When Maria Ressa jointly won the Nobel peace prize in 2021 with Russian editor Dmitry Muratov, they were the first journalists to be recognised in this way since 1936. Back then, the German reporter Carl von Ossietzky couldn’t accept because he was in a Nazi concentration camp. “The Norwegian Nobel committee got the right sense,” Ressa tells me, over Zoom from her office in Manila. “They gave the awards to journalists last year and this year to civil society.” The 2022 prize went to human rights advocates from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Her point is that, along with journalists, these are the last ramparts against authoritarianism that’s creeping, not at all slowly, across the globe. “It’s like that Martin Niemöller quote. In the Philippines, as a joke, we’ve been saying since 2017: ‘First, they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened next.’”
Slight, effervescent and with a garish tangerine lipstick that turns out to be a filter – Ressa is both puckish and techy – the 59-year-old apologises: she’s four minutes late because she has come straight from the supreme court of the Philippines. The government has lodged multiple specious charges against her, from cyber libel to tax evasion, which cumulatively carry a maximum sentence of more than 100 years. She had an appeal denied last week and is in the final stages of this “upside-down” process.
The particular element of Ressa’s work that was celebrated in Oslo began in 2016 with the publication of a series on the weaponisation of the internet. Four years before she had co-founded Rappler, an online-only news site. Back then she was an enthusiastic early adopter of social media and its news potential, especially for citizen journalism, or what she calls “participatory” reporting. But after the election of President Duterte in 2016 and his violent “war on drugs”, which was, in fact, a war against his own most deprived citizens, she started to piece together the dark side of this new media. This included fake news and misinformation, amplified by “patriotic troll armies”, flooding the discourse so that facts were contested, honest brokers bullied into silence, and regular, disinterested citizens could no longer tell what was going on. Rappler published a three-part analysis of this process, and Maria Ressa has been living on this knife-edge – between international acclaim and threats to her life and liberty – ever since.
In her forthcoming book How to Stand Up to a Dictator, she describes those events and the career leading up to them, and absolutely hammers home the point that “our information ecosystem is corrupted”. It’s about Facebook – and she forensically critiques how little the company has done to protect civil society – but it’s about all of social media. “The incentive structure of our information ecosystem rewards lying.” The entire business model of social media platforms is to grab the attention in ever more inventive ways: collect more data on users, target content more accurately, until we all have a 360-degree news vista comprising only the stories we want to read. At the root of it all, she argues, is the elemental truth that lies are simply more interesting than facts.
When we see election results that don’t make sense, voters lurching towards manifestly unhinged candidates, and those results echoing into the future – Trump’s victory turning into the overturning of Roe v Wade, Brexit leading to Liz Truss, previously sane nations becoming basket cases before our eyes – it is because “what happens online is what happens in the real world. So impunity online is impunity offline.”
Maria Ressa has been a force in journalism since long before Facebook and somewhat before even the internet existed, arriving in Manila on a Fulbright scholarship from Princeton in 1986 and quickly joining the government TV station PTV 4. It was a homecoming in a sense – she had been born and raised there until she was 10 – but she’d been educated mainly in the US, after her mother, who had moved to America and married for a second time, “kidnapped” her, as she puts it.
Previously Ressa had been living with her paternal grandmother, after her father’s death and mother’s emigration. Her childhood sounds really happy, with much-loved siblings and parents, and a lot of success educationally, but she stands by the phrasing: “Literally, we were kidnapped. I would have been a very, very different person if I grew up in the Philippines.” The cultures are only superficially alike. “We’re very American on the surface, right? In the Philippines, we spent 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood” (the Spanish colonised the Philippines in the 16th century. That continued until the Spanish-American war of 1898; the US occupation ended in 1946).
Ressa didn’t decide to settle for good in the Philippines until she was in her 40s, co-founding Rappler in 2012. Before that, she was running the south-east Asia desk for CNN from Jakarta, shuttling back and forth to the US. When she finally did choose Manila, it was for two reasons: “The first was that I never truly understood sarcasm, which is part of American humour. Irony doesn’t exist in the Philippines.”
I genuinely cannot tell whether she is being sarcastic; she reads as a person who could master irony by the age of six. The second thing, she says bluntly, is that “the United States felt like a society that was falling apart. While here in the Philippines, it was really building. That’s what the excitement was.”
It was in Jakarta, from a gym treadmill, that she watched the planes go into the towers on 9/11: “It raised a memory for me because in 1995, I had the [Philippine intelligence service’s] interrogation reports of probably the first pilot recruited by a group that would later be called al-Qaida. His name is Abdul Hakim Murad.” That report included not only names – the man who would turn out to be the architect of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; his nephew Ramzi Yousef – but also plots that would unfold, successfully or not, in the early 00s that had been trialled and spitballed in Manila a decade earlier. The first shoe bomb was road-tested in Manila, because it uses the same airport security as the US. Ressa broke exclusive after exclusive in this period thanks to her dense network in Indonesia, the Philippines and the US. “I miss those days,” she says, “don’t you? I miss the days where up is up and down is down.”
She learned a number of things from terror networks that would come in useful as she later scoped out the growing perils of social media: “Emergent behaviour – that the way a system behaves can’t be predicted from what you know about the individual parts,” she writes. “In fact, the system as a whole exerts pressure on the individuals, a kind of peer pressure exerted by group dynamics, which often makes people do things they wouldn’t do if they were alone.”
She learned the same thing from reporting on the riots in Indonesia, she says: “The mobs I covered were always full of very nice people.” We exhibit reptile sides of ourselves when we’re whipped into a horde, fine – but what if social media can turn us into our mob-selves without us even having to get off the sofa? She’s indignant at the prospect: “We need the tech, but the tech can’t run us. The tech cannot create emergent human behaviour that is the worst of who we are. I value humanity!”
The core argument is familiar: “In the 19th century, the commodity in the economy was labour. Today, the commodity is our attention, and our attention is manipulated by our biology.” Through fake news – AKA lies – directed with algorithmic precision to the people most likely to be titillated by them, “meta narratives are seeded. They don’t have to go viral,” Ressa says. They merely have to be broken out of their silos of cranks and misfits. “That’s how Bolsonaro was moved from the far right to the centre. The driver is the technology that delivers this to you. This is not even something that you have to go looking for. They drive it towards you.” What is terrifying and galvanising about her book is its urgency. “I think we’re in the last two minutes of democracy. I used to play basketball. If you play basketball, the last two minutes is everything. And we’re losing the game. Unless something drastic changes, 2024 will be the year where democracy falls off the cliff.”
For six years in a row up to 2021, Filipinos ranked top of the world for spending time on social media; negative effects erupting in their politics will, Ressa argues, eventually show up in every other internet-accessing nation in the world. The Philippines is not an outlier but a canary in the mine. If you’re an “It’ll probably be OK” kind of person, the case she builds and connections she makes really creep up on you. The parallels between Filipino and British politics are chilling: president Rodrigo Duterte won the 2016 election using exactly the same “information warfare techniques” as the Brexiters, as Ressa summarises: suppress information and replace it with lies, viciously attack facts with a cheap digital army on the ground, insist from above that facts no longer matter and people are bored with them.
Ressa herself, in trying to make this case, suffered exactly the same “networked gaslighting” as Carole Cadwalladr in trying to make the case against the leave campaign, its techniques and funding: two Unesco studies identified more than 10,000 abusive tweets directed at Ressa by artificial intelligence tools, and the attack on Cadwalladr was identical. “It took me two weeks to get on an even keel,” Ressa recalls of this onslaught. “At the beginning, you want to respond. I’m a traditional broadcast journalist. I was shocked.”
Duterte’s pandemic response was painfully close to Boris Johnson’s: cronyism, dodgy contracts, gargantuan sums spent on a bafflingly useless test and trace system. “State-sponsored patriotic trolling” is how Ressa describes Twitter activity in her country, but it could be applied to a lot of our Conservative party. What really struck me was the description of the campaign for election by the new Filipino president, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, and the parallels with Liz Truss’s. Bongbong Marcos campaigned as a replica of his father, Ferdinand Marcos, who ran a kleptocratic show from 1965 to 1986 (you remember Imelda and the shoes). Bongbong played the songs of his father, used his slogans, but simply didn’t mention the political realities of Ferdinand’s rule. Truss, similarly, crafted this completely amnesiac homage to Margaret Thatcher in which she dressed up as Thatcher, parroted her phrases, but her programme had nothing in common with Thatcherism. You need an international perspective to be appropriately scared, and “it’s scary as heck”, Ressa says. “There are 30-plus elections this year that are critical. We’ll see what happens in Brazil. Even in France, to see the right increase that significantly. Soon there will have been enough illiberal leaders, elected democratically, to threaten democracy. The balance of power geopolitically will have shifted dramatically after elections in 2024, which will include India, the world’s largest democracy, and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population.”
There’s nothing new about propaganda, of course, and nothing new about illiberalism. There are axioms that were true for Hitler, for the KGB, that remain true today; fake news predates the birth of Mark Zuckerberg. Ressa quotes Yuri Andropov, a former KGB chairman, who “compared dezinformatsiya to cocaine. You take it once or twice, you’re OK. But if you take it all the time, you’re fundamentally changed. That’s what disinformation does. That’s why we’re upside down.”
The personal consequences of Ressa’s work have been grave, and aren’t yet done: by 2019, her government had brought eight charges against her, for cyber libel, tax evasion and securities fraud. “I understand Kafka now in a whole different way,” she says – still smiling! – and concludes: “You hope for the best, and you hope that there’s some sense of rule of law.”
Her prescriptions are wide-ranging, divided by a neat, systematic mind into the long term (education, accountability from tech companies, a legal framework across borders), the medium term (protect and grow investigative journalism, collaborate) and the short term: find the data, “find the recidivist networks that continue to spread lies”, reclaim for civil society “the centre of our information ecosystem so that you have a defence of facts. Facts are really boring. We spent our entire careers learning how to make facts interesting, then all of a sudden here comes a lie that just slaps them, and we lose them.” Probably from a UK perspective, the important message is get ahead of your next election: whatever your plan is to fight the lies, you need time – six months at a bare minimum.
“Is this world war three?” Ressa asks rhetorically. “I would say yes, on two fronts. There’s the conventional war that is happening between Russia and Ukraine, and then there’s the modern warfare that is being waged against every individual on these technology platforms. It is a battle for your mind. It is a battle for your emotions. And literally by manipulating your emotions, they are manipulating your worldview: you don’t have facts and you don’t have integrity of elections.”
Her analysis is stark on the page, but spoken with such energy and warmth that it’s strangely invigorating. “I would hate to feel that we gave democracy up voluntarily. We are all exhausted, we are old, this is exhausting,” she says, looking neither old nor in any way tired. “But you’re in that relay race, and it’s all uphill and you keep getting pushed back, and you gotta keep going.”
• How to Stand Up to a Dictator is published by WH Allen. Join Maria Ressa in conversation with the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, on 21 November. Book a Guardian Live ticket at membership.theguardian.com
• This article was amended on 14 November 2022 because an earlier version stated that Duterte was elected in 2015, whereas it was 2016, and referred to Ressa’s living circumstances following “her parents’ divorce” whereas it was following her father’s death. This has been corrected.
How to Stand Up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa (Ebury Publishing, £20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.