Rappler’s Maria Ressa fights back against social media’s dark side

byTaylor Mulcahey
Nov 08 in Social Media
Rappler's Maria Ressa

After finishing a 20-year career with CNN, Maria Ressa decided to head home. Born in the Philippines, raised in the U.S. and with experience reporting all over the world, she had to decide what came next. The possibilities of new media institutions and development in the Philippines made her decision easier, and she settled at ABS-CBN.

Disappointed by the newsroom’s slow adoption of new technologies for the sake of improving journalism, Ressa decided to go out on her own in 2011.

“We started Rappler because it was easier to start from nothing than to pivot a legacy newsroom,” she said. “It was painful to do at that point.”

Rappler began with only 12 staff members. Within a year and a half, they grew to 75, and had become the third most-read news site in the country. Rappler saw possibilities for development and collaboration in social media — their motto was “social media for social good.” They trained citizens of all ages to harness the power of social media to impact causes, and used the platforms as mechanisms to listen to their communities.

“Twenty percent of the content in our first year was actually created by our community,” said Ressa. “It's funny because today you talk about your community to monetize, but back then, it was our community who created the journalism with us.”

Since then, she’s seen the ugly side of social media. It began in 2015 and skyrocketed after the election of Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, said Ressa. It contributed to lost revenue, widespread disinformation and hate speech.

At one point in late 2016, Ressa received an average of 90 hate messages per hour.

“Soon after, the very same attacks — the lies that were sowed on social media — by July 2017 [they] came out of President Duterte's mouth,” Ressa said.

The government accused Rappler’s staff, its board of directors and Ressa herself of of crimes that, if convicted, would shut down the publication and put Ressa in jail for up to 15 years. These include a cyber libel case, tax evasion case and case claiming that Rappler is foreign-owned. Ressa and her team are challenging them in court, and vow to take them as high as the Philippine Supreme Court if necessary.

Although Ressa blames much of what has happened on Facebook and other tech giants, she hasn’t written them off completely. “We’re still working with Facebook because I believe that there's tremendous [power]. Our growth wouldn't have happened without [it]. But our near demise also wouldn't have happened without Facebook. I know its best and its worst traits and I'm not ready to give up on it.”

Despite the challenges, Ressa remains hopeful for the future. Before being honored at the ICFJ Awards Dinner with the Knight International Journalism Award, we spoke to her about her experiences — the good and the bad — as well as the hope that keeps her going.

IJNet: You started Rappler with the hope of crowdsourcing journalism. What tools did you use and what did you learn from the experience?

Ressa: I had hoped that technology could help jumpstart development in my country, and the first part of technology — social media — was doing that. We also started a crowdsourcing platform [Agos] for disaster risk reduction [because] the Philippines gets an average of 20 typhoons every year. In 2013, we rolled out a platform that crowdsources both information and calls for help. It works with the government to respond to this, but also government NGOs and the private sector. Our civic engagement team actually sits with the office of civil defense when a typhoon happens, and that’s amazing. By 2015, the government incorporated it into its disaster plans.

Not everyone wants to create content, but everyone wants to help when disaster happens. You want to try to reduce the friction so we built the platform and we also use social media. We taught our community how to use hashtags. #RescuePH means ‘I need rescue,’ so when that happens, our platform pulls in that hashtag from both Twitter and Facebook. That's crowdsourcing that saves lives.

We also deployed it for [other] things. One campaign was ‘Looking for your heros,’ another one was ‘What do you want to tell the Pope?’ or #ShowthePope. Now it's run of the mill, but in 2012 it was very new.

What do you think has to change before things get better?

An engineer makes black and white decisions. They map out the world before they can build it. Journalists live in grey areas, [where] nothing is ever really black and white, and we make room for that. The problem is that these two things have merged now. Whether they like it or not, technology is now the gatekeeper to facts. If they do not exercise that gatekeeping capacity the way journalists have, this is precisely what you get: Everyone lives in their own little world and they believe their reality.

You shouldn't be allowed to do that. The platforms always say, ‘This is an issue of free speech, you don't want us to be the ones to determine what gets [online].’ Well guess what? You got it. You gave yourselves the power. You took it away from [journalists].

If they feel that they can't handle the responsibility, they should get out of these countries.

What is your advice to journalists dealing with online harassment?

First is [recognizing] that it shouldn't be the way it is — this level of impunity. We don't do this in the real world. If someone punched you, you could take them to jail. There are rules, they're called laws.

This is how we dealt with it at Rappler: We acknowledged it, [and] we talked about it. The people who were really exposed on the front line, I offered counselling help, [but] we realized that our psychologists and sociologists had never dealt with this stuff before. We had to bring the [Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma] to help train the trainers who could help us. That's the first part: acknowledging it and creating support groups.

The second is, we're gathering data. There will come a day of accountability, and we're prepared for it. I don't think these things should stay in impunity to attack at these levels.

Finally, don't lose hope. This is not human nature; this is manufactured by power to keep power or to gain power. They're meant to pound you to silence.

The last one is to keep doing good work, and that's the way we fight back.