they do not lift a finger to avoid it.
In Spain, his book
How to fight against a dictator
(Peninsula, translation by Juanjo Estrella) has just come out, an essay in which he recounts his fight against Duterte's abuses and against false news at the same time.
This interview took place last weekend in Cartagena de Indias (Colombia), during the Hay Festival.
Do you have any hope that your troubles with the law in the Philippines will ever end?
I think that the new president, Marcos junior, cares much more about what the international community thinks than Duterte.
And although there are problems with judicial independence, I am not saying that we are Russia or Iran.
I believe that we are still a democracy, so it is very important not to give up.
“This generation is growing up without trust, which is a very important glue in society”
But, despite your recent judicial victory, do you still feel in danger?
Without a doubt.
The old danger is still there.
Right now, moreover, the objective of disinformation operations is no longer for you to believe in something, but rather for you to mistrust everything.
This generation is growing up without trust, which is a very important glue in society.
It is the glue that holds us together.
Where do you get so much strength?
Don't you get tired of fighting?
I don't think I get tired.
I'm old enough, I'm going to be 60 years old.
I have worked and lived in conflict zones.
Right now, I feel like it's one of those moments where I have to fight for what I believe in.
It is easy to say that you believe in ethics, that you defend certain principles, that you believe in journalism when no one attacks you.
But if someone attacks you, and you give up, it means you give up what you believe in.
That is a part.
Another part is that I think we can win, if I give up I will help us lose.
And then there's my team.
Do you think that the Nobel Peace Prize protects you?
When they told me, I thought, my God!
But I also realized that it could bring me quite a bit of trouble.
named me person of the year, I immediately thought the government was going to go on a rampage against me.
But now I am aware that it protects us.
That's not to say I can't spend the rest of my life in jail because no one knows what's going to happen to the other cases.
But I have hope.
Do you think that we are living in a moment of regression of global democracy?
I don't know if regression is the right way to look at it.
It's as if progress had sent us back in time, like in the movie
Back to the Future
Technology has allowed the rise of authoritarian leaders, who have been democratically elected.
And that has occurred because the information ecosystem is totally corrupted.
A 2018 MIT study found that lies spread on the web six times faster than true information.
And another study showed that YouTube's algorithms were driving the wildest conspiracy theories.
All this has given them a lot of power, in the real world, but also in the digital one.
Big tech companies have contributed to radicalization and polarization.
And they have had a direct impact on our society.
Any concrete example?
Russia has carried out huge disinformation operations, they used the same narrative to justify the invasion of Crimea and Ukraine eight years later.
Marcos did the same in the Philippines and managed to go from pariah to hero.
In 2014 many disinformation operations began and there was a domino effect: they influenced the Philippines, Brexit, the crisis in Catalonia, the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
And Russian bots were present in all cases.
Until now we could have different political points of view, but there was a general agreement on the facts.
But with the new design of the algorithms of the technology companies, the polarization increased a lot.
Facebook, for example, uses artificial intelligence to create a clone of each of us
You have said that users are like Pavlov's dogs for big technology companies.
Because they experiment with us.
They use what they know about us to manipulate us.
Each of these companies handles a lot of data about us.
Facebook, for example, uses artificial intelligence to create a clone of each of us.
They call it a model.
And it goes far beyond advertising;
[targeted marketing] because it's available to anyone who's willing to pay for it.
It can be a commercial brand, a government, anyone who wants to take advantage of your weaknesses to get a message across to you.
It's like going to a psychologist and telling him your deepest fears, your secrets.
And he would come out of the office and sell all that intimate information to the highest bidder.
Pavlov's dogs experiment consisted of feeding them while ringing a bell.
And then they would take away the food, but they kept ringing the bell and the dogs salivated just the same.
They know our weak points.
Is the fear of immigration your weak point?
Well, they'll blow it up.
Why do you think these authoritarian leaders are so afraid of women and feminism?
For Bolsonaro or Trump it is almost an obsession.
A. I don't know, but
represent a setback of centuries in the treatment of women.
I don't know of any dictator who has been a woman.
In any case, we are experiencing an explosion of sexism and misogyny in a way that has not been known for a long time.
It's something I've never experienced.
And all this is due to a manipulation of the data.
And they don't just attack journalists.
Look at what happened to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when she decided to resign.
To what extent can we trust the big tech companies?
At one point in my life, I trusted them.
Now it is impossible.
The media have to find a balance between benefits and public service.
We went to big tech as early as 2016 and told them all the problems we found.
And they refused to see them.
Most of those platforms hide the news.
In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook was going to focus above all on family and friends and relegated news to the background.
Some media suffered a 60% drop in traffic.
And it was a unilateral decision.
When you only focus on family and friends, and not on proven information, fake news spreads much more.
They are protecting their profits, not the public.
Instead, they are very good at protecting advertisers.
A client can say that they do not want to appear next to such news and it will not appear.
But they refuse to protect the users, they don't want to protect the facts either.
And they make no distinction between lies and facts.
Maria Ressa pictured during the HAY Festival of Cartagena de Indias, last weekend. Daniel Mordzinski
What has changed in the world of fake news, because since Mesopotamia or ancient Rome, dictators have used fake news?
Is it just the technology?
Yes. It's exponential.
It is something we have not seen in history.
There are people who think that it is a question of freedom of expression, but it is not like that.
Elon Musk takes a libertarian approach to free speech, but it's clear when misinformation is used for war or political motives, when we're treated like Pavlov's dogs and our behavior changed.
Our emotions are the gateway for us to act irrationally.
January 6 in Washington and January 8 in Brasilia are clear examples.
There has also been tremendous violence in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka, in India, in Pakistan and much of it has been driven from the networks.
I became a journalist because of the power of information and because I believe we have a mission to protect the public interest.
When public debate is corrupted in the way that social media has, it has an impact on the whole of society.
Big Tech is like Big Tobacco.
They know that what they are doing is harmful, but they have made billions of dollars.
We now know that the same thing happened with the big oil companies, who were aware that fossil fuels caused climate change.
It seems like a joke.
That shows how broken our world is.
Again, snuffboxes are a perfect example.
It took a long time to defeat them, many people died.
I only hope that democracy resists.
But we are seeing a rise of the extreme right everywhere, mixed with religion.
Which is another problem.
It may seem like a paradox, but is it more complex to fight against autocratic leaders who have been democratically elected, as in the case of Duterte or Bolsonaro, because they have achieved majority support?
Yes, but you have to wonder under what conditions these votes took place, because before going to the polls there was intense information manipulation.
How can it be considered that elections have been fair if the conditions in which they have taken place are not?
Numerous studies show that many people do not vote thinking about what they believe, but about what they feel.
The United States is a perfect example.
Trump versus Hillary Clinton.
But then we found out what Cambridge Analytica [the British consultancy that collected millions of Facebook data without permission from users for political propaganda] had done, Russian disinformation… Can it be argued that there was fraud in these elections, not at the polls, but yes in the minds of the people?
I believe that democracy works if we have truthful information,
if all parties can be heard, if we can decide independently.
But what happens if we are not independent, if each one of us has been manipulated?
Can we consider that they are fair and free elections?
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