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‘They will destroy democracy’: On the eve of a verdict in her cyber-libel case, Philippine journalist Maria Ressa warns about Facebook’s unchecked power

Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa arrives at the Court of Tax Appeals in metropolitan Manila, Philippines on April 3, 2019. A Manila court is expected to rule in a separate cyber libel case on Monday, June 15, 2020. AP Photo/Aaron Favila
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Editor’s note: The Manila Regional Trial Court convicted Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos over cyber-libel charges in a high-profile verdict on Monday, June 15. Rappler as a company was declared to have no liability. Bail has been posted.

On the eve of a judge’s verdict that could send her to jail for up to seven years, Filipino journalist Maria Ressa is scared but “resolute”—and worried about the perilous impact social media continues to have around the world.

Ressa is co-founder and CEO of the independent online Philippine news site Rappler, and a former CNN bureau chief and Time Magazine Person of the Year. On June 1, the day the Philippines eased its strict COVID-19 lockdown, she was told to appear at a court hearing this Monday, when she will learn the outcome of the cyber-libel charges laid against her in early 2019.  

“I went from, ‘Uh, well, it’s good, we can get it out of the way,’ to, ‘Oh no, I could go to jail,’” she said in an interview Friday with The Logic’s David Skok and Taylor Owen for an episode of the Big Tech podcast that will air next week. 

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Talking Point

Online defamation has been a criminal offence in the Philippines since 2012. The populist regime of President Rodrigo Duterte has laid charges against several journalists under the law, with Ressa’s case earning the highest profile internationally. If convicted Monday, she could face up to seven years in prison. On the eve of the verdict, she warned of the corrosive effect Facebook has had on Filipino politics, saying it has “abdicated responsibility for facts” and threaten to topple democracies around the world.

Online defamation has been a criminal offence in the Philippines since 2012. The populist regime of President Rodrigo Duterte has laid charges against several journalists under the law, with Ressa’s case earning the highest profile internationally. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has called the charges against Ressa a “shameless act of persecution by a bully government,” while the U.S. Senate has condemned the “unjustified judicial proceedings” against her and urged the Filipino authorities to drop all charges.

Ressa’s case, according to her lawyer Amal Clooney, “will be a signal of what lies ahead.” In an op-ed for The Washington Post Friday, Clooney wrote, “If Maria is convicted and locked up for doing her work, the message to other journalists and independent voices is clear: Keep quiet, or you’ll be next.” 

Ryder Gilliland, a Toronto lawyer and press-freedom advocate, agreed that Ressa’s case is “an extremely important case for press freedom” that will determine how journalism and truth are handled in “repressive regimes” globally. 

“These regimes demonize and criminalize truth,” Gilliland said. “Unfortunately we are seeing this kind of demonization expanding, notably now in the United States, where the president routinely calls the media ‘fake news,’ a line Duterte adopted in the Philippines.”

Ressa believes the judgement in her case could also have an impact on platforms like Facebook that she said have “abdicated responsibility for facts” and threaten to topple democracies around the world. She warned of the consequences of what she called Facebook’s “scorched earth policy” of refusing to fact-check hateful content and misinformation on its platform. 

“In the global south, it becomes a matter of life and death for us, what Facebook does,” she told Skok and Owen. 

“Facebook has enabled the rise of these populist authoritarian-style leaders who are then able to gain more control as society gets further splintered apart, and then use formal powers given to them by governments,” she said. “It manipulates the worst of human nature. It is built for that.”

Ressa’s publication, Rappler—itself one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners, though Ressa said the partnership has been flawed from the beginning—has been lauded for its reporting on Duterte, as well as his war on drugs and his weaponization of social media to target critics and spread disinformation. That reporting has been met with an escalating government crackdown.

“Facebook is essentially our internet,” Ressa said.  One 2016 Rappler report details how Duterte has exploited it with an army of well-paid trolls that spread misinformation through a host of misleading pages. 

Facebook took down the pages identified in the Rappler report two years later, after Ressa took them to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whom Ressa calls “a bright young man” that is “on the wrong side of history.” Facebook’s rationale for removal: “coordinated inauthentic behaviour,” not their spreading personalized and weaponized misinformation. 

“Duterte was the first politician to really use social media well, and to win the presidency with it,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see it, over the last few years, unchecked largely by Facebook and continuing. It is part of the dictator’s playbook.” 

She sees the same power being used by U.S. President Donald Trump, whose posts Facebook refuses to remove for misinformation or for threats of violence.

“On Facebook, a lie told a million times becomes a fact,” she said, adding that every incentive the platform has is “to continue going down this dystopian path.”

“This must stop, or our democracies will die,” she said. “Actually, almost everything will die. How can you have integrity of markets if you don’t have facts? How can you have integrity in elections if you don’t have facts?”

Joe Biden, the U.S. Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for the presidential election, said Thursday, “Facebook has failed to enact any real reforms to stop the spread of disinformation on its platform,” calling on his supporters to sign an open letter to Zuckerberg demanding the company “fix the problems in Facebook’s platform that pose a threat to free and fair elections.” 

Earlier this month, after a virtual employee walkout over the company’s lack of action on Trump, Zuckerberg said some of the U.S. president’s posts, which included calls for violence in response to protests over the police killing of George Floyd, left him with a “visceral negative reaction.” But he justified his decision to do nothing about them, citing his responsibility as the “leader of an institution committed to free expression.”

“I don’t understand the scorched earth policy of Facebook in this, because ultimately in the medium and long term, they will destroy democracy in their own country and they won’t be able to operate, and they will destroy the way Americans think,” Ressa said.

The growing control Facebook has over information poses “an existential problem for journalists,” as well, Ressa said. As tech platforms have grown, they have supplanted the gatekeeping role news organizations used to play.

“[Journalists] spent our entire careers learning to tell stories so that boring facts mattered to people, but now we’re fighting narratives that are lies that are meant to spread,” she said. Now, “it’s like there is no adult in charge and everyone was given a gun. And they said, ‘Go ahead, shoot.’”

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Gilliland said current events in the U.S. “illustrate that we should not jump to the conclusion that the type of repression we have seen exercised against journalists abroad cannot happen in North America.” According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been more than 328 “press freedom violations” between May 26 and June 6 in the wake of the protests that have followed Floyd’s killing.

Such actions are perpetuated on social media, Ressa said. At one point during this years-long ordeal, Ressa said she was receiving at least 90 hate messages per hour, realizing that “this is meant to pound me to silence.” 

“I don’t know what to expect, but I do know Monday will be pivotal for my life, for our company, for Filipinos,” Ressa said. “I’m coming up on my 35th year as a journalist, and I’ve been a war zone correspondent, and I’ve never been in as much danger as I am today.”