In August of 2016, investigative journalist Maria Ressa contacted Facebook with some “alarming” data: Rampant harassment and threats targeted via Facebook at people, predominantly women, in the Philippines who were critical of the “drug war” being waged by the newly elected president, Rodrigo Duterte.
“It’s targeting journalists. It’s targeting anyone who’s perceived to be critical of President Duterte,” Ressa said on the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher. “Those attacks are heinous. It brings out the worst of human nature. [They are] very personal, criminal, actually: ‘I will kill you. I will rape you.’ I mean, I think I’ve been called every animal you can think of.”
Other accounts falsely claimed that Duterte’s political enemies were working with the CIA, and Ressa’s data suggested this could be an organized bot campaign at work. Social media, she told Recode’s Kara Swisher, has been the “fertilizer” of democratic collapse in the Philippines, which should be a “cautionary tale for the United States.”
However, the company did not take down the suspicious pages until a few weeks ago, more than two years after her first report. And Ressa, the co-founder of the Filipino media company Rappler, had more access to Facebook than most political journalists: Last year, she and five other media CEOs had lunch with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the company’s annual conference F8.
“I said, ‘Mark, 97 percent of Filipinos on the internet are on Facebook,’” Ressa recalled. “I invited him to come to the Philippines because he had to see the impact of this. You have to understand the impact … He was frowning while I was saying that. I said, ‘Why, why?’ He said, ‘Oh well. What are the other 3 percent doing, Maria?’”
“We trained our whole lives on standards and ethics,” she added. “We live to the mission of journalism and we cleaned up the public’s fear. We made sure that democracy could stay alive. Well, now the platforms have it. The technology platforms have this. They don’t want to do the work. They don’t want to spend the money on it, even though they make a lot of money.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Maria.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair, I am honored to have Maria Ressa. She’s the CEO of Rappler. It’s a news website based in the Philippines that started as a Facebook page. Before co-founding the company in 2011 she was an investigative reporter at CNN and she’s a hero in journalism. You’ll find out why as you start to talk about it. She has been doing some stuff that puts her site in danger, and puts herself in danger of what’s happening in the Philippines, which is reprehensible. In any case, welcome to Recode Decode.
Maria Ressa: Thanks for having me.
So Maria, I want you to tell your story. You gave a speech, you just won an award at the International Center for foreign journalists at an event I was at. And you gave a speech in which you were talking about what’s happening. I want you to go through everything, the founding of Rappler and why you did what you did in your career.
But at the end you said we’re going to hold the line, and I want to get to that, to understand what you mean by that. It was incredibly inspiring. You don’t get inspired these days by much. But this really inspired me. I don’t get inspired by anything.
So anyways, talk about your journey. You started off as a CNN — you started off before that as a journalist somewhere else, in the Philippines.
It’s funny, before they were called startups, I went to the Philippines on a Fulbright going the other way. I grew up in New Jersey. When martial law was declared, my family left the Philippines and came to the United States.
You were originally in the Philippines?
I was born there and then my family came here in 1972/73.
How old? Were you a baby?
I was 10 years old. And then I grew up in New Jersey. I went to school in New Jersey. When I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to be.
What did your do parents do in the Philippines?
They both worked in the United States at that point.
Oh, they moved too. But what had they done previously?
My mother was working for the government at that point. And then my stepfather is Italian-American, he adopted me. That’s the name “Ressa.” When I grew up here, I was like, “I gotta figure out who I am.” Because I grew up in a neighborhood where no one was really brown. There were two families who weren’t Filipino. I applied for a Fulbright. I went back to the Philippines in 1986, the People Power Movement, and at that point that …
Corazon Aquino. And that People Power Movement triggered all of these pro-democracy movements all around the world.
And then at that point, CNN … I had very little reporting experience and they said …
Did you want to be a journalist?
I was supposed to go to law school. I had a corporate job waiting. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. And all of a sudden, I was caught up in this fever of People Power. It was amazing and I thought that …
A lot of hope.
Oh my gosh! And that, I think, fueled my entire career.
Talk about what People Power was, for people who don’t know. Let’s assume that millennials are not quite up to speed on their Filipinos.
The end of 21 years of a dictatorship, martial law of Ferdinand Marcos.
With his wife Imelda with the shoes.
With his wife Imelda with the shoes. His son now ran for vice president, became a senator. His mother is a congresswoman in the Philippines. They’re back in power. He’s contesting that he’s vice president, and that recount is going on. But for me, it was going back to the Philippines and then feeling this rush, trying to figure out identity…
Things could change.
That things were changing and that we could be part of it. And it was much more exciting than being a cog in a wheel in New York City.
Right. Exactly. And let’s be clear, Ferdinand Marcos, as comical as he was — and same thing with Imelda with their spending — was a brutal dictator.
3,200-plus people killed in nine years, but that’s now rivaled by the casualties in the drug war, which Philippine police claim they’ve killed 5,000 people in the drug war. But human rights activists put that number at 12,000-plus plus plus plus.
But this was a country that was under a brutal dictator, and then was not.
And then was not. And I think part of what happened was, unlike say South Africa, we never had justice commissions. We papered over it.
The truth and reconciliation.
Right. What happened after that is, I started a little company …
Explain why they didn’t. They didn’t because it would have been too volatile. Right? There was too much …
Do you remember, Corazon Aquino was a housewife?
Yes she was.
Who was then voted in as president in contested elections. And then the Marcoses were flown out by the United States, and then all of a sudden, she was president. This is a housewife who had never run a country, you know, we had tons of debts. While she was a moral leader, there were lots of problems that needed to be solved. Running after the Marcoses who were already outside, we began a process, and that process just ended last week when Imelda Marcos, now is found guilty of setting up Swiss bank accounts, foundations that were… How long did that take? 33 years.
Exactly. She’s still alive.
She’s definitely very much alive.
Yeah, that’s right. I was sort of surprised when I saw it. I was like, what?!
Cory Aquino is dead. Imelda Marcos is alive.
Yeah. All right. So this happened, you got excited about it and you went over to CNN?
So I started first, before I did CNN along with a friend who hired me, said, come stay in the Philippines, and we started something that was like our local version of “60 Minutes.” We wanted the anchor who was doing it — I was a producer-director behind the scenes…
Did you ever done journalism?
“This is cool.”
I walked into a television station and I learned journalism by doing it. It was amazing. We started this little startup before it was called a startup. We just called it an independent production house, Probe. That is still alive today. And at the same time, that same year, CNN came and said, “We want you to be a reporter.” And when I taped a standup because they wanted to see what it looked like, my boss at that time then sent it back and said, “Put makeup on, wear a suit and go drink some brandy so your voice gets deeper.”
Oh wow! Yeah.
It was really funny.
And you did that.
I joined CNN first as a freelancer, then I became Manila bureau chief and then that lasted a decade. And then I became Jakarta bureau chief, and I wound up covering every single transition of Southeast Asian countries from autocratic one-man rule to democracy. And of course, the irony now is, am I covering the pendulum swing back?
You’re absolutely covering the pendulum swing back. So you did that. Sorry, I’m sorry to give you that information, but I think it’s pretty clear what’s happened. So you did that. And what’s it like working for a global news organization like that? The power. Did you feel like you had any impact?
Huge. I loved it, I learned, I felt like I was at the front line of history, literally. When people are trying to run away, you’re trying to find your way in. I was a conflict reporter, I worked in war zones. There’s an adrenaline for that. And it’s addictive and yet at the same time, at a certain point, after maybe 16, 17, 18 years, I was like, “But I’m not building anything myself.” I keep writing about how everyone else is doing these great things, but I want to build something.
Where was that from? From your parents? From what?
I don’t know. We write and talk to amazing people. You get jealous like, after all it’s over. Is it just air? Especially if you do television. And so for me, it was also an identity. I wanted to decide … am I American or am I Filipino? Who am I really? Where am I going to live?
Right. And so you decided to stay there and do this.
I stayed in the Philippines.
How was that like, the transition of, you’re an American…
It was a very …
Was there a lot of families still there? There’s a lot of families still in the Philippines.
There’s … Yes and no. Most of my immediate family is in the United States. But for me, I made the choice to be Filipino because I thought it was a country putting itself together. And I felt like the impact — partly education, and thinking and the things that I had learned from CNN when I was offered the top job in the top television network there, I was like, I can do a lot of things.
Imagine going from a reporter, a bureau chief with four people to managing a thousand people, that’s a huge responsibility. I was able to revamp standards and ethics manuals. We were able to be training for a lot. It was amazing. My exponential learning curve, it was … and then you have a vision.
And then without ABS-CBN, that was the group that I ran. It had multimedia platforms. I had to learn how to do cable, radio, television. And the difference between business and mission. And then after that I realized after six years of doing that I was …
Sorry, ABS-CBN. So from CNN …
You went to ABS-CBN.
The one thing about CNN that was interesting is I always was on the edge. It was like we were in the provinces and whatever we did took two weeks to actually get to the consciousness.
And you made it onto the air a lot.
Because we had these People Power Movements, these democracy things. Suharto, the end of 32 years, nearly 32 years of one man. That’s an incredible thing. And I think for me I was …
This is in Indonesia.
Yes. I was fascinated.
I’m sorry, I’m going to tell people who don’t know things. I know my history. I’m certain my children don’t.
But I was fascinated by how leaders worked, how they made decisions, how they put their individual ideas with their emotions, and how values ultimately determine the structure of the society they created.
Absolutely. And so you went off to this other group.
I went to ABS-CBN and I went home. I took all my dollars and I turned it to pesos. I decided I was going to be Filipino and I took back my Filipino passport. And I did that for six years and I loved it.
But when you’re managing a traditional news group, the first things I did was I had an industrial engineering person follow every single person. You’re just optimizing for efficiency, you want to make sure everyone is “optimized,” using tech word. But in the end then it comes down to money.
And at a certain point, when we were optimized, I was like, “I don’t want to make money, I’m kind of bored.” And then here’s this internet that nobody was looking at because you put all your best people in your primetime newscasts, and your third-string people are the ones on the internet.
Yeah. It’s always the young people or the third-string people. People who are just futzing around.
Right. At that point I was like, it was time, we were getting yanked into the power structures of the Philippines. And I left.
What do you mean, yanked into the power structure of the Philippines?
If you’re managing the largest news group in any country, you have a pact with power as you have a social pact with the people. And that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to do stories. I wanted to have impact. And it wasn’t just me, there were enough of us that at a certain point I said, “Oh, here’s that.”
I negotiated with Abu Sayyaf, an Al-Qaeda linked… so when I was at CNN, I did terrorists. The growth of terrorism in Southeast Asia. Looking at these social networks, social network analysis is actually the foundation of Rappler. If you can chart, if people can spread this evil ideology that will make people kill themselves, become suicide bombers. Why can’t the good guys use social networks to spread ideas?
Well, that was the original idea. Maria.
So I drank the Kool-Aid.
Had you been an active internet user?
I learned. When I left as the head of ABS-CBN, I thought, “We can put television in your pocket.” Think of that immense power.
This is what year?
This is 2010, I left.
Which was later to … Yeah right. It had been happening. YouTube, obviously, other things. There was a lot going on, but it wasn’t as organized.
It wasn’t as organized, and it wasn’t as chaotic.
And people in your areas were on phones more than anything else.
A lot more.
It was not a computer society, it was a mobile… As in China, as in a lot of Asia.
We actually leapfrogged development over the computer.
Right. Just like Myanmar. For me it was …
Myanmar, China, Thailand, Vietnam, all of them.
The idea behind Rappler was, we’re going to use this new technology and journalism to build communities of action. We live in a country that has endemic corruption, where institutions are extremely weak, leadership is personalistic, and here are all these people who just want a better life. Why can we not use this technology to build communities of action?
Did that make you a journalist or a social activist?
You’re a traditional journalist, in that question. I think for me, it’s the natural course of journalism.
I agree and that’s what I am, but it doesn’t matter, I’m a journalist.
But that’s a question by the old guard.
Right. Well, it is interesting. The reason I’m asking is because, I think I’m the latter, both, like not a social activist, but an activist in some way. Like I want my stuff to have impact.
I think we’ve been forced to be activists now.
But see, the word “activism” is so loaded. I think it’s more impact, you impact … “impact journalism,” “live journalism.” Things happen from your work. And I think that’s the part I’m interested in.
But isn’t that … So originally, that was the idea of journalism. We do these stories and they’re supposed to impact our world. But when I was with CNN, I do these stories and they go into a black box. And then it’s partly positioned in a western way that when it hits my audience where I am, they don’t necessarily see it that way.
I think journalism was doing that, but they were pretending they weren’t. I came up in Watergate, that … things happened because someone decided to be really irritating and persistent. And the same thing, whether you’re covering technology or healthcare or whatever it is, that’s what happens. You have an impact in a way that is different.
I think at a certain point also, if you’re focused on it, you wind up getting all sides and the players themselves don’t have all those perspectives. You become an expert.
Exactly. “Let me tell you what’s actually happening here.” So why did you call it Rappler? I’m just … So easily leave your bigger group, your bigger job. Once again.
I wrote … my second book is “From Bin Laden to Facebook,” in 2011. I was writing about how … it was before ISIS, but it was exactly what ISIS was doing. And the ideas that I explored then are the same ideas that are inside Rappler.
What’s Rappler stand for?
“Rap,” 80s, to talk. Plus “ripple,” to make waves.
I see. Okay.
And in our first few years we were growing 100 to 300 percent. We were creating these communities, social media for social good.
And doing reporting with it.
Reporting as the core. Reporting is what you feed your communities of action. Because the end goal is people don’t just read this stuff and don’t do anything with it. If you’re doing a story on climate change, what are you going to do? Are you going to sit there? And that was the idea of Rappler. And we were able to — Facebook, we were able to help Facebook grow, social media for social good. That was the beginning of it to that and Facebook …
We are going to get to that in a little bit.
Facebook also helped us grow.
Right. Because you started it as a Facebook page. Why did you start it as a Facebook page?
I wanted to see, did I need tech … ?
2011. For six months. We tried Facebook, but it was chaotic. There was no search. I knew that we … This is while we were building our own platform, but for me, if Facebook could have done it, I would’ve stayed there because in the end it was about reaching …
Yes. After you work for CNN where you’re reaching 200 million people, I was … to not have that and start from scratch? That was the biggest challenge.
So just having an internet site wasn’t good enough. Right.
Well, I think like television, like mass …
Mass, right, versus …
Because in the end I think if you do good, investigative journalism, you don’t want to be in an empty church.
Exactly. That’s a fair point. So a website would have been that. I find it pointless to have websites anymore. I just said that the other day and all my staff just went … I’m like, “What are you have? What? What’s the point of it?” And they’re like, “What?” I’m like, “Well, there’s other ways to get your work out.” And that’s what I was trying to get at. It’s like you have to think really hard about where your work’s getting out.
So you do this, you get funding … initially was not, right? Is that correct or no?
Initially there were four or five of us above 40 and we had one of our … When we all came together, we were mid-career in senior and so we chipped in, we raised among ourselves, our seed fund is $2 million. And then after that we were shocked. We started with 12 people and in a year and a half we grew to 75 people and we became the third top online news site. And I was like, oh my God.
And then we bought into this tech idea of, you have to prime growth by growing, bringing in more people. So we kept it at about 100 people in Rappler. That’s still where we are today. And the impact has been, for the little group that we are, our impact is huge. In the Philippines, apparently, that’s part of the reason President Duterte likes us so much.
Which is to say he hates you. So we’ll get to that in a minute because I do want to have a serious discussion about that. You got funding from outside, because that leads to where we are today. You got funding from the Omidyar…
In 2014, what I did is I wanted to grow to Indonesia. I spent a decade in Indonesia and I thought, here’s what the Philippines and Indonesia has. The Philippines is 100 million people. The median age is 23 years old. It’s a young population and we are all on cell phones. The cell phone reaches 114 percent.
Indonesia is the same: 230 to 250 million people and the median age is 22 to 23 years old. So I was like, “I want to grow in Indonesia and how am I going to do that? I can take money from local tycoons in the Philippines who will have political interests.” I wasn’t interested. And I said, who can I look at in the world who will be interested in the same questions, in the same thing?
Who aren’t going to try manipulate you.
So we’re trying to do technology for civic engagement. That was what we were after and I wanted to build. So I raised another, maybe it’s about $3 million, and these were our foreign … They came in through a legitimate constitutionally recognized …
They’re investors, they invest globally.
In the Philippines, in Rappler. They invested in something called Philippine Depositary Receipts. It’s a special class. They had to have believed in us a lot because they have absolutely no say in the way we run the business. They can’t sit on the board, they can’t tell us what to do, but they gave us some money.
Which is an insane way to do investments.
And Imagine, that is what Omidyar Network and North Base Media…
Right. This is Marcus Brauchli?
Who I used to work with at the Wall Street Journal, I know very well.
Yes. I know Marcus super well.
Marcus and I were reporters together. He was there. He was based in Tokyo during the fall of Suharto. He would fly in while I was Jakarta bureau chief.
Yup, he was at the Journal. Then, Pierre I’ve known since he was at General Magic. I go way back with Pierre.
Yeah. I know Pierre and Pam very well. In the Omidyar Network, he’s doing that. He opened the thing in Hawaii.
He’s been trying this and obviously, The Intercept, and other things where he’s been trying to have impact, social good journalism really is what it is.
I remember talking to him like, “Oh, they’re going to talk up at you, Pierre. You better get ready to be talked back to by your journalists.” That’s his area. You’d be the perfect person for him to invest in.
We loved it because they gave the money and there was absolutely …
They let us do what we wanted to do.
Well, they would. Yeah.
Yeah. I think we were their first large media investment in the Philippines.
That was also a feather in the cap of Filipinos.
Right, exactly. We’re here with Maria Ressa. She is the CEO of Rappler. Rappler is a news site … I don’t know. It’s a social activist news site? What’s your description?
“Social news network” is what we called ourselves at the very beginning, but our core is investigative journalism.
Investigative journalism, right.
I think what makes us different from other news groups is we have a civic engagement arm.
That’s right, okay. And you operate in both Indonesia and the Philippines and have gotten funding and so we’re talking about that. You took this investment, about $5 million in investment now. I know the economics of these things. You make money how? What was the …
We were the first in the Philippines to do native advertising in 2012.
Native ads, right.
At that point, it was new in the Philippines and we were able to take a large chunk of the new digital ad spend. My end goal was if I looked at that, I was like, if I take one percent I’m going to be really happy because I can pay people, but we wound up taking 15 percent, which was actually okay outside of …
But it’s an advertising-based business, not subscription.
Not subscription. I work in a country where people …
… are struggling to put food on the table. Those are the people I want to reach, so I don’t want to ask them to pay for it.
Talk about the kind of investigative stories you started to do.
Well, the ones that got us in trouble right now … I’ll go talk about our people. The core founders of Rappler have always looked at corruption. The woman who wrote two books on corruption in the judiciary, the woman who wrote a book on corruption in the military. I looked at terrorism. We had spent our careers and we figured how do we solve these problems, how can we do better in the future. I suppose that’s activism, but it just makes sense if you live in the country I live in.
Then after that what we wound up doing was to take these young people … We wound up becoming the millennial site, but our core was investigative journalism.
What got us in trouble with President Duterte is we focused on … We were the first, two-and-a-half years before the United States started talking about disinformation, we saw because of our partnership with Facebook, we saw these exponential attacks on social media that began in July of 2016, the same month that the drug war began.
Let me — set the table for people who don’t know what this horrible man has done.
Why don’t I say, I think the Philippines is the cautionary tale for the United States. I said that in December of 2016. I think we’re the canary in the coalmine. In May 2016, President Duterte gets elected. Rody Duterte gets elected. He tells people he’s going to kill …
Tell them who he is.
Rody Duterte, since 1988, on and off, has been mayor of Davao City. He is known for taking the law into his hands, for killing people. DDS, Davao Death Squad, that’s how he rid the city of crime.
We saw it in Salvador under …
Correct. That’s what he did. That’s actually fueled by what was happening there. Then, with this new propaganda …
Let me just clear it… It’s similar to what happened under … What’s his name? God, that horrible, another horrible person, I hope he’s dead. He had death squads there and they’re very religious, it was very moralistic.
The Path, Shining?
Right. Yeah. In there it was actually Colonel … What’s his name? Somoza ran it and then this guy came in and was doing most … I’m blanking on his name because I can’t stand it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, me too.
He was a colonel and he did that. It was very oriented towards religion and moralism. That we are here cleaning up the country, that’s the concept.
Doesn’t that all sound familiar?
Yes, it does.
Yeah. This is Duterte. He was a populist leader. He’s a guy who says what he thinks. In 2015, I interviewed him before he decided to run. He said, “I am going to kill people.” Then, I asked him, “Have you killed people?” He said, “I have killed people.” He admitted to killing three people. John Oliver uses this clip when he gets elected in May 2016. The Philippines …
Why was he elected? Strongman, people have a strongman, unfortunately.
He said that he was going to fix all the problems. He didn’t care about the details and people didn’t care about the details. They just wanted … He is somebody who was perceived as strong. He has a track record in Davao City. Davao people seemed happy.
He said things politicians didn’t say. He was funny. He was charming. He threatened to kill. He also was extremely sexist and misogynistic in many ways, but his defenders would say, “But look at what he did for women in Davao City.”
Well, yeah, but not really.
No, I get it. I know that. That was their sell.
Correct. We bought it. He wins the elections in May 2016, a month later you have Brexit and then November, you have Trump.
The reason I focused on that is I think that this is Facebook. This is social media’s impact. I think globally, our values had changed so much. Change had come so fast with different leaders that people were looking for some sense of stability.
Right, that makes sense.
When you put 2.3 billion people on a platform, all of a sudden you have no more boundaries of nation-states.
One lie here spreads globally immediately.
What happened in the Philippines is that all of the tactics that you’re now seeing in the United States, you’re calling it the Russian propaganda, we had it. We saw it. We documented it. We had the data.
In August of 2016, I gave that data to Facebook and I said, this is really alarming. These people are targeting anyone who attacks, who asks questions about the drug war. The drug war began in July of 2016. It’s targeting journalists. It’s targeting anyone who’s perceived to be critical of President Duterte. Those attacks are heinous. It brings out the worst of human nature.
Explain what the attacks were.
Very personal, criminal, actually: “I will kill you. I will rape you.” I mean, I think I’ve been called every animal you can think of, every threat. Women were targeted. Our initial data is saying 10 times more than men.
After you’re targeted as a woman, the next step is an actual attack.
We saw this play out in a senator who used to head the human rights commission, her name is Leila de Lima. She was one of the first ones to test this. She was attacked on social media and then put in prison, a personal enemy of President Duterte. She’s still in prison awaiting trial.
That’s more than two years now.
Right. But social media was used as a tool to do this, to create a narrative around these people.
Social media is the fertilizer.
It’s similar to what’s happened to Rappler.
That’s a really good way of putting it.
All of the cases that came up, foreign …
The core account, propaganda account, said, “Maria and Rappler, CIA?”. That was a year before the foreign ownership charges came out in court.
Right, they’re starting to raise issues about you and call into question, which people who are reading this don’t know the difference.
But it’s a coordinated attack.
What happened when you took it to Facebook? Beyond the “I want to kill you.” The CIA thing is actually more dangerous, in a weird way, if you think about it, besides the personal threats.
Yeah. The personal threats are meant to pound you into silence. They’re meant to make you insecure.
For a little bit after we finished our propaganda series, I was getting 90, 9-0, hate messages per hour. When you do that, as a journalist you’re like, I tried to respond.
They didn’t care. They were meaning to pound me into silence.
By the way, these weren’t actual people.
Exactly. Later, you find out. But then everyone else who’s watching …
They get pulled into it. What happens is these bots go into action and then humans also get ginned up by it. You can watch the bots move and then humans move into it because they think it’s real.
Then they get the courage to be assholes, really. It’s fascinating to watch. At one point, a friend of mine who’s a New York Times reporter was responding to a bunch of hate stiff and I said, “That’s a bot you’re responding to, stop. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” Don’t talk to the bots kind of thing, but it creates a really bad situation for the journalists, or whoever.
It plays with your head. I think this is the new attack on journalism. It’s something we’ve never dealt with before. It’s psychological warfare.
Yeah, it is.
I think the difference in the Philippines and Facebook has … It’s in the footnote in one of their disclosures. We have higher than normal average of fake accounts. Not so much bots. They use the bots to trigger alerts and then the humans who are paid so poorly are the ones who come in and attack.
Right, exactly, but they’re bots. I consider them bots even if they’re humans.
Yes, yes, they’re trolls.
They’re trolls. You get this happening and then they raise the idea that you’re CIA. There’s a slow build of “we’re going to get you” and then the government steps in.
A year before the government, all of these attacks happened to us on social media.
As you were doing increasing things about climate change, around Duterte, around everything?
We kept doing the drug work. What were the two things I think that the government is upset about?
This is the war in which the government is killing alleged drug dealers, it turns out they’re killing a lot of people.
A lot of poor people.
It turns out to be a war against the poor and you’re talking about the police.
Well, when you get rid of the poor people, you don’t have to deal with the poor people, right?
And you spread fear.
Violence and fear and lies, that’s been our environment for the last two-and-a-half years, and they’re both seeded on Facebook and in our reality.
I’m sorry. When you went to Facebook, what did they say?
I gave them the data. Two out of the three people that I spoke with in Singapore are no longer with Facebook. One of the things that I said is I was trying to tell them how important this is and I said, “Look, you’ve got elections in the United States and Trump could win.”
They looked at … We all laughed because in August of 2016 it didn’t look like that was going to happen.
Then when he won, the one person who stayed asked me for the data again.
Right, but it didn’t go anywhere, it didn’t go to headquarters?
I think the problem is, if they’re like the CNN Jakarta bureau, right, they’re out in the boondocks. It’s the politics of our organization, so I kind of understand that.
Did you try to get it anywhere else?
I did. I mean, by April of 2017 I had spoken to maybe 50 officials, people who I had worked with, people who knew me, including Mark Zuckerberg. I was one of half a dozen CEOs of companies that work with Facebook, that had lunch with him during the F8. I had a small chance to talk to him.
This is April …?
2017. Okay. What did you say?
I said, so it’s on an NDA. We signed all these things, but one of the things that was open to everybody, I said, “Mark, 97 percent of Filipinos on the internet are on Facebook.” I invited him to come to the Philippines because he had to see the impact of this. You have to understand the impact, impact, things that journalists want to do. He was frowning while I was saying that. I said, “Why, why?” He said, “Oh well. What are the other 3 percent doing, Maria?”
We laughed, right?
You were trying to say, “This has impact. You better have some rules of the road and you better start policing this, that’s what you’re asking for?”
That’s imperative. Have you seen “The Cleaners”?
So you understand now.
This is a documentary about who’s going through, cleaning up social media for Facebook, I think it is, and other services.
The other platforms, right?
They’re in the Philippines, right? It’s a bunch of ladies …
… and different things and how this stuff is being cleaned, besides algorithmically.
Delete, delete. They have two seconds to do it.
Right. Here’s the problem. Do you realize that freedom of expression globally is now being determined by minimum-wage earners?
People who never signed up for it. People who didn’t have the ability to …
That’s right. Then they say they want to leave it to be a free speech platform. It just kills me. I’m like …
Freedom of expression is being determined by that.
Anyway, the ICFJ, what I said is that our gatekeeping powers are gone.
We trained our whole lives on standards and ethics. We live to the mission of journalism and we cleaned up the public’s fear. We made sure that democracy could stay alive. Well, now the platforms have it. The technology platforms have this.
They don’t want to do the work. They don’t want to do the cleaning work.
They don’t want to do the work. They don’t want to spend the money on it even though they make a lot of money.
Well, that’s why they make a lot of money, because they don’t have to spend the money on it.
That’s why media is such a tough business and Facebook is not because they don’t do any of the rules. They don’t … in Myanmar they didn’t write the rules till after the killings. It just goes on and on and on. I just want to … Honestly, it’s infuriating on so many levels.
I always use this phrase “enlightened self-interest” in ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. That was the whole thing of how we need to work together for our own self-interest. Well, I use that with them all the time. You have to have enlightened self-interest. You’ve got to clean this up.
Was there any result after you said this to Zuckerberg?
Not for a very long time. And then another friend inside the company actually said, “You’re going to have to tell your story.” I said, “We do it all the time, we have so many series on this!”
Then she said, “You have to do it in American media.”
Thank you, Kara.
No problem. You should have called me before this because I would have hit them on the head with the data.
Well, I listened to all your interviews with them but it wasn’t until Bloomberg came out with a story in December of 2017… How many years have I been talking about this already?
Then, finally, a month ago or a few weeks ago, the outermost layer of the onion, the outermost skin has been peeled and Facebook took down pro-Duterte pages in the Philippines. Ironically, of course, it’s the pro-Duterte pages and pro-Marcos pages. It’s exactly what we’ve been saying. The data is there.
Right, they’re being used to … They’re using their platform. What I always say with the Russians and this election is the Russians didn’t hack anything. They were customers.
They’re customers of Facebook.
They were able to figure it out and they had no morals and ethics and so they did what the platforms enabled.
Right, exactly. You’ve asked them to do this, which I just have anger whenever … I have to tell you, I’m like this every day, and what infuriates me right now is the response, saying it’s “bullshit” and that Mark said this in front of everybody and that they’re being attacked. That is the most reprehensible take on some of these criticisms that I can think of. It is reprehensible is what it is.
We’re frenemies. I am both an … We were one of the alpha partners. We are one of their two fact-checking partners in the Philippines and we work with Facebook because frankly, to me, that’s going to be part of our future.
If we don’t clean it up in time for our May 2019 elections, we will … I can’t even fathom what the world is like. I think they’re making headway.
Starting January this year, they hired somebody, Nathaniel Gleicher who used to work in counterterrorism. I think this is the way to deal with this.
Right, you have to look at it as bad networks and what do we do with that? They are going to have to move away from this free speech thing because free speech is being used to stifle free speech.
Right, right. That’s exactly right, that’s exactly … I always say freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence. That’s what I’m trying to get through to them, and it’s fascinating that just this recent reaction … I thought maybe they got it and then he went right back like a rubber …
Is this recent?
Yeah. He’s got in front of everyone last Friday and said …
Oh my God, yeah.
… this New York Times report is bullshit. He used the word “bullshit,” which is just such a … What is he, 12? First of all, he’s a man with children, stop it. Like stop, act like an adult, that you should be.
Secondly, that “we’re being under attack.” It’s literally like you need to stop or you need to leave. You know what I mean? You need to go or you need to get better, like be a better man. It’s a really interesting thing because the only reason I’m saying I’m focusing on him is he controls 60 percent of the stock and therefore the whole company.
And this is the problem, right?
He’s also a 30-something white male.
One person who didn’t finish college. I’m sorry. Who doesn’t seem to care, and that’s the issue. The more I think about it, the more angry I get. You do this, they come at you then. You’re doing this up because you want to work with these platforms because they should be for good, like you said at the beginning.
They can be.
They can be.
I still believe that is …
If they can actually …
If they twist the dial that can be about community and involvement and everything else. You go there and then the government’s turning the screws. They’re not just attacking you online with just a bunch of rude remarks. This has happened on Twitter too, same thing?
Twitter is not as bad as Facebook in the Philippines.
Right. And it’s not as used.
Only 7 percent penetration.
Right. You go and do this, you get attacked personally.
Explain what happened, and then in the next section, we’ll talk about that.
I actually think this next phase is better than the exponential attacks on Facebook because when President Duterte, in his second state of the nation address, in July of 2017, singles us out, he doesn’t, he attacks the top television network but he singles us out and says, “This Rappler is foreign-owned or 100 percent owned by foreigners.” I couldn’t help myself, because we were live. I automatically tweeted about it, “Mr. President, you’re wrong.” I want my independence. This is part of the reason we set up Rappler. Then within a week the first investigations began. Then the cases came in.
Right, and what are they suing you for?
They are six or seven of them. There were seven of them. We actually won one, but the first, the mother case is that we are being influenced, that we are being controlled by foreigners.
This country has a history of corruption, massive corruption, compared to the United States or anywhere else, so it’s sort of fertile territory for both the technologies of Facebook and everything else to come together. They have lots of lawsuits against you, one of which is tax evasion, right?
They just threw the book at you, right?
Yes. The tax evasion one, 10 days ago the Justice Department announced that I would be indicted and Rappler Holdings, which is our holding company, and our accountant. Poor accountant. KPMG is our accountant here, right. But indicted because … and here’s the case, they reclassified Rappler. We’re not a journalist … We’re not a news group. We are a “dealer in securities.”
Okay. Because … Okay. All right.
Which is wrong. But you know, it doesn’t matter. Now they are pushing us through to trial. There isn’t enough … I’ve just looked at our motion for reconsideration and it is like trying to tell me that I have to fight to be Maria Ressa.
It’s like, the world …
They’ll throw anything, they had just a bunch of clever lawyers coming at you. So it’s like Mark Whitaker running the Justice Department there, which, the fix is in. But then you have the courts, who are … Is this the fix in there too?
So President Duterte, by the end of his term, will appoint 13-15 Supreme Court justices. Anyone in their 40s who wants to be a Supreme Court justice, I just hope … In ICFJ, my appeal is to the men and women inside government who will touch my case among them. But the people who will hold the line.
Why do I keep saying hold the line? Because we’re not taking a position. What we are doing is we are holding the line and letting you know when our constitution is violated, when your rights are being taken away from you. We want to alert you to that. That’s what our journalism is showing.
Using data, we showed them that they were being manipulated. And yet it took another year before people really understood what that meant. I think this is … Let me pull back. The cool thing about all of this is we’re redefining and redesigning the world. I just don’t want to be the person that gets jailed because we’re trying to redefine what journalism is like in my country.
But that’s extremely exciting. And I think with leaders like Trump, like Duterte, appealing to the worst of human nature, and then the social media platforms allowing that, allowing exponential lies to be used against truth tellers, to the point that we have no facts to begin any discussion with… you are throwing everything out. In this landscape, there are two people I’m appealing to, two groups. One is social media, Facebook. Please, convince Mark Zuckerberg, right?
I’m trying. It’s not working, he’s not talking to me anymore.
And then the other one is, even though we have one leader, whether you have Trump or you have Duterte, in the United States, your institutions work. In my country, institutions are co-opted already. But there are men and women there who have conscience. And these are the values we’re gonna put in place for the future.
Because Corazon Aquino and everything else. It does happen. So you’re gonna go back there, you’ve been traveling, you were in D.C., and then you were in Paris, correct?
Yeah. We received a few awards.
You came to pick up your awards, Maria. Go ahead. And by the way, you have to also do journalism while you’re doing this, now you’ve become a cause, but you have to actually put out stories and write about climate change or regular corruption that goes on on a daily basis, or discuss the killings, the extra-judicial killings that are happening.
Right now, Xi Jinping, the state visit of China is happening and my team is doing a great job at it. I think the best part, with the founders of Rappler, is that we each have our roles.
There’s somebody who takes care of video, because we came from television. Somebody who takes care of our editorial agenda. I take care of making sure that the roof is over our heads.
How are your investors in that? Are they doubling down on supporting you? You’ve got some good investors.
So after all the cases were filed against us, four of our seven board directors resigned. Partly because they were also … imagine, a cyber libel case, and they filed the cyber libel case not just against the editorial, but also against the board.
Right, sure. They do that.
And that’s a criminal charge in the Philippines. So for businessmen, it was just businessmen and women, it was a little too much for them.
Right, so they had to come off. Which you didn’t mind, I assume.
I mean, this is our mission, right? And I think some of the debates that we had, regardless, at the beginning it was like, how far do you go? But we keep telling the truth. And because the journalists were the largest group of shareholders, we were able to hold the line. And we kept moving forward. When the cases came, we’ve really been running it on our own. Our investors are behind us.
Who’s left on the board?
So we actually have two former cabinet secretaries who have come in, and this is a wartime board. This is a board that knows we have cases against us, we have spent a tremendous amount of money, money we could’ve used to grow, on legal fees.
To do journalism, on legal fees. Of course. That’s what they’re doing, that’s why they’re doing it.
But even our … This is a very specialized instrument. So this top law firm in the Philippines gave us significant discounts. On a Sunday, I’m sitting around the table, and there are 25 lawyers around me.
Right. That must be a delight.
That is not where I want to be.
No, not at all. So you have all the lawyers, your investors are supporting you. I’m assuming Pierre Omidyar was right behind you.
Well, what your network did is, because they wanted … It was so ludicrous, the charge. So they actually donated their shares to the journalists in Rappler. So the 14 of us took the PDRs, the Philippine Depository Receipts. And they’re there, they’re behind us. They’ve just issued another statement. But they wanted to get rid of the problem. We haven’t even gotten to that point in the legal cases.
They’re not the problem.
They’re not the problem. So you’re spending time with lawyers and not doing journalism, you’re being targeted continually online, you’re appealing to Facebook. Have you met with them since you’ve been here?
Yes. I do see some forward movement.
Who have you met with there?
My gosh, so many. Again, I go back to …
Have you met with Colin Stretch?
At one point, yeah. But for me, there’s a group that does the things I like, which is the takedown of these terrorist networks.
And it’s hard to know what to say, what not to say. What part is underneath our NDA that we’re working with them, and what part can I talk about? I think on the big-picture front, they’re still not doing enough. And they know that.
What would you want them to do?
Oh my God. It’s very clear.
Give me a list.
The data is there: Take down the networks. Take down the terrorist networks. Restore order. Be the gatekeepers. Again, this idea of letting lies live. If it’s a lie, if someone is saying there are three bottles of water here, why even let that statement there?
But as journalists, we were the gatekeepers, and we didn’t let lies get into the public sphere. And I think that at some point, the technology platforms are gonna have to deal with that.
They 100 percent are. You saw the interview I did with him. “Holocaust deniers don’t mean to lie.” I don’t know where to go from there.
I was like, “What? What?! Stop. Are you kidding me? Quit right now.” Literally that’s what I was thinking in my head, “I need to get you out of this.”
Mark needs to go to Myanmar, he needs to go to the Philippines, he needs to go to …
Go there. This is the damage, these are people’s lives. And when I tried to bother … I am so angry right now. When I tried to say, “How do you feel about the impact of your invention?” I couldn’t get an answer. Then you have to go there and feel the impact of what you’ve done. Because I don’t think they get that, I don’t think. I think there’s a real disconnect.
I think they understand that I could go to prison because of what they didn’t do.
Right. Exactly. So let’s finish up on that. So what happens now? You are going back to the Philippines, although I wish you would not.
I have a company. I have a team that is working every day.
Are you worried for your safety, besides going to prison? Let’s take it another step. I mean, I’m sorry to bring it up, but this is a murderous thug who’s running your country.
You prepare for the worst and you hope for the best. And I think in this situation, one of the things for me, I’ve spent my entire career, my entire life, my life has been my career. And I’ve spent it living according to this code. And when you’re tested, you can’t actually buckle. You can’t, because then you’re not who you are.
And I think that’s what this whole thing … So when I look for, what is the ray of hope? The ray of hope is that I know who I am. And my team knows who they are. Our mission is very, very clear. We’re doing excellent work, and we’ll continue doing excellent work.
So is there a possibility you could be jailed indefinitely?
Again, the charges are so ludicrous I almost say no, but you know, Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter is in charge. So I have no idea. But I’m walking in knowing. It’s like walking into a war zone. You know what you’re walking into.
Right. So they could jail you for the most recent charge.
It’s a criminal charge, there are two criminal charges that I’m facing.
You yourself personally are facing.
So they could jail you, presumably, under their kooky rules.
Yeah, but think about it like this. It takes a decade. Again, they fast-tracked the case against us. So power can do anything. But on the other side, we have a whole community in the Philippines.
Are people for you, too? Because what’s happened, I think, is people become anesthetized to this by having this stuff thrown at them every day, and then they don’t care. I was thinking of Trump stuff. My mom, who is not pro-Trump, is suddenly like, “Oh, he’s fine.” I’m like, “What? No, he’s not fine, what are you talking about?”
People are tired.
People are tired, and that’s the danger I see. More than anything else. It’s like they give up, they accept it, they hear the noise, and then they take the soma. You know what I mean?
That’s correct, we’re in the same generation. And this is part of the reason I continue to be vocal, and there are these moments. In January in this year, when the government tried to revoke our license, it was a moment, it was a wake-up call. And we felt the community, not just in the Philippines, but global.
The government forgets, I spent 20 years of my life working for an international news group. And that response also surprised the government, and I think that was part of the reason things pulled back.
This time around, I hope saner heads prevail.
Are there saner heads around Duterte?
Government is not monolithic. And I have to believe there are. There are good men and women in the Philippine government and in the justice system.
Well, I just interviewed Sally Yates, who’s a personal hero of mine. She’s amazing. But she was fired.
Well yeah. So I guess part of it is, I want these moments.
Career Justice Department official who did nothing but great work, fired.
Yeah. That’s what power can do, I guess. But in the end, do you go back to … We elected him.
How did that happen? And I guess that goes back to, where are we?
Is there a chance that he could lose elections, or is the fix so in that he creates a … there’s a point that you’ve had 30-some years of Marcos. These things ultimately, let me just say, all you dictators, you ultimately end up in a drain pipe begging for your life and then dying. You end up Ceausescu, you end up Hitler in the bunker, you end up … That’s where the end is for all of you as far as I can tell.
History does spin forward in that regard. So no matter what, you end up in the drain pipe. I just think of Qaddafi, I think of all these dictators.
But I think here’s the difference today, I think the technology that can now be used by digital authoritarians …
Keeps them in power.
There’s a report by Freedom House that just came out this month, digital authoritarianism. If you look at China, they’ve actually focused on China, we’ve been talking about Russia.
They’ve been at it for decades.
Right. But they showed that China is giving this digital authoritarianism and sharing it with other governments. So if you think about Russia as B2C, China is B2B.
Right, very good way of putting it.
Right? This time period is very different. That is part of the reason we cannot be complacent.
That’s why I wrote in the Times, they have weaponized everything. They have weaponized the First Amendment, they have amplified and weaponized, and they are digital arms dealers. You know what I mean? That’s what I called them, and they got furious. And I was like, “What, the truth hurts? This is what you’ve done.”
I think they have to move into the real world. Because I think again, if you look at the Times investigation, they think that this is still a game of business. It is the world. “Move fast, break things.” You can’t break the world. And you need to fix it when you’re the only one who has the power to do it.
If these social media platforms wait for governments… countries like us, every day that no action is taken, people die. And they need to take responsibility for that.
They’re saying soft changes here, like the decimation of the environment or etc., etc.
They have to come visit. This is part of the reason I kept telling Mark, “Come to the Philippines.” Because we drank the Kool-Aid, we are a Facebook nation. And I hope now they realize that they have to help protect us.
I think one of the biggest things where I knew we were in trouble was early on in July 2016, I said, look at these attacks against me. And they said, “You’re a public figure.” But guess what, in the real world, our Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, has protection for journalists because of the jobs that we do. That wasn’t included into Facebook’s rules and regulations.
So I think that’s part of the thinking. But again, to be optimistic, I think they recognize this and have hired some of these real-world people who can help. And I hope they do it quickly, because it’s not just the business, it’s not just your reputation in the United States, it is a whole world.
Yeah, that’s why I said the expensive education of Mark Zuckerberg… Take a course on Socrates and Plato and then get back to me. Perhaps a little Hamiltonian, just whatever, Franklin. Quick, we’ll do a quick course on the humanities.
I was surprised by Sheryl Sandberg and the way she was portrayed in the Times.
Why is that? Tell me.
I mean, it’s certainly different from “Lean In” and from … She was supposed to be a grownup in this. And I guess in that …
You know what? We’re gonna get to her. We can get to her. I’m not so sure about Mark.
I think the difference here is, will they realize they are not protecting the public sphere? Forget protecting because they’re not protecting it, will they realize that they are now the guys who have to protect democracy, and what does that mean for business?
This is what I said at ICFJ. News groups, we give up business game to do these stories that are bad for us. We do these stories that President Duterte is trying to shut us down for because it is for the public good.
It has an impact on our business, absolutely.
And we’re willing to take that risk.
All right, last question. Your family must be like, “Do not go back.” Because I think do not go back.
Yeah. They’re not pleased. But it’s CNN, so I was doing conflict reporting. CNN was great, they had somebody assigned to take care of my mom so she wouldn’t call me. Mom, I hope you’re not listening. But I don’t know, journalists are foolish.
What’s the personal toll?
Oh, the personal toll. I’m exhausted. Our team is exhausted.
Right, all of you.
All of us. But I think it’s also made us stronger. When you’re forged in fire, you come out stronger. So again, crisis and opportunity for me, I think this is an opportunity for us to help determine what the future will be like. Not just for journalists, but certainly in the Philippines, we play a large role in that.
And because no boundaries in nation-states, now all of a sudden what’s happening in the Philippines is impacting you here in the United States and vice versa. So yeah, gotta move.
Yes. 100 percent. Maria, this is just so important, it’s super important, I’m glad you talked to me. I’m glad you’re holding the line, I think Facebook has to hold the line.
And I’m gonna make them.
Just so you know, I’m gonna make them. Anyway, it was great talking to you, thanks for coming on the show. You’re a huge inspiration to all of us journalists, and I think everybody, everybody around. And whatever you’re doing is being done by journalists around the world, not just here. We heard from a lot of people, all kinds of things, and this is important work.
Journalism deserves a lot of criticism for lots of things, silliness and getting things wrong, in general, it’s always trying to be better. Which I think is the critical part. And we should all think about that as journalists, to do it better, as people do, in what we do.
Anyway, thank you all for listening.