Disinformation harms humanity: Maria Ressa

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa of the Philippines holds her speech during the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony on December 10, 2021 in Oslo. Odd Andersen, AFP/FILE

MANILA – Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa said on Wednesday that showing courage, protecting facts and building trust in journalism are essential to protecting humanity from online misinformation and lies, which not only change behavior but also threaten the essence of democracy.

Ressa, recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, spoke at the Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines’ Digicon Valley 2022, a gathering of Internet marketing professionals.

She and another Rappler reporter were convicted of cyber defamation for an article Rappler published years ago for allegedly violating a law that didn’t even exist when the story was published.

While Facebook has taken down network pages and users linked to inauthentic behavior, Ressa said there are still many other pages out there aimed at discrediting journalists like her.

At IMMAP DigiCon Valley 2022, the Rappler CEO said she was waking up to cyberattacks, in addition to “baseless” cases filed against her, all of which are aimed at discrediting her credibility as a journalist.

“Here’s the stuff I had to live with, you know. I woke up in the morning and saw everything about me…you know, I have eczema, but what they did was is that they made my skin worse. They thought I “I would be embarrassed. But you know what, when you know you’re being attacked and you know the goal is to shut you up, don’t shut up,” Ressa said.

Ressa said many other female journalists are victims of online abuse. A UNESCO study showed that 73% of female journalists have experienced online abuse, 25% have received threats of physical violence and death threats, while 20% have been attacked or abused offline in connection with online abuse, she said.

Social media has played a huge role not only in shaping the credibility of people, facts and organizations, but also in influencing people’s behavior, which could even change the landscape of democracy, Ressa said.

Misinformation, she said, is “harmful” to humanity. It can change behaviors that could dictate election results, she added.

This is true around the world, even in the Philippines, she said. Ressa shared that a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study found that lies spread 6 times faster than facts, she said.

“When you hear the lie from so many different places and you hear it repeatedly, it’s kind of like Pavlov’s dogs, you become conditioned. So social media has become a behavior modification system and we’ve seen it in many countries around the world. If you don’t have the integrity of the facts, we don’t have the integrity of the elections,” Ressa said.

“The behavior modification system has impacted the integrity of our elections. When you undermine the integrity of elections, you impact the quality of our democracies,” she said.

How then can journalists maintain the integrity of facts today?

To do so, there should be laws that protect interrelated aspects such as freedom of expression, content moderation, user security and data privacy, among others, she said.

Data confidentiality must also be protected against people using information for surveillance purposes, she said.

Almost everyone uses the internet on a daily basis, which in turn contributes to data collected by businesses that can be analyzed and studied using big data.

“The key point is to stop surveillance for profit. Why should these companies own our clones? Shouldn’t we own our private thoughts, right?” she says.

Courage and faith in the good are also crucial to protecting the truth in the age of misinformation, she said.

“Believe in the goodness of human nature because to be good you have to believe that there is good in the world. And then the last part is, ask yourself this question: what are you going to sacrifice for the truth because your courage determines the fate of humanity,” Ressa said.

Ressa leads a team of fact checkers who work with several organizations such as Agence France-Presse to fight fake news.

A recent Pulse Asia survey published on October 11 showed that the majority of Filipinos, 9 out of 10, believe that fake news remains a problem in the country.

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