The second thing is that the incentives for news have shifted and have changed what quality news is churned. You stick to your quality oftentimes to your own detriment. We protect the public sphere but you get no reward because that’s not what the incentives reward.
And then what happens with Facebook, with Twitter, is that there are these websites that are so easy to set up. You call them “alternative news,” and you’ve seen them. They’ve sprouted in the Philippines, but they haven’t gone as crazy as in the United States: Alex Jones, QAnon. These are things that were banned and taken down by Facebook. These are outright lies and conspiracy theories. Why are they like that? Because they spread the fastest. They make the most money. Some of the pro-Trump websites are about making money, but oftentimes, they are about shifting your worldview.
So let me go back to the algorithms of the internet. Every single social media platform uses one algorithm to grow because they tested it over time and found that it is the most effective way to grow their platform. The algorithm—the recommendation engine—for you to grow your social media platform is using “friends of friends.”
If in 2016, we were all in the middle and we all agreed on the facts, by the time President Duterte won, he used an “us against them” kind of leadership style. He was angry, and “friends of friends” algorithm. If you’re pro-Duterte, you move to the right of the spectrum. If you’re anti-Duterte, you move to the left.
So many people ask what they would do with their family when they believe the lie. Some people think I’m Indonesian! And I’m not! But you know, that is the main narrative that spread and people can have alternative facts, alternative lies.
No democracy survives this.
What does survive are the social media platforms that have made a lot of money from their business model called surveillance capitalism. And that’s part of the real Facebook Oversight Board where we were actively challenging it. We came up as part of the forum on information and democracy last year. We came up with a white paper that is 130 pages long in which we laid out the methodical, structural, systemic solutions—a dozen of them.
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
I can talk about this forever because essentially, what has happened now is that our information ecosystem, social media platforms, are behavior-modification systems. And we are Pavlov’s dogs—they experiment on us, if it works, they keep us scrolling, if you’re scrolling on your phone, that’s exactly where they want you because when you keep scrolling, you’re giving more data to the machine learning that is building a model of you, and that model knows you better than you know yourself and serves your most vulnerable moment for money.
This is not sustainable. It is a system that has enabled the rise of fascism all around the world.
ESQ: We thought social media and the internet would democratize the spread of information and truth, making it more accessible to the public. But certain people have gamed the platforms to their advantage.
MR: It’s not just people. It’s also power and money. Again, we go back to the Marcos disinformation networks around 2015. Rappler, when we started in 2012, it was Social Media for Social Good. We encouraged students to join the force for good, and all of that changed around 2014, 2015. We felt it in our politics in 2016.
ESQ: How do we move forward knowing content creators—YouTubers and Tiktokers—have more clout than news organizations nowadays?
MR: Yes! That’s a very good question. What we’ve seen over time in the Facebook ecosystem is when news organizations used to be in the center. They have now been pushed to the periphery. TikTok has taken over. TikTok still isn’t quite as large, but for a demographic, people have gone on board. It’s the newest fad, and that is definitely a black box that is all about maximizing engagement.
I have three pillars and they’re the way I evolved in the last three years where I spent my time: It’s technology, journalism, and community.
When we set up Rappler in 2012, we built communities of action. The “food” we had was journalism. Now that we’re under attack in the technology part, there are three things that I’m doing.
The first is to realize that it is a global problem. For our elections, these Silicon Valley companies, these American companies must put guardrails in place because we won’t have integrity of elections if we don’t have integrity of facts.
Second, tech and data. This is the most important. Data privacy, how do you protect yourself against this? Facebook took down operations from China last September 2020, and it was hardly in the news. It was campaigning for Sara Duterte, it was polishing the image of Marcos, and it was attacking me and Rappler. This is from China!
Understand that geopolitical power play will weigh in on our elections.
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
The last two pillars, I’ll just say, are journalism and community. Journalism has to survive, and so we continue doing Rappler, but I also, before the Nobel, I said I would co-chair the International Fund for Public Interest Media. We will raise a billion dollars to help independent media survive in this time period while we’re putting guardrails on tech.
The last part is community. We have to build communities in action. Like in January 6 in the United States, people believed the conspiracy theories and they acted on it through violence. Online violence translates into the real world. Think about what happens, the toxic sludge in the Philippine information ecosystem in social media. We’re trying to create communities that will be able to fight back and help call out facts. It’s not going to spread if you say “facts,” but you know.
ESQ: What do you think of TikTok?
MR: It’s fun, but it’s insidious in a way. If you’re on TikTok.
ESQ: Let’s talk about yourself.
ESQ: Do you have a profound memory or experience that you still look back on to this day or that shaped who you are now?
MR: Oh there’s so many. My family left the Philippines when I was 10 years old, and I remember walking into a public elementary school in New Jersey. I was the shortest kid in the class.
The lessons that I learned in fighting a dictator, I learned when I was 10 years old.
When you’re the only brown kid in a class of very tall, very aggressive kids, I was quiet a lot. My teacher actually told me I was quiet for about a year. And I learned to learn, one was to really embrace your fear: Whatever you are most afraid of, you touch it and you hold it so that it doesn’t scare you.
Courage is not about not having fear, it’s about learning how to deal with it.
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
I saw some high school friends two or three years ago and they reminded me that I used to stand up to bullies at school. So it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to standing up to Duterte, di ba?
So these lessons from when we were very young we’re essential formed, our values are formed.
And the last one I hope that we learn a lot in the Philippines is something I’ve been saying for years: Silence is complicity. If you see something in front of you, happening in front of you, and you allow it to happen, you’re as complicit as the person carrying it out. These are lessons from, like, World War II.
That was how I learned to stand up to a bully—because I couldn’t! If you’re an empathetic human being and something bad is happening in front of you, you jump in! Help!
And another memory is the Honor Code of Princeton. When I came back to the Philippines and worked at ABS-CBN, I used to say the Honor Code was what we’re after. In every exam, on every paper, you have to write the Honor Code: You pledge on your honor that you will not cheat, and you will turn in anyone who cheats in front of you. Every Princetonian knows this.
It’s a great model for democracy. You see someone doing the wrong thing, you call it out.