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  • Documents on Democracy


Philippine-American journalist Maria Ressa, president of the online news site Rappler, spoke on a panel on the impact of social media on democracy beyond the West. The dialogue was part of the 2021 Copenhagen Democracy Summit, an initiative of the Alliance of Democracies. The summit was held on May 10–11 both online and in Denmark. Excerpts of Ressa's comments on whether social media can still be viewed as "liberation technology" follow:

The global South feels the excesses of technology more [than Western nations]. … Strangely what the social media platforms have shown is that … human beings as a whole have far more in common than we have differences because we've reacted the exact same way [to these excesses] regardless of country or state. But the big difference [across] our nations is that [developing countries'] institutions are incredibly weak compared to the checks and balances [that have been] developed in the West.

In 2016 the news organization I helped create, Rappler, and I wrote … that … the first casualty in [the Philippine's] battle for truth [was] the number of people killed in [President Rodrigo Duterte's] brutal drug war. … That violence was facilitated [and] fueled by American social media companies. It's ironic—based on big data analysis we reported, the networks that were manipulating us online [as well as] targeting and attacking the truth tellers and pounding to silence anyone challenging power. … They had actually created an extensive social media propaganda machine. … Five years ago, we demanded an end to impunity on two fronts—Duterte's drug war and Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook.

Today it's only gotten worse, and Silicon Valley actually since came home to roost on January 6 with mob violence on Capitol Hill [in Washington, D.C.]. We all know this now… what happens on social media doesn't stay on social media. Online violence leads to real world violence. [End Page 187] I felt like Sisyphus and Cassandra combined, repeatedly warning that our dystopian present here in the Philippines is actually your future. …

The person that has captured it best… is actually someone who looks at emergent behavior: American biologist E.O. Wilson … said we're facing paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. Social media with its highly profitable micro targeting has become a behavior modification system… We are Pavlov's dogs—experimented on in real time—and the consequences are disastrous. Facebook is the world's largest distributor of news and yet … many, many studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further [online] than boring facts. The social media platforms that deliver the facts to you are actually biased against [them] and they're biased against journalists. They are by design dividing us and radicalizing us … Society isn't as polarized as they make it. This is not a free speech issue; it is not the fault of the users. These platforms are not merely mirroring humanity, they're making all of us our worst selves; creating emergent behavior that feeds on violence, fear, uncertainty; and enabling the rise of fascism. …

Without facts you can't have truth, without truth you can't have trust, without trust we have no shared reality, and it becomes impossible to deal with the world's… existential problems—climate, coronavirus, [and] the atom bomb that exploded in our information ecosystem when journalists… lost our gatekeeping powers to tech companies. But tech abdicated responsibility for the public sphere and can't even fathom that information has to have integrity. …

There's this equally dangerous and insidious virus of lies that is in our information ecosystem. It is seated by power wanting to stay in power [and] spread by algorithms that are motivated by profit. It's a business model Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism"—the reward is our attention—and this is all linked to the fight for geopolitical power.

I think the first step that needs to happen is these guardrails have to be put on the American social media platforms that have made all of us so much more vulnerable.


From February 2021, the month that the prodemocracy Hirak (movement) resumed...


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pp. 187-191
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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