Maria Ressa ’86 was born in the Philippines, immigrated with her parents to the United States in 1973, and returned to the country of her birth on a Fulbright scholarship after college. It was a heady time to be in the Philippines: The People Power Revolution was overthrowing the country’s long-serving authoritarian leader, Ferdinand Marcos.
Ressa had studied theater at Princeton, but what she found in the Philippines “was real-life theater. During that year, I learned a ton about politics.”
With that experience, Ressa became a journalist — CNN’s bureau chief in Manila and then Jakarta, then head of the leading TV network in the Philippines, ABS-CBN News. When three journalists on her staff were kidnapped by an al-Qaida affiliate in the Philippines, she negotiated their release. That led to her book, 10 Days, 10 Years: From Bin Laden to Facebook.
In 2011, Ressa co-founded Rappler, a smaller, leaner, quicker news operation that leveraged the Philippines’ rapidly expanding social-media networks to become one of the country’s leading sources of news.
Then, in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president. Soon after, Rappler became a target for the authoritarian leader and his allies on social media. Now, Ressa and the company face regulatory and legal challenges, online death threats, and even the possibility of prison for criminal charges that she says are trumped up.
“It’s like that movie Inception,” she said in a Skype interview in March. “You go to a dream world and change reality. In this case, social media is the dream world, and when you connect social media to real power, you can have this kind of change.”
“The social-media campaign machinery created by Duterte tapped the anger, but it didn’t weaponize it until after he took office.”
— Maria Ressa ’86
Initially, Ressa sensed great possibilities for social media to promote democracy. “We saw this great potential, and we made it a reality,” she said. “We felt technology and data were going to be how journalism would survive. We saw Rappler as quality journalism in your pocket.” Rappler’s growth was driven by the nearly universal use of Facebook in the Philippines, especially by millennials.
At first, Rappler took Duterte — a candidate known for his harsh rhetoric and his support for extrajudicial crackdowns against drug dealers — more seriously than other media outlets. During the campaign, Rappler invited five presidential candidates to a forum, but only Duterte, the mayor of Davao City, showed up, and they gave him the stage — a crucial chance for a then-lagging candidate to get exposure.
Riding on a wave of voter anger, Duterte ended up winning the election in May 2016. “The social-media campaign machinery created by Duterte tapped the anger, but it didn’t weaponize it until after he took office,” Ressa said. “Anyone who questioned him would be cruelly bashed. It was very personal.” According to a January report by Human Rights Watch, more than 12,000 suspected drug dealers have been killed, most gunned down in their homes or on the street, since Duterte became president.
For Rappler, the attacks on social media intensified in October 2016, when it published a series on propaganda, the first of which was titled “Propaganda War: Weaponizing the Internet” about the use of trolls and fake online accounts in the country’s politics. Ressa began receiving as many as 90 hate messages an hour. “It showed us the machine had turned and targeted us,” she said. Ressa instituted counseling for her 100 employees and heightened security measures. “I’ve been a war-zone correspondent,” she said. “You always need to be prepared.”
While Rappler journalists continued to report the news as best they could, an online campaign by Duterte’s allies to unfollow Rappler was launched. Then, in February 2017, the government’s regulatory body for securities began an investigation into whether Rappler’s ownership structure was illegal. In March 2018, the National Bureau of Investigation opened multiple cases involving Rappler, including tax evasion and cyber-libel. Ressa found herself facing five to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Ressa said the charges are false and the company is fighting them. “I try not to think about it,” she said. “What I’m hoping is that Rappler continues reporting.” With the levers of government increasingly concentrated among Duterte and his loyalists, Rappler “seems like a hopeless case, tilting at windmills. But we are a democracy. So it’s important to keep raising the alarm when transgressions happen. They say you can’t fight city hall,” she said, “but that’s what journalists do.”