Maria Ressa and Social Media’s Illiberal Intent

June 16, 2020

Yesterday, Maria Ressa, Filipino journalist, founder of and global advocate for press freedom, was found guilty of “cyber libel,” a crime that carries a potential prison sentence of six years.

The details of the case don’t really matter, as they are spurious on the surface. The charges apply to an article written six years after the one-year statute of limitations for libel and a year before the Philippines’ cyber libel law was even introduced, and are in clear violation of international treaties of which the Philippines is a signatory. And this charge is only one of a wide range of cases Ressa faces, which together could see her jailed for decades.

Which is the point. The verdict against Ressa, and the persecution she has faced, is a test case for the illiberal drift of a once-democratic nation. And, as such, it has become a symbol of the autocratic moment we find ourselves in: one sanctioned and experimented with by the president of the United States, buoyed by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, and emulated by petty leaders grasping for power the world over.

The autocrat is always threatened by a free press, and so a central objective of these leaders has been to challenge the legitimacy of the media, to support and promote statist journalism, to propagate a narrative of “fake news,” and to prosecute journalists with spurious legal challenges. Ressa has become a symbol of the free press, and in the coming weeks and months much will be written about the fundamental democratic rights that are imperilled by her persecution.

But Maria Ressa, through her powerful advocacy amid this turmoil, has also issued a warning about an even broader threat. Ressa’s original sin against President Rodrigo Duterte was not just calling out his illiberal leanings, but documenting his use of digital platforms such as Facebook to undermine reality itself. In a 2016 story, “Propaganda War,” she alleged that Duterte’s government had “weaponized” social media to shift public opinion on controversial issues — among them, his government’s ultra-violent “war on drugs,” a war that has led to tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings. In this report, and in much of her work and global advocacy since, she has not simply challenged Duterte, but shone light on and then condemned the nature, design and incentives of our social media ecosystem.

Ressa’s critique of social media platforms is focused on Facebook. The Philippines has one of the highest user rates of Facebook in the world. The vast majority of the population receives their information about the world from the platform. She has shown how Duterte was a vanguard in the now common practice of using the tools of Facebook (micro-targeted ads, mass trolling, viral disinformation) to spread propaganda and ultimately shift the beliefs and behaviour of users. “Duterte,” she told David Skok and me on a recent episode of Big Tech, “was the first politician to really use social media well, and to win the presidency with it.” Further, “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.” 

But her critique runs deeper. It is not simply that the flaws in our digital ecosystem are being abused by illiberal leaders. This is not just a case of bad users of our digital tools. The argument Ressa makes is that the actual design and structure of our digital tools are illiberal. A design optimized for engagement over truth and prioritizing virality over the quality of information will create the very fractured and unstable media ecosystem needed for autocratic rule. Building a financial model on the unaccountable targeting of human behaviour and based on detailed models of our lives is itself an act of inherently illiberal intent. And a system that replaces the editorial, funding and distribution systems of the free press with the algorithms and incentives of the newsfeed creates the relativistic information environments in which propaganda thrives.

The result, according to Ressa, is that “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.”

And, she says, “it manipulates the worst of human nature. It is built for that.”

This underlying structural problem, that the very design of our digital public sphere is itself illiberal, both runs counter to the decentralized and democratized ideals of the internet, and helps explain the positionality of tech platforms with governments around the world. As Rana Foroohar, global business columnist at the Financial Times, recently argued, Facebook’s policies, which allow politicians to lie in political ads, for example, are not about free speech, but about power and market growth. In the United States, ensuring this power means not running afoul of the current president. And this need to protect and grow what are global companies means that the tech giant must also acquiesce to the power of even more illiberal regimes. In the Philippines, this acquiescence has meant enabling Duterte and his government’s weaponization of social media and, ultimately, their persecution of Ressa herself.

Maria Ressa is unequivocally a symbol of journalistic integrity and the power and importance of the free press. But she is also sounding an alarm about the core structural failings of our digital public sphere. Trump and Duterte both have tremendous power over her life, she told us. But so, too, does Mark Zuckerberg, a man she says is on the wrong side of history. There is no doubt how history will judge Maria Ressa.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Taylor Owen is a CIGI senior fellow and the host of the Big Tech podcast. He is an expert on the governance of emerging technologies, journalism and media studies, and on the international relations of digital technology.