The veteran journalist and recent Nobel Prize nominee, who was the face of Lifestyle Asia’s Have Courage issue last year, was a guest on the former presidential nominees podcast.
“It’s like termites eating wood,” Maria Ressa explains. “It still looks solid, but the minute you step on it, it’ll break. Our democracies look strong but they are extremely weak.” The veteran and internationally-awarded journalist was talking about the political machinations—particularly the weaponization of fake news—that have eroded our society in the past half-decade.
The person the Rappler CEO and former Lifestyle Asia cover was having a conversation with knows a thing or two about how the tussle between fact and shameless fiction can be destructive to institutions: former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ressa, who was recently nominated for a Nobel Prize, was a guest on Clinton’s podcast called You and Me Both, and the two spoke for around 30 minutes and touched on the former’s coverage of President Duterte and the latter’s misfortune’s at the 2016 US Presidential Elections.
That particular podcast episode was on the topic of disinformation, which Clinton describes as one of the biggest threats of our times. Just before Ressa, Clinton spoke with media and technology expert Tristan Harris, the co-founder of the Center of Humane Technology, who has been described as the “closest thing to Silicone Valley has to having a conscience.”
Launched last September, You and Me Both has the former First Lady having conversations with personalities and voices, from socio political activist and editor Gloria Steinem, singer/songwriter John Legend, voting advocate Stacey Abrams, and comedian Patton Oswalt. The episode with Ressa is the second of the new season. A week prior, Clinton spoke to Amanda Gorman, the precocious poet laureate who shared her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the January 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden.
“I first crossed paths with Maria when she was leading CNN’s Southeast Asia Bureau,” Clinton says in her introduction of Ressa, admitting that she followed her career. “In 2018, Time magazine included her in a group of journalists they named “Person of the Year” for bravely holding the powerful accountable. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s experienced disinformation on a personal level like Maria has anywhere in the world.”
But way before she became the journalist that she is today, Ressa was a small child who grew up in New Jersey, who was afraid to speak up because she felt she was inarticulate and spoke mostly in Tagalog. She tells Clinton that she never felt quite American so her journey to her profession was akin to a “search for home,” and to finding out who she was.
Searching for truth
The journalist found her way back to the country of her birth in 1986 on a Fulbright scholarship. It was a tumultuous time for the nation then as People Power was swiftly pushing the gasping Marcos dictatorship out of Malacañang. “I learned about the Philippines through the news,” says Ressa, who set up the Manila Bureau of CNN the following year.
“The people power revolt in 1986 was my introduction to the Philippines as an adult,” Ressa says to Clinton. “When I came in as a reporter here, I covered the blossoming of democracy in the Philippines, in all of Southeast Asia. That was the privilege that I had being a reporter at that point in time.”
The significance of speaking on the topic of disinformation with Clinton is not lost on Ressa, who says that no one has become more of a target than the former presidential candidate. She ties Clinton’s run to the Philippines, saying that we were the testing ground for whatever played out in November 2016.
“We are the petri dish for Cambridge Analytica. They tested these tactics of mass manipulation here, and if it worked, they corded it over to you because you were the target,” Ressa explains, adding that our big population and heavy use of social media were what made us the ideal trial run.
After talking about the beginnings of Rappler, Ressa points out the problem with social media platforms. “Frankly, they just got too greedy,” she says. “They fine-tuned the design of the platform to the point that this thing that was empowering people now became a behavior modification system. That has been opened to geo political power plays.”
Ressa then details how their coverage of Duterte has led to retaliation by way of cases filed against her as well as arrests, including one where she was escorted by people in SWAT gear—“like I’m a terrorist,” she says. (This is also in Ramona Diaz’s 2020 documentary A Thousand Cuts. The film is eligible for an Oscar nomination this year, along with other films by Filipino-Americans.)
“That’s this Kafkaesque moment. I’ve had 10 arrest warrants in less than two years. That’s how they influence operations information and power,” she says. “It acts like fertilizer to allow democratically elected leaders like Duterte, who uses the levers of power of democracy to cave it in from within.”
When you get 90 hate messages per hour, Ressa shares, you get used to it. “I’m sure you get used to how to deal with criticism, right?” she says. “There’s valid criticism, and there’s criticism that is meant to hound you into silence. It’s beyond hate speech…”
“It’s dehumanizing,” Clinton continues. “It’s turning you into a caricature that breaks down inhibition from otherwise ordinary people to go after you. And it happens in such a short period of time. And it cannot happen without a concerted campaign to make it happen.” That this doesn’t happen by accident is what a lot of people don’t understand, says the former New York Senator.
Clinton closes out the interview by saying that one of the things that she admires—and worries—most about Ressa is that, despite the machinations and the termites, she keeps coming back to the Philippines.
“I don’t think I have a choice because if I am who I am, and I believe in the standards and ethics and the mission of journalism which I do, then I don’t have any other choice,” Ressa puts it simple. “And I feel like you know, you don’t really know who you are until you’re tested. It’s up to what you compromise. That defines who you are.”
The entire episode can be found on Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.
PORTRAITS OF MARIA RESSA BY TOM EPPERSON