ESQ&A

"I think every President I’ve covered has really not liked our coverage. But that’s part of it!"

Maria Ressa on the social media wars, the future of news, and optimism.
IMAGE Fruhlein Econar
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“Despite her size, fearless enough to write an eyewitness account of Al-Qaeda,” Esquire.com trumpeted in 2010, when the website named Maria Ressa to its list of 195 Sexiest Women Alive. It’s a factoid that was resurrected earlier this year by, let’s be frank, fake news sites and hyperpartisan blogs who don’t care about facts (-oid or not), ostensibly to hold her up anew to social media ridicule. “They’ve said worse,” says Ressa, a lifelong journalist whose résumé includes leadership positions at CNN and ABS-CBN. “Name the animal, I’ve been called it. This isn’t new.”

Her book Seeds of Terror, which Esquire referenced in its blurb, was published in 2003; since then, she’s also published From Bin Laden to Facebook, further buttressing her reputation as arguably the region’s foremost media expert on terrorism in Asia. (Another interesting factoid, though of dubious distinction: recordings of her TV reportage were reportedly found in Bin Laden’s lair in Afghanistan.)

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But it’s not even her focus on terrorism that’s made a target out of Ressa. In 2010, she left her post as head of the news department and public affairs department at ABS-CBN in order to put up Rappler, heralding the advent of online news. Since Rappler officially launched in 2012, Ressa and her team have become the poster children for—and punching bags on behalf of—modern news media in the Philippines, earning both accolades and ire.

ESQ: When you started Rappler in 2012, having come from a long career in traditional broadcast media, people must have said you were crazy.

RESSA: They did, but you could see it coming. [In my book, From Bin Laden to Facebook, I say that] information cascades are everything. And digital actually makes it very, very efficient. And I knew that if we could tap this, if evil guys could tap this to spread the ideology of terrorism, why can’t the good guys use it to enable and empower? 

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ESQ: In the Philippines, you saw that we were ripe for that, too.

RESSA: Big time. In ABS-CBN, we started citizen journalism. In the physical world, you can only pass an idea onto every person you’re talking to—it’s one-to-one. But if you’re in the virtual world, you’re automatically speaking one to many. That’s super exciting, right?

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I could see it coming, even when I was in ABS-CBN. I threw everyone on Twitter and I threw them to Facebook. I was the one who said, you know, every reporter will now tweet. Because, normally, if you leave this in the hands of bureaucracies, it’ll never happen, because you have to make the argument that it is worth the risk.

Here’s the other part—because we were also the first ones going in, we could help shape the conversation, and we were far more proactive. Filipinos, in general, became far more proactive on social media and became far more positive, I think. Part of it was, when you get there first, if you are among the first, you can help dictate what that landscape looks like. And that was the best fun that we ever had, you know?

ESQ: But we’ve also seen the backlash to that kind of power.

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RESSA: We didn’t really see the backlash ‘till 2016….To do social media really well, you have to be vulnerable, right? And for a large company, being vulnerable is anathema—nobody wants to do that. This is the dilemma we now face. In 2016, it was the same thing was twisted against us—and I will say that, it wasn’t used just against Rappler, but against every Filipino on social media.

So, these were the two warring things: now we know the evil, we know the good. Which one will win? There's a battle for it now. Now I think, in the long term, we will use it for good, it’s going to be like getting rid of the pollution that’s there. I think people will become more savvy. We just have to live through these very painful times.

ESQ: Have your tweaked your change model then, since last year, in light of everything that is happening?

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RESSA: No, it’s still the way it is, right? That will always be there. It’s how we deal with people who want to take advantage of it. This is what I loved about moving onto the internet. I did a television before because it influenced people. It helped show you that you fought for truth! That’s essentially what it is. It was easy in the old days. Now, we’ve gone through a phase where we’ve empowered people. Now, they’ve been able to organize themselves both for good and for evil.

In the past, I used to say evil was ISIS, Al Qaeda—they all use this. But now the same thing, it’s being able to take advantage of that exponential curve in reach. Now, all politicians can do it. So, this is our change model, and it works! The emotion is what enables social networks to run.

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I always say family and friends are your physical social network, but social media are your family and friends on steroids—and that network influences behavior. This is our conversion funnel. Every single campaign is the same exact thing that works in politics.

ESQ: There are dangers, too. With that same model, you’re vulnerable to attack.

RESSA: Living through it, you have to just weather it. In the end, they're not really interested in engaging in ideas, which is the reason for responding. They just want to hit you with a charge until it sticks.

Emotion is what enables social networks to run.

 

ESQ: Has any of it stuck?

RESSA: I think in the short term, people who don’t know news, people who don’t have any real background in it, they can be misled. But I go back to maybe my best defense and the best offense, which is physical-world actions. In the end, there will be a track record.

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You can’t give up on your work—you influence a large number of people right off the top! If you give up on it, and some people have, they shut down their Facebook. That’s abdicating responsibility as well. You know, it’s the same reason why I’ve said Facebook has abdicated responsibility by not cleaning itself up, but just because they're behaving poorly, doesn’t mean we need to behave poorly, right?

ESQ: Do you think the social media platforms should exercise more control?

RESSA: That’s the reason why I think of Facebook, at least in the Philippines, has the power to actually restore some sense of… I think, when you’re the platform, you need to draw the line between freedom of expression and dangerous speech—speech that incites mob violence, whether that is an online mob or real mob. That [kind of] speech, that doesn’t belong. That is against the law.

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Speech that incites mob violence, whether that is an online mob or real mob. That [kind of] speech, that doesn’t belong.

ESQ: Speaking from your own experience, you’ve been vocal about the online harassment of journalists. [Ressa was the case study for the Philippines in the UNESCO report An Attack on One is an Attack on All, and the Nieman Foundation website published a story on Rappler's relationship with Facebook.]

RESSA: I decided to really start publicly talking about two things: one is the online misogyny and targeted harassment of female journalists. And the second one is Facebook’s responsibility in this new ecosystem. You can’t just say, ‘we’re only a platform.’ Journalists have now given up their gatekeeping powers, and it’s Facebook and Google that now have those gatekeeping powers. How will these tech giants react to that?

ESQ: Why are you still optimistic?

RESSA: If I wasn’t optimistic, I wouldn’t be here. If you weren’t optimistic, you could leave the country. (...) Don’t. Don’t, because this is our generation’s battle. This is our battle. Do you stand up and be counted, or do you walk away? And I don’t mean stand up against government, I just mean, this is a time where you define who you are and what your values are. (...)

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We’ll continue doing what we’re doing. The facts are the facts. In the end, the reason that journalists move against power is that [government] has unlimited power. Especially now. And it doesn’t make us anti-Duterte—it is our job to hold power accountable. That’s all. Regardless, I think every President I’ve covered has really not liked our coverage. But that’s part of it!

Another thing that’s weakening the fabric is that when one news group does a story, we don’t follow up on each other’s story. I was talking to ABS–CBN and she said that they had an exclusive, and I said I didn’t see it, what is it? It was an interesting story and we would’ve followed up on something like that in the past. Even in attributions, news groups don’t attribute anymore when we really should.

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For me, when it gets too much, and it does get too much, I just feel like the sense of purpose is very real—the sense of discovery, technology, and potential impact. This year is going to be just like 2012, there’s more knew things for us to discover and to do. It’s a time to pivot. And where the Philippines itself will go, that will be interesting. We’ll chronicle it.

The full interview was published in the August 2017 issue of Esquire Philippines.

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Kristine Fonacier
Former editor-in-chief of Esquire Philippines
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