Let me tell you why the rest of the world needs to pay attention to what happens in the Philippines: 2021 was the sixth year in a row that Filipinos – out of all global citizens – spent the most time on the internet and on social media. Despite slow internet speeds, Filipinos uploaded and downloaded the largest number of videos on YouTube in 2013. Four years later, 97% of our country’s citizens were on Facebook. When I told that statistic to Mark Zuckerberg in 2017, he was quiet for a beat. “Wait, Maria,” he finally responded, looking directly at me, “where are the other three percent?”
At the time, I laughed at his glib quip. I’m not laughing anymore.
The Philippines is ground zero for the terrible effects that social media can have on a nation’s institutions, its culture, and the minds of its populace. Every development that happens in my country eventually happens in the rest of the world – if not tomorrow, then a year or two later. As early as 2015, there were reports of account farms creating social media phone-verified accounts, or PVAs, from the Philippines. That same year, a report showed that most of Donald Trump’s Facebook likes came from outside the United States and that one in every 27 Trump followers was from the Philippines.
The absence of the rule of law in the virtual world has been devastating. We live in only one reality, and the breakdown of the rule of law globally was ignited by the lack of a democratic vision for the internet in the 21st century. Impunity online naturally led to impunity offline, destroying existing checks and balances. What I have witnessed and documented over the past decade is technology’s godlike power to infect each of us with a virus of lies, pitting us against one another, igniting, even creating, our fears, anger, and hatred, and accelerating the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world.
In 2021, I was one of two journalists awarded the Nobel peace prize. The last time a journalist received this award was in 1935. The winner, a German reporter named Carl von Ossietzky, couldn’t accept because he was languishing in a Nazi concentration camp. By giving the honour to me and Dmitry Muratov of Russia, the Norwegian Nobel committee signalled that the world was at a similar historical moment, another existential point for democracy. In my Nobel lecture, I said that an invisible atom bomb exploded in our information ecosystem, that technology platforms have given geopolitical powers a way to manipulate each of us individually.
Just four months after the Nobel ceremony, Russia invaded Ukraine, using metanarratives it had seeded via online propaganda since 2014, when it invaded Crimea, annexed it from Ukraine, and installed a puppet state. The tactic? Suppress information, then replace it with lies. By viciously attacking facts with its cheap digital army, the Russians obliterated the truth and replaced the silenced narrative with its own – in effect, that Crimea had wilfully acceded to Russian control. The Russians created fake online accounts, deployed both armies, and exploited the vulnerabilities of the social media platforms to deceive real people. For the American-owned platforms, the world’s new information gatekeepers, those activities created more engagement and brought in more money. The goals of the gatekeepers and the disinformation operatives aligned.
That was the first time we became aware of information warfare tactics that would soon be deployed around the world, from Duterte to Brexit to Catalonia to Trump supporters’ “Stop the Steal”. Eight years later, on February 24, 2022, using the same techniques and the same metanarratives, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. This is how disinformation, bottom up and top down, can manufacture a whole new reality.
Less than three months later, the Philippines fell into the abyss. May 9, 2022, was election day, when my country voted for a successor to Duterte. Although there were 10 candidates for president, only two mattered: opposition leader and vice-president Leni Robredo, and Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the only son and namesake of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972 and stayed in power for nearly 21 years.
The evening of the election, Marcos Jr took an early, commanding lead and never dropped it. The election was a showcase for the impact of disinformation on social media that from 2014 to 2022 transformed Marcos from a pariah into a hero. The disinformation networks didn’t just come from the Philippines, but included global networks, such as one from China taken down by Facebook in 2020. They helped change history in front of our eyes.
You can’t have integrity of elections if you don’t have integrity of facts. Facts lost. History lost. Marcos won.
Today, we need new global institutions and a reiteration of the values we hold dear. We are standing on the rubble of the world that was, and we must have the foresight and courage to imagine, and create, the world as it should be: more compassionate, more equal, more sustainable. A world that is safe from fascists and tyrants.
Democracy is fragile. You have to fight for every law, every safeguard, every institution, every story. You must know how dangerous it is to suffer even the tiniest cut. This is why I say to us all: we must hold the line.
This is what many westerners, for whom democracy seems a given, need to learn from us. What you do matters in this present moment of the past, when memory can be so easily altered. Please ask yourself the same question my team and I ask every day: What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?
This is an edited extract from How to Stand Up to a Dictator (WH Allen). Join Maria Ressa in conversation with the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, on 21 November. Book a Guardian Live ticket at membership.theguardian.com
‘Maria’s legacy will be felt for generations’
When you think of a superhero, you may not imagine a 5ft 2in woman with a pen in her hand. But today, journalists operating in authoritarian countries need superpowers.
They face daily threats to their reputation, their freedom, and – in some places – their life.
To say that Maria Ressa fights against the odds is an understatement. In an autocracy, a journalist’s opponent is the state – which makes policy, controls the police, hires the prosecutors and readies the prisons. It has an army of bots active online to vilify and undermine anyone deemed an opponent. It has the power to take down broadcasters and online sites. Most important: it has a need to control the message in order to survive. Its existence depends on ensuring there is only one side to every story.
As a famous philosopher once said, there is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice. Yet under President Duterte, the Philippine government did not hesitate to use legal tools to try to intimidate perceived opponents. The authorities revoked Maria’s media licence and filed civil suits that threaten to bankrupt her. She faces a barrage of bogus prosecutions that threaten her with life behind bars.
Not because she has committed any crime – but because the leaders in her country do not want to hear criticism. So she has a choice: toe the line and be safe, or risk everything to do her job. She has not hesitated to choose the latter.
Maria’s struggle is one that defines our times. Data gathered in the last few years show that more journalists all over the world are being imprisoned and killed than at any time since records began. And there are, today, more autocracies in the world than there are democracies.
This is why Maria refuses to leave the country, and is determined to defend the charges against her. She knows that an independent voice like hers is always valuable, but becomes essential when others are silent. She is holding up the ceiling for anyone else who dares to speak. Because if Maria, a US citizen and a Nobel Peace laureate, can be locked up for doing her work, what chance is there for others?
Elie Wiesel warned us that there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. Maria’s legacy will be felt for generations – because she never failed to protest, to try to bend the arc of history towards justice. And when young Filipino students study history, they will find that the first Filipino person ever to be awarded the Nobel peace prize was a courageous journalist determined to tell the truth. I hope, for the sake of future generations, they will be inspired by her example.
How to Stand Up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa (Ebury, £20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.