Harvard Kennedy School visiting fellow Maria Ressa warns that authoritarians are weaponizing social media with the aid of tech companies, who prioritize fear over facts in the name of engagement and profit.

Featuring Maria Ressa
42 minutes 13 seconds

The Nobel Committee has awarded its 2021 Peace Prize to Maria Ressa for being a fearless defender of independent journalism and freedom of expression in the Philippines, and particularly for her work exposing the human rights abuses of authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte. But the prize is also a de facto acknowledgement that Ressa has become something of a one-woman personification of the struggles, perils, and promise of journalism in the age of social media. A longtime investigative reporter and bureau chief for CNN, she began thinking about how social networks could be used for both good and evil while covering terrorism and seeing how it was used to drive both radicalism and build movements for positive change. She originally founded Rappler, her Manila-based online news organization, as a Facebook page, but now she says that one-time Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg’s dominance as a worldwide distributor of news has become a boon to repressive regimes and a threat to democracy worldwide. Rappler’s mission statement is to speak truth to power and build communities of action for a better world—but for Ressa, speaking truth to power has come at a high personal cost. She has been subjected to harassment, criminal and civil legal action, and even arrest, even as she has refused to back off even an inch. When we spoke for this interview, Ressa was just finishing a visiting fellowship at the Kennedy School, where she was affiliated with both the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and the Center for Public Leadership.

Episode Notes:

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for 35 years and co-founded Rappler, the top digital only news site that is leading the fight for press freedom in the Philippines. For her courage and work on disinformation, Ressa was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time’s Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine’s world’s top 50 thinkers. In 2020, she received the Journalist of the Year award, the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, the Most Resilient Journalist Award, the Tucholsky Prize, the Truth to Power Award, and the Four Freedoms Award.

Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN’s Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network’s Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.

Hosted and produced by

Ralph Ranalli

Co-produced by

Susan Hughes

For more information please visit our webpage or contact us at PolicyCast@hks.harvard.edu.

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Intro (Maria Ressa): So I always say this when you don't have facts, you can't have truth. And when you don't have truth, you can't have trust. If you don't have trust, you have nothing. Without trust, nothing is possible. That is the world we live in today. And that is courtesy of the platforms that deliver the news.

Intro (Ralph Ranalli): The Nobel Committee has awarded its 2021 Prize for Peace to Maria Ressa for being a fearless defender of independent journalism and freedom of expression, particularly for her work exposing the human rights abuses of authoritarian Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. But the prize is also a de facto acknowledgement that Ressa has become something of a one-woman personification of the struggles, perils, and promise of journalism in the age of social media. A longtime investigative reporter and bureau chief for CNN, she began thinking about how social networks could be used for both good and evil while covering terrorism and seeing how it was used to drive both radicalism and build movements for positive change. She originally founded Rappler, her online news organization, as a Facebook page, but now she says that one-time Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg’s company’s dominance as a worldwide distributor of news has become a boon to repressive regimes and a threat to democracy worldwide. Rappler’s mission statement is to speak truth to power and build communities of action for a better world—but for Ressa, speaking truth to power has come at a high personal cost. She has been subjected to harassment, criminal and civil legal action, and even arrest by the Duterte government, even as she has refused to back off even an inch. 

Ralph Ranalli: Well, hello, Maria, welcome to Harvard Kennedy School Policy Cast.

Maria Ressa: Thanks for having me here.

Ralph Ranalli: Well, it is truly an honor and joy to have you here. But I guess we’ve got to get first things first out of the way. Tell me about that moment when you heard that you had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Maria Ressa: My gosh. So it was a strange thing, because I was on a live webinar and we were actually talking about the future of independent media in Southeast Asia. I was with the editor of Malaysiakini who himself had just lost a court case and then the editor in chief of Tempo in Indonesia. So Malaysia, Indonesia, and I was there for the Philippines and I kind of knew it was going to be announced. And in the middle of this, I saw my cell phone light up cause it was next to the computer and it just said “Norway.” So I thought, "Oh my gosh, they're so kind. They're telling all the people who didn't win first before they announce it." And so I messaged them and I just muted the audio and I picked up the phone and they had the audio and the video. So Norway recorded the audio and the Malaysian group recorded the video. And you can see in the video exactly when I realized that he wasn't telling me who the winner was, he was telling me I was the winner. And I always say it's like that painting the scream. And yet he also said, because he had the driest tone and I was like, I couldn't really believe it. And then he said, "By the way, you can't tell anyone until it's officially announced," and it was like another 15 minutes. But then I was like, "Okay, thank you." What do you say? Right. Nothing really prepared me for that also because I didn't believe it, I guess that was it. And it didn't hit me until... So I went back to the webinar and I answered, we had a conversation.

And then when the news was announced, that was when they asked me. And that's when it kind of hit me that... But the thing was, I never felt it was about me. I've kind of been a placeholder for journalists for a while, in the Philippines, because I don't shut up. And I think really the new year's Eve of 2018 going into 2019 was when the Committee to Protect Journalists, brought journalists together in America. And then there I was coming in from outside and I was supposed to represent all the other journalists around the world. And I was telling Joel Simon, the executive producer, I said, "Joel, I'm one person." But you can't look a gift horse in the mouth and at that point in time when the walls seemed to be closing in, that kind of focus, that kind of light, the New Year's Eve ball drop, was to be with 12 other journalists … was incredible. I mean, total we were a dozen journalists. So yeah, I felt... I still don't know how I feel. It's been more than a month, but I do know that this particular moment is existential on so many fronts. That the last time a journalist won this award was in 1936. And he-

Ralph Ranalli: He was in a German, a Nazi concentration camp.

Maria Ressa: Yeah. He never got to pick it up. And he died of what he went through. And now I feel like we're in that same kind of moment where the world can take a right or a left turn. It's those sliding doors. And if we do the right thing, if we put guardrails on the technology that is being used to insidiously manipulate us, then we have a chance of saving our democracy of saving our shared reality, of allowing our minds to continue to rule us, of allowing our better angels to kind of pull us together, or we could continue this path that's been started by social media. It's a path of anger and hate where digital authoritarians all around the world have used an us against them style of leadership to divide people to... I have never seen America like this before. But it's not just Americans in the entire world. And that is by design. That is the design of the platform that delivers our news.

Ralph Ranalli: Everyone knows who you are now. Maria Ressa, Nobel Prize winner. Maria Ressa, founder of a digital startup. Maria Ressa, crusader for ethical and independent journalism. But I’m not sure everyone knows how truly worthy you are of this mantle of representing the world's journalists, because you have had a long and distinguished career as a journalist before Rappler and before Duterte. Can you tell us a bit about what attracted you to journalism in the first place and tell us a bit about the evolution of your career? 

Maria Ressa: I mean, I think of everything as micro and macro. That's how you think as a journalist, and on the macro scale, I realize early on that information is power and that power could lead to justice. So why do you become a journalist? The mission of journalism is to hold power, to account, to speak truth to power, to be the connective tissue between the people and power. It's a reflected power from the people that's in the US constitution. It's in the Philippine constitution. In many democracies around the world. But I think on a personal level, I just have always felt that it is an incredible honor to be able to ask these questions of people who are doing things. I think early on, I was a really shy introvert.

And when I moved to the United States, I needed to learn, I didn't have any of the cultural signals. And I knew how little I knew. And then as I got a older, it was what drew me to... I think part of it is that you can ask people questions, that you can step into someone's shoes no matter who it is. I think that's the part that... And part of it is because I've come from more than one world. So as a person, it was always, I always felt like a privilege. And also because I went into CNN at the time when it was chicken noodle news. I started, I was a freelance... They hired me as a freelance reporter, like the end of '86 '87. And then I began the Manila Bureau shortly after that. And I just thought it was incredible that someone would pay me to do the things I would've done anyway. So yeah. So sorry, long rambling answer. But I felt like I was curious, I always wanted to learn. I never felt like I had ever done enough. And so I wanted to... You don't have to do everything yourself. You can learn a lot from other people. And then at a certain point, when I was talking to leaders, there was like a personal thing of, I want to had to understand how leaders led. And then you begin to realize maybe after the first decade or so, I began to realize that leaders strengths and weaknesses will determine the strengths and weaknesses of the organization.

Whether it's a small club, a school, a country. It's the same. So that leader's weaknesses become the weaknesses of the organization. And regardless of whether you're in the east or the west, because in the end Western institutions like to say it's about institutions, but oftentimes, look at what happened with president Trump—the personality of the leader often dictates, creates the environment for how the organization grows or shifts.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. So you worked for CNN for a long time. You did a lot of work investigating terrorism.

Maria Ressa: So not really. I was the Manila Bureau Chief. And then I became the Jakarta Bureau Chief in 1995. And then when 9/11 happened, I led the investigations into it because it was a memory for me. I was on a treadmill in Jakarta when the towers fell and it was something that was in an interrogation document of probably the first pilot that was recruited by by Al-Qaeda. At that point, it wasn't Al-Qaeda yet. It would become Al-Qaeda. And he had told the Philippine police, he was arrested in the Philippines in 1995. And he had told them that they had these outrageous plans, outrageous, meaning the police did made a judgment call, but one of the plans included hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings. That included the world trade center, the Sears building in Chicago. My gosh, the Trans America building, Pentagon. So when I saw the Pentagon in the world trade center, it was a memory. And I went back to my closet. That was still in the days when there were no digital files and you have a roll of decks. And I went through the paper files and I found it. And as we were going into overnight coverage at CNN, I was getting ready to go back Manila. And that was, Kelly Arena was then the justice department reporter. And she went after what... I guess I faxed the document. And then she went after the FBI because it was also shared with the FBI and it took our legal a week to vet everything before we actually came up with the story. So anyway, sorry. I have these memories. 

Ralph Ranalli: They're wonderful memories, but you wrote a book about-

Maria Ressa: I did. Yeah. So it became an obsession to a degree, right? It was in a way, every step led me to where I am today because when 9/11 happened, the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Muhammad lived in the Philippines in 1994, his nephew Ramsey Yusuf who did the truck bombing of the world trade center in the basement in 1993, he had fled to the Philippines and they had tested what they would later, these attacks they would later do, in security in the Philippines. Because we, a former U.S. colony had the same systems as the United States. So the shoe bomber, for example. They tested that by putting some of the elements of the bomb, they tested it through the airport security in Manila, and they actually detonated liquid bomb in 1994 in the Philippines. It was a Philippine airlines flight going to Narita. Anyway, so what happened was like going back over these intelligence documents and then tracking the people, they named one by one. So I went through link analysis, which is what law enforcement began to call it. Then after link analysis, then they became more sophisticated. And I was with them. It became social network analysis. And at that point it was really trying to figure out how this virulent ideology, how terrorism spreads. And it spreads. So at actually part of what drove me during that time period, and this was also important in the formation and how we created Rappler, was the Framingham heart study here in Massachusetts. Because one of the Harvard professors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, who's now I think at USC, they wrote this book where they took the Framingham heart study, and they proved that things, emotions, ideas, actions spread through three degrees of influence. So they called it the three degrees of influence rule. So that's like a whole scope.

Ralph Ranalli: Just to go back. The Framingham heart study is a very large, long term study of a specific group people.

Maria Ressa: And three generations.

Ralph Ranalli: And three generations in Framingham, Mass., that's yielded some incredible data. Please continue.

Maria Ressa: Yeah. So what that showed was the very first time I really began to think of how emotions spread through large groups of people. It was things like smoking or gaining weight, obesity, emotions like anger, even loneliness. And I could be wrong in these stats, but if you are lonely, your friend has like a 25% chance of feeling lonely because you do. And then your friend's friend, the second degree has... Sorry. So it's not. 25% is a second degree. And then 15% is the third degree, but I will find those stats for you. But that's from the three degrees of influence rule. So you affect the people you are in touch with, kind of like epidemiology, kind of like a virus. So this was how, if you think about it as, how does radicalization spread, how does the ideology of terrorism spread? That was a framework. It helped me understand. And then that formed, actually doing that, turning it upside down. I was like, if the terrorists can do that, then why can't we, we journalists use it for good? Why can't we use technology to help build institutions bottom up? Because I was really tired of just covering the constant corruption scandals that we had. And then after that I wrote my second book and I thought about what we could do with the tech. And that was when the idea for Rappler came about. And it was social media for social good.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. And it's a bit ironic, right? Because now you're here at Harvard at the Kennedy school. And I could probably throw a rock from here to Kirkland house where Mark Zuckerberg first started Facebook and now you're here. And originally Rappler, the precursor to Rappler was a Facebook page, right?

Maria Ressa: It was. Yeah. We called it Move pH. And if Facebook had better search, I may not have launched the website. But look, I think there was a period of time when it was social media for social good. I mean, look at 2011, the Arab spring, and then very quickly by 2014, the end of 2014 to 2015, it became the Arab winter. Because that kind of asymmetrical war, which is what happened, it's warfare of information, it's warfare for public opinion, it's warfare for action. That, what the activists were able to do once they showed the way, was then hijacked by the military, by the government. And so that's when I became the Arab winter and the people who actually were behind that, Wael Ghonim, the guy, the Egyptian-American with Google, he warned me about it early on. But I could still see all the good things that he could do. But right now I will say, I think the greed of your non-alumni has really drastically made our world darker, bleaker,  and has encouraged the worst of human nature. So, reel them in.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. So what do you think  are some reasonable first steps to reeling it in? In terms of that vision that you originally had about a social media that is actually positive. What do you think are some first steps that are doable and workable?

Maria Ressa: I mean, look, I think we had it for a while. I would say from... We started Rappler in 2012, the website. So 2012 to 2015, I would say. And we largely lived on Facebook. I mean, Facebook now is the world's largest distributor of news. And yet by design, the platform itself is actually biased against facts, and this is a Massachusetts study. MIT did a study that showed in 2018 that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts on social media. I mean, that's not a surprise to a journalist because facts are really boring. We've always known that.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. Exactly. And what's the old saying? A lie is halfway around the world before the truth has laced up its shoes?

Maria Ressa: Yes. But the thing is with news organizations, you realize that you just... It's like going to the gym. You continue doing your work. Even when the people you serve don't care about it because, when disaster hits or when news hits, they will come to you and you must be at your strongest. So that kind of like, delayed gratification wasn't there for your ex alumni. Oh, he wasn't even an alumni. Wasn't there for Facebook. And so what we saw and it wasn't just Facebook. So let me not also... It's social media in general. And what we've seen now. So if you think about like, if the platform that delivers news is biased against facts, it's biased against journalism. Then what are you getting? By design, the algorithms that deliver content to you actually are weighted towards emotional content. And you saw this in the Frances Haugen papers. What they actually showed was that they weighteds emotions five times more and anger five times more. When anger is weighted, then you actually... they put their thumb on the scale. That's not a pipe. They decided they're going to deliver a little arsenic with your water. And 1 percent arsenic is still poisonous. So if you have a platform that prioritizes the spread of anger, hate...

And I've seen this among the radicalization of young men. This is really dangerous. Someone should have told them right off the top, this is dangerous. And what have we seen? Genocide in Myanmar. We've seen violence all around the world, that has been sparked by these types of… toxic sludge is the word I use. But it's beyond that. This changes human behavior. So I always say this when you don't have facts, you can't have truth. And when you don't have truth, you can't have trust. If you don't have trust, you have nothing. George Schultz, a hundred years old, his last op-ed and the Washington Post says with trust in the room, everything is possible. Without trust, nothing is possible. That is a world we live in today. And that is courtesy of the platforms that deliver the news.

Ralph Ranalli: Yeah. In hindsight though, you and I are approximately the same age and we both kind of came up in journalism during a time when it was being developed, the whole digital journalism sphere was being developed. And being there and remembering that time, I remember it being, a lot of it was very ad hoc and very accidental and very without intention. But something that demagogues have always known is that people are motivated by fear and people are motivated by anger because those are very primal emotions that people are hardwired to respond to. Now you put that—you mentioned greed—you put that together with profit motive. And in hindsight, it's almost like, well, what did we expect going to happen? I mean, I remember this moment while reading about the sale of the Las Vegas Review Journal, the newspaper in Las Vegas which was always sort of a watchdog for the gaming industry. And they sold the paper to Sheldon Adelson, who was a casino magnate. And they asked the CEO of Gatehouse Media, the company that sold the paper, "How could you do that? And basically his answer was, "I had a fiduciary duty to my stockholders” — to do this thing which basically went against any notion of public service and journalism whatsoever. How didn't we see that coming? That mix of what makes up demagoguery and just the nature of corporations that it's their job to make money—it's not their job to pursue the truth.

Maria Ressa: I think you have three different strands coming together in that question. So the first one is the business model itself. And Harvard professor Shahan Zuboff wrote a 750 page book on surveillance capitalism, how the technology and the money-making part of it has led us here. So that's like the economic model. I think the second part is that everyone expected technology to disrupt, but what people underestimated—and I think this is in general, governments in particular—what they underestimated was the impact of information. That you could be insidiously manipulated. Because we have had what, like decades and decades of responsible journalism, i.e. this is when it wasn't coming at you a thousand miles an hour. You could actually still think, and the market could vote for credible journalism. We're not Brandeis, more speech to cover hate speech. We're not in that world anymore. This is a different world. It's the difference between an Excel spreadsheet and big data. So that's the second point. And I think the third is that because we underestimated the impact of information technology, we didn't put regulations in place. Where's the Better Business Bureau. And because it was free, there were iterations, real-time experiments on real people. And those governments that would then come in to see, to do information operations. That's the other part. Most public discussions about this make me crazy because we think it's like misinformation. Like someone makes a mistake and that's all, and people are just being mean. No. We are being insidiously manipulated by information operations, which is a warfare tactic. And the war is in our minds. Sorry again.

Ralph Ranalli: And that's very personal for you because essentially that is what the Duterte government has done. Can you talk a little bit about that and the things that you have been subjected to?

Maria Ressa: You know, the funny thing is, I think everyone on social media has been subjected to this, but after I became a target, I was able to study it. So it is both a curse and a blessing to be the target of exponential attacks. Because if you are, then you can study it because that's your feed. No one sees all the attacks except the target of attacks. And so we actually, with Rappler, part of what gave me a lot of courage was because I was standing on firm ground. I could see the data. We gathered this data, we called it the shark tank. And it was just this year, you UNESCO along with the International Center for Journalists in cooperation with Rappler. We did a collaborative research project where we took half a million social media accounts, it was about half a million on Twitter, Facebook, and then they studied it. And it was ICFJ that did the study that showed that 60 percent of the attacks that were targeting me were meant to tear down my credibility. And 40 percent were just meant to tear down my spirit. They're just truly dehumanizing. They're two goals of making you a target. The first thing is to just pound you to silence. And the second is to create a manufactured bandwagon effect, a fake bandwagon effect. And that is where you seed a meta narrative. There's all these things. I am writing a book about this, but I think in the end, the impact of all of this is that you have this loss of trust that is so corrosive to society. And you also have people not believing in anything. I'm sitting now trying to figure out what to say in the Nobel lecture and I don't think I've lived through a time when I... Things get bad, but they've never gotten to the point where anger and hate are being thrown around like this. I've never seen an America as divided as it is today. And we saw these divisions beginning in 2010 and on Twitter maps that we were doing, but there was still a bridge. And you didn't have a leader who, when they're caught in a lie, just doubles down on the lie. I think that's the... So people don't know what to believe, that's it. So that's the end goal. The end impact of all of this is that we don't have a shared reality. So especially at the time of COVID where fear again can rule, people get isolated. And I think this is, I guess the most important thing to take out of this is that we cannot forget how humanity conquered all of the worst problems.

I compare it to the end of World War II Hiroshima. I went to Hiroshima, the 75th anniversary and the Hibakusha were... So they came out of it with the goodness of human nature. America went through this and led the world along with its allies to actually create the United Nations, to prevent the worst atrocities, the worst of what humanity can do to ourselves. This is one of those moments, but it was an invisible atom bomb that exploded in our information ecosystem. So I worry. I worry about the next generation and how their minds have been conditioned because this is, social media has become a behavior modification system. And we are Pavlov's dogs. We are being experimented on in real time.

Ralph Ranalli: I was very interested in how you've talked about values and journalism, because there's definitely a strain of thought in journalism that to have values is somehow a violation of objectivity, right?

Maria Ressa: Oh, I love this.

Ralph Ranalli: I mean, it doesn't surprise me that you come from the investigative side because of all the journalistic silos—you have breaking news, you have investigative, you have features, you have lifestyle—ff all those silos that make up journalism, investigative journalism is where you have to have values. Because you have to determine that something has gone wrong in order to decide to investigate it. And the end result of an investigation that's desired is generally some sort of fix, which means applying values to this problem. So how do you see the relationship between values and journalism and why is it important? And I have a feeling it-

Maria Ressa: No, I love-

Ralph Ranalli: You're going to say it's increasingly important these days.

Maria Ressa: I really love the question. I mean, because I guess my assumption is that the values are embedded in the mission of journalism. But thank you for the question. I don't even know how to begin to answer. In Rappler, I look for people whose values are aligned and then who also want to travel personally down a path that the company needs them to travel down. And look, what is embedded in the mission of journalism is that right is right. That there should be guardrails on power and it's public and private set, that there is a certain... That these guardrails are called laws and constitution. We derive as journalists. We derive our powers from the constitution. But I think beyond that, I was drawn to journalism because I didn't know what justice meant when I was in school.

It's like, you live your way into your set of values, and a school like Harvard, a school... I graduated from Princeton. I loved the honor code. Actually, the honor code infused something in me. And this is how I know that the students here will forever be changed by the value system of what they create. I loved the honor code when it said that when you sign the honor code, you are not just saying you are following the honor code, you are also looking all around you and you are on your honor to report anyone who violates the honor code. I think that's a great metaphor for... Yeah. Actually, it's the reality. I think that's how society works. Right? 

Ralph Ranalli: Well, yeah, the Carr Center, which is another center, the Kennedy school recently did a whole year's worth of programming on the nexus between rights and responsibilities. And that's sort of what I think you might be driving at in terms of that balance—of rights and responsibilities.

Maria Ressa: I mean, they go hand in hand, don't they? If you think about it, and I think this is where maybe we also go a little off. One of the best stories I've loved doing is Singapore, the United States,and the caning of an 18 year old American teenager, Michael Fay in 1994. Because it was where East met West for me as a young reporter. And I was able to take that American individualism and then the greater good that is Singapore, kind of this Confucianism, and it was really interesting to put them together. The individual's rights cannot impinge on the whole. They go hand in hand. So I guess, in answer to your question about values, I think that the question every reporter answers is why. Both for the reporter and for the story that you're doing. So why are you a reporter? Why are you doing this? It's not just to crank out a story. You're doing this because this should be... I guess this is the metric we measured in Rappler, because it's impact. It's the impact on your world. It's the ability to actually help make it better. How do you do that? All of those decisions are ruled by your personal values. And then every news organization has its own standards and ethics. Again, in our day, that was a given. I was there at CNN during Operation Tailwind when all of these things were tested and I loved watching people with different perspectives come together to be fair, to be accountable, those things, that is what we expect of power that you don't just brazenly, you don't act like a dictator because you can, but that you actually abdicate some of the power because you must. And so that's... Anyway, what a long-winded answer to your question, because it's a complex question. I think values underpin the mission of journalism and that mission is even more important today. If it is not rooted in values, then you can get thrown off by the incentive scheme of the internet, which is completely wrong. Sorry. It's really taken us down the path to the lowest common denominator. Down the path to junk.

Ralph Ranalli: Right. I mean, a Shorenstein Center survey in 2016 found that the overwhelming tone of the coverage of that presidential election was negative. And it's not hard to make the leap that that was because is it got people riled up. Those were the stories that got people riled up. And there weren't a lot of stories about policy and the things that were actually going to matter in people's lives. It was really the stuff that got them emotionally agitated.

Maria Ressa: But then you go back. So you take television. After I left CNN, I handled the largest network in the Philippines and the primetime newscast was a minute per minute ratings battle with our competitor. And when you do that, so television was bad enough on its own. But as a news head, I always wanted to make sure because you need to have a news agenda because you are responsible for the next generation, for the people's ability to choose good leaders in elections. So we always, even though we knew that crime and entertainment made the highest ratings, you were not going to fill your newscast with just crime and entertainment, because then you have nothing in your democracy. So we knew that, but now transpose it to social media where that kind of thinking was completely missing. And the end goal was to make as much money as possible, to keep people scrolling as long as possible. And that's why we are where we are today. It played with our minds, it encouraged this kind of emotional screaming at each other. It's scary. And then what happened? We elected... Well, that took us exactly where we are today. And I think that's part of what needs to get fixed.

Ralph Ranalli: So we're running close to time, but I wanted you to talk a little bit about, there's an exciting development with Rappler happening very soon. You're launching your tech platform.

Maria Ressa: We are. 

Ralph Ranalli: And tell me about how that fits with the Rappler's mission statement. And then maybe wrap up by telling me a little bit about what your hope is for what journalism can be in the future. This public spirited, positive influencing journalism that you're working towards.

Maria Ressa: Yeah. Look, I don't know where to begin, because it's so big. Thank you for asking the question. I think in 2016, right after the election of Duterte, I started building, we started building a tech platform. Think of a Venn diagram. This is what Rappler is. Technology, journalism and community. My elevator pitch when we were building it was we build communities of action and the food we feed our communities is journalism. I wanted to first prove that the idea worked. And then we were just the tech platform to build communities of action. Because I needed to understand and learn the tech. And in 2016 when we started building it, that was when we came under attack. So the money that was set aside for that went to our legal fees. It's taken us, it's what, 2021. That idea for the platform hasn't changed that much, but we're finally rolling it out. We've been building it since 2019, little by little bit by bit putting it together. The platform itself rolls out tonight at 1:00 AM here, and it will... So think about it like this instead of just organizationally having a newspaper, which is the way most websites, news websites are set up, we take on what the internet is. So yes, we take topics, but these topics are in different places. It is built for the web today. So that means search. When you search for something for example, we know that when you come to Rappler, if we give you more... And this is again, AB testing, the same thing that the tech platforms have done. If we give you a personalized feed, if you're a Rappler reader, it doesn't do us well. Our contextual feed giving you more of what you come to us more content that is that, is actually three times better. So there are things we've learned operating Rappler that we now are going to bring in to this platform. What's behind this platform is that we will actually bring our civic engagement partners on board. And when they come on board, they will be... Actually, I think about it as an action meter. We have a mood meter from 2012, but if you read a lot of climate change stories, instead of just getting another story, our recommendation engine will then give you communities that you can join because you care enough. And that's the idea of trying to use technology to build civic engagement in this day and age. So that's the context. I think the other part of that, what goes hand in hand with that is that the tech is in the hands of journalism when you're building it. So I've had an amazing time helping build this with our team. Building tech for a news organization changes the culture of the news organization, because you use agile development. A journalist will go top down. We look for meaning. But a tech builder, a coder needs to go bottom up. They need to atomize it to the bits and pieces. And as a person using the tech, I just feel they atomized meaning. But when you're building it, you can actually choose the design. You can choose how the data is used. You can choose how transparent you will be. So this is a massive experiment for us and I'm really happy to be rolling it out. We're rolling it out just in time for our May 2022 presidential elections, when Filipinos go to the polls and we're going to elect more than 18,000 officials, including our president and vice president.

Maria Ressa: I think the big thing for this is existential. I've used that word twice already, but it's existential for both Rappler and me. Because 35 years after the Marcos' were ousted in a people power revolt. Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. And he stayed in power for almost 21 years. He and his family were kicked out by a people power revolt. His son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is now running for president. We have exposed the networks of disinformation, the information operations that have helped his family regain power. Now he's a front runner for president. If you don't have integrity of facts, you cannot have integrity of elections. And if we lose our democracy, it is a hop, skip, and a jump to your elections. So I treat every day like it is crucial, like we must take action, we must restore the facts. I believe in a democracy where people can think and choose. These democracies that we have now globally, that are tainted by the poison running through social media, this is not a system where we can have flourishing democracy. So we're at this point: Are we going to go down the path of fascism or are we going to protect our shared reality and grow and strengthen our democracies? That's what's on the table.

Ralph Ranalli: Well, we will be watching the future of Rappler with rapt attention and we want to wish you the best of luck. And thank you so much for being here. This was a fascinating conversation.

Maria Ressa: Thank you for having me. 

Ralph Ranalli: Thanks for listening to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast. When we spoke with Maria Ressa, she was wrapping up a joint visiting fellowship at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, & Public Policy and the Center for Public Leadership. PolicyCast is a production of the Harvard Kennedy School, and on behalf of myself, the PolicyCast team, and everyone here at HKS, I’d like to wish you happy holidays and invite you to join us in the New Year for more episodes. If you’d like to give us feedback about the podcast or ask a question, please drop us a line at policycast@hks.harvard.edu.