Nobel Peace Prize Winner Maria Ressa On Responsible Journalism, Democracy, Purpose—and Facebook

By Tatler Asia

The Nobel Peace Prize 2021 laureate and one-time Gen.T Stream speaker speaks to fellow journalist Karen Davila about calling out Mark Zuckerberg, the danger of misinformation, and why she remains optimistic

Tatler Asia
Cover  The respected journalist is a firm advocate of freedom of expression and of the press

Maria Ressa’s name is spoken with awe by journalists around the world: she is a beacon for truth and a warrior in the fight against disinformation. The founder of Rappler, she has openly criticised world leaders’ policies and called out technology giants for spreading fake news and inciting hatred and violence. This dedication to journalism has led to accolades including the Woodrow Wilson Award from her alma mater, Princeton University; Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018; the Unesco/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2021; and, of course, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, alongside fellow journalist Dmitry Muratov.

Fresh from her Nobel win, she was warmly welcomed at Manila House for this month’s cover shoot. Ressa arrived wearing simple all-black attire and her signature ear-to-ear smile. She sat down for a conversation with long-time colleague and friend, broadcast journalist Karen Davila on having a sense of purpose, what she holds Mark Zuckerberg accountable for, and why she is still optimistic.

See also: How Does Nobel Peace Prize Winner Maria Ressa Overcome Adversity?

Tatler Asia
OSLO, NORWAY- DECEMBER 10: Dmitrij Muratov and Maria Ressa attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony 2021 at Oslo City Town Hall on December 10, 2021 in Oslo, Norway. (Photo by Rune Hellestad - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Above  Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov receive the Nobel Peace Prize 2021 on December 10, 2021 in Oslo, Norway. (Photo: Rune Hellestad - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

People might grow up imagining the possibility of winning an Oscar or Olympic gold, but not usually a Nobel Prize. How was it for you, and how did you prepare for your Nobel Lecture?
I couldn’t have imagined this. It was shocking. Then to look at all the statistics: I was the only woman [laureate] in 2021. And, in the time the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded, only the 18th out of over 1,000. I felt like the responsibility is almost crushing: writing that speech was one of the most difficult things to do. What we do with it is the challenge now.

So, how did you get here: Nobel laureate, internationally acclaimed investigative journalist, global hero?
I think about living a life that has meaning. As a journalist, [having worked] in four different news groups, I’ve helped write standards and ethics manuals; that’s like an honour code. We each try to build our life, and we try to build it looking for meaning. In the age of social media, meaning is so much harder to find. But what I learnt really early on is that meaning isn’t something someone gives you; it’s every single little choice you make that builds meaning in your life. And I think in my case, it was journalism that made me draw lines [and understand the] golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

So, how did I get here? I don’t think you can set out to get an award—I think that makes you a cartoon version of yourself. I think what you try to do is you build a life of meaning and then these things happen. It’s the same as if someone asks, “So how do I make money?”—if your goal is to make money, you will not be the best person you can be.

Journalism gave me a sense of mission, a sense of purpose; it gave my life meaning. You live the best life you think you can, and you do that by setting goals outside of yourself. You look at impact—you don’t look at gain.

Your very powerful acceptance speech addressed the harm that technology has done, allowing a “virus of lies to infect each of us”, and asking people to “imagine a world of peace, trust and empathy”. Tell us more about writing that.
I don’t think it’s [the win is] a triumphant moment: people think this prize is a chance to celebrate, but it’s also a signal that things could get a lot worse. The last time a journalist [Carl von Ossietzky] was given this prize was almost 80 years ago, in 1936. And then he languished in a Nazi concentration camp. So that was the first thing I put in the speech. Because of the Second World War, fascism, the atom bomb, the worst of what humanity can do to itself [happened]. The Nobel Committee was signalling: we’re here again; this is it.

I had the hardest time writing the Nobel lecture, because I knew what was at stake for the Philippines, for journalists and, frankly, for the world. I’ve been talking for five years about the role technology has played in manipulating people all around the world—in destroying democracy. The Philippines itself is at an existential moment. It doesn’t matter how we vote. If the information ecosystem determined by these American social media platforms doesn’t change, we can’t have the integrity of elections; there’s a line I put into almost every speech: “We will not have the integrity of elections if we don’t have the integrity of facts.” And right now, we don’t have the integrity of facts.

See also: How This Surgeon Is Using Social Media To Battle Misinformation

You called out [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg by name. Why did you use the platform for that? And do you think he listened?
Well, if he didn’t, he’d singlehandedly drive the world to fascism. Mark Zuckerberg is not the leader of a country; he is the leader of a company that controls, now, the way humanity behaves. That’s daunting, and it has caused violence that’s unimaginable: genocide in Myanmar and what are we living through in the Philippines. I have nothing against him; he’s a bright man. But we’ve seen Facebook continue to make decisions that are harmful to its users; there’s [whistleblower] Frances Haugen who has come out with more than 10,000 internal documents [showing that]. So we know about this. I think it’s time for us to demand better.

You’re obviously brave. But you faced ten arrest warrants in the space of two years and have had several criminal complaints brought against you because of your work. Are you ever scared?
You’re always scared. The rule of law is fragile, and when we have these repeated [attacks]—I call it “death by a thousand cuts”—when we allow a political reason for filing a case, you weaken the entire system of the rule of law. But we will fight and win them in court. And I appeal to the justices, to the judges, to go back to the rule of law.

Did I ever think I’d be arrested? No. Did I ever think that I would be repeatedly arrested? Absolutely not. Did I ever think that the law would be weaponised? No. But what do you do when you’re confronted with that reality? Do you buckle down and accept it? No. I know my rights were violated. And because they were, I can [speak out] with certainty.

Do you buckle down and accept it?
No. I know my rights were violated. And because they were, I can [speak out] with certainty.

Do you think that willingness to speak out has something to do with how you were brought up? Filipinos tend to keep quiet, but you continue to fight.
I am a product of the Philippines as much as I am of the United States and of the schools that I went to, and of the friends that I have had; we shape each other. It’s tough to answer that question. But I will say this: I always have a guiding light. When I was much younger, it was [the golden rule]. Then I got to Princeton, it was the honour code. For every person who signs the honour code, you pledge, not just not to cheat, you also pledge to report anyone else you see, who is violating the honour code.

In the Philippines, though, that is frowned on; that’s what you call a snitch.

And this is why we have an endemic corruption: because you become complicit. I go back to that phrase “silence is complicity”. When will you allow the mafia to rule? Well, we’ve kind of done that. So it goes back to that: what is your honour? Because when you’re silent and someone is doing something that is horrendous, like killing people, for example, you become complicit. You enable that to happen in your world.

Journalists aren’t perfect, but we make up for not being perfect by being transparent. When you make a mistake, you tell people what it is
Maria Ressa
Tatler Asia
Above  Her inspiring advocacy and tireless work will surely continue to fuel the fight for free speech

How did your upbringing influence you?
My father died when I was a year old and then my mum migrated to the United States. It was a shock to go from the Philippines—where my family spoke Tagalog—to this classroom in a public school in the middle of winter in the States. I almost didn’t speak for a year, literally because there was so much to learn. So I think my biggest lesson was that there isn’t just one view of the world. And maybe that’s part of the reason I question everything. Then my stepfather—he’s really my father, the one who raised us—is Italian American.

So our family life itself was an amalgamation of these different cultures. This is a great lesson for a journalist: that there’s more than one way to interpret everything; that you want to understand the root causes, instead of jumping to conclusions.

If you weren’t a journalist, what would you be?
I don’t know! The reason I didn’t do theatre or music [Ressa was an English major at Princeton University, and also studied theatre and dance] was because it was
so focused on one thing; like when I was practising the piano or the violin for All-State [student music competition], I would practise six hours a day. When you put that much of yourself in, then you take away other parts of yourself. It also means you’re building yourself for other people’s approval. I really didn’t want to live a life like that. [Whereas journalism,] it’s about impact in our world. It’s about making the world better. It is about leaving it better than when you came into it.

See also: Ian Yee Is Using Journalism To Enact Social Change In Malaysia

Is there anything you regret as a journalist?
No, no! Journalists aren’t perfect, but we make up for not being perfect by being transparent. When you make a mistake, you tell people what it is. That’s the way I look at power: the person holding the power needs to turn the guardrails on themselves, because the people with the greatest power are the ones who must have the most stringent conscience; they cannot use that power for self-gain. There’s that balance.

And I guess that’s why I called out Mark Zuckerberg, because at a certain point, how much money is worth the destruction of a democracy? When you’re leading a country, how many corrupt deals can you do before you say, “That’s all I’m going to do because the next generation will suffer”?

How would you convince Filipinos who may not understand, agree, or believe in what you stand for?
I think the first thing is, let’s not get lost in the content; let’s move all the way up to the algorithms that distribute the lies. Then move further upstream to the way our data is being collected, suctioned by AI, for these algorithms to manipulate us; this should be controlled. Many newsgroups are coming together for the elections to fact-check the news; share data from our academic partners that will show people how they are being manipulated; and then get the lawyers in.

This should not be happening with impunity; it’s like a crime that is happening in plain sight, and the more you do it, the more it encourages other people to do it. Every Filipino who cares about the truth needs to jump in now.

Tatler Asia
Above  Photo: Mark Nicdao

How important are the upcoming Philippines elections?
You cannot have integrity of elections if you don’t have integrity of facts. And this brings us back full circle. What we have noticed and chronicled through data is that both the Duterte administration and the Marcos family have repeatedly used disinformation networks to manipulate Filipinos. That’s how we have seen history revised in front of our eyes. It’s a massive challenge. So, the question for every Filipino today is how important are the facts to you? What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth? Here’s what’s at stake again, not just for the Philippines, but for the world.

What else do you want to do?
Oh my gosh, I want to see a vibrant democracy, working institutions, checks and balances. Corruption brought down to sustainable levels. Doing the right thing needs to be enough of an incentive to keep our people in the Philippines building a better world. Ang dami kaya [there’s so much to do], Karen! We need to use technology to fight technology. We can’t be manipulated. We can’t be treated like Pavlov’s dogs, which is what the Philippines has become for a company like Facebook. Yes, we’re partners with Facebook also, and you can do both.

I’m so worried about the next generation, growing up on social media, who are shaped by social media and what social media reinforce. It is the worst of human nature. It rewards anger, hate, nastiness, at a scale that I didn’t think was Filipino. So what do I want? So much!

So are you still optimistic?
We have to be optimistic, otherwise, there’s nothing left. That’s part of the reason we took the position we did in Rappler because I also know that we’re on the right side of history.

So what will you sacrifice for the truth? You’ve got to do it. This is it, guys. If you’re listening: Avengers assemble; this is the moment.

Quotes have been edited for clarity and length. Watch the full conversation in the special edition of Tatler Talks below.


Read more content on Icons.

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.