Sometimes I read a book because I want to learn more about a specific subject. Other times I pick it up with a purposeful curiosity, open to whatever the author wants to tell me. This is one of the latter. I knew that Maria Ressa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. I knew that she is a journalist from the Philippines, where the violent populist president Duterte was in power. What the book was about exactly, well – I’ll find out. People who win the Nobel prize will have something to say, and I’m ready to listen.
So here’s what Maria Ressa’s book is about: it’s about her life and her experience as a journalist. It’s about how social media has corrupted news, profitted from lies, and undermined democracy. And it’s about what happens when the state comes for you for speaking the truth.
Ressa was raised in the US, but returned to her native Philippines and found herself working in a newsroom. Only recently freed from the constraints of the Marcos regime’s control and censorship, the country’s media was out-dated, corrupt and risk-averse. Ressa and like-minded associates threw themselves into modernising and professionalising its TV news. Her hard work and fearless investigations then landed Ressa a role on CNN, where she reported from war zones across the region, including covering Al Qaeda and its connections to the Philippines.
The Philippines was ahead of the curve on internet use and social media, and its citizens spend more time on social media than anyone else. Ressa spotted the opportunity and was a co-founder of Rappler.com, a pioneering news service that used social media to fuse professional and citizen journalism, working with an engaged user community to crowd-source its investigations. It drew the attention of Facebook, who – like many people a decade ago – saw social media as a force for positive change in the world.
That was not to last. The Philippines had a combination of an online citizenry, the English language, and cheap labour. It made it the perfect place to run internet scams, and it became the top country for online fraud. Conspiracy theories often have a connection to the Philippines – the American founders of 8Chan, the petri-dish of hate and oddity than spawned Qanon, were based there. It’s also a base for fake social media accounts and the companies that offer them.
Ressa observed how social media was being co-opted by politicians and other interests, twisted for propaganda purposes. Rappler was the first to investigate this, and Ressa warned Facebook in 2014 that its platform was being used to distort public debate and influence elections. What was happening in the Philippines would happen in Europe and the US within a couple of years, she warned. Facebook ignored these warnings.
As Ressa was fairly high profile at this point, she was able to warn Mark Zuckerberg in person. He wasn’t interested. Facebook was making too much money. “Anger is the contagious currency of Facebook’s profit machine,” Ressa writes. “Only anger, outrage and fear led to greater numbers of people using Facebook more times a day. Violence has made Facebook rich.”
We know how all of this turned out. Social media played a huge role in Trump’s election (Trump’s campaign spent $70 million on Facebook ads, if you remember, and Facebook placed staffers on his team to optimise those ads). Cambridge Analytica ha gamed social media in favour of leave in the Brexit referendum. And Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign and then government were running fake accounts and paying influencers on a huge scale – silencing political opponents, destroying the credibility of news outlets, spreading false accusations, and lining up enthusiastic champions of their own repressive policies.
“Social media has destroyed our shared reality, the place where democracy happens,” the book laments, and Ressa doesn’t mince her words. “I believe that Facebook represents one of the gravest threats to democracies in the world, and I am amazed that we have allowed our freedoms to be taken away by technology companies’ greed for growth and revenues.”
By writing about these trends, Ressa became a target for Duterte’s media machine herself. All manner of baseless accusations were levelled against her and her team, from libel to tax evasion, to Rappler being illegally foreign-owned. Multiple court cases followed, online abuse, arbitrary arrests, travel restrictions. At the point the book was written, Ressa was committed to remaining in the Philippines and seeing these legal cases through, despite the possibility of sentences that could see her in prison for life.
The book tells this story, interspersed with insights into the role of journalism in holding power to account, and ends with steps to reclaim public debate from social media. Standing up to a dictator, says Ressa, is about integrity, empathy, courage, community and the common good. She describes how Filipino civil society has organised to stand up for facts and protect debate and democracy, urging other countries to learn from it before it’s too late.
In short, How to Stand up to a Dictator is an extraordinary personal story, a passionate call to tell the truth, and a vital warning about what we risk losing to technology and greed.
- How to Stand up to a Dictator is available from Earthbound Books UK and US
- See also The People vs Tech, by Jamie Bartlett