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Maria Ressa is a groundbreaking international journalist. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her efforts to address corruption in the Philippines. Ressa is CEO of Rappler, an international news organization that she founded. She is the author of “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for our Future.” The book is a memoir of her life’s work to hold power to account.

In her book, Ressa argues that the trend toward authoritarian rulers around the world has been helped in large part by big tech. She documents how social media platforms are allowed to  spread lies and foster hate and disinformation — all to the detriment of democracy.

Policy 360 podcast

A Conversation with Maria Ressa

Conversation Highlights

Responses have been edited for clarity.

On the power of tech companies

… these companies meticulously designed the platforms to keep us scrolling for profit. They are more powerful than [news] publishers because they essentially took all of our data. It’s funny because they say that they built a model of each of us. The easy way [to understand this is what I say to kids.] They cloned us, right? They cloned our data, and then AI comes in – machine learning creates the clone, and then AI comes in and takes all of that and puts it into a master database that’s used for micro targeting [advertising]. That’s how [tech companies] make money. This is insidious manipulation at every level.

[Tech companies] also use our biology against us, our emotions against us. As early as 2018 MIT did a study that showed lies spread six times faster [online]. And what we saw in our data in the Philippines is that if it’s laced with fear, anger, and hate, it spreads even faster.

Can technology become a tool to build democracy?

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Maria Ressa and Dean Kelley sitting in the podcast studio
Maria Ressa (right) with Sanford School Dean Judith Kelley, in the Sanford School's multimedia studio.

I think it will depend on citizens in democracies to demand better and governments in democracies to act not for political power, but to actually put guardrails [on tech companies]. I go back to World War II right after the atom bomb was used, after that exploded and you had hundreds of thousands killed. Now we’re at [a similar] moment, and yet we don’t see the urgency of the moment. In November 2022 generative AI was rolled out and began a new arms race.

On tech companies owning your data

We didn’t even have a name for [the business model of beg tech] until 2019 when Shoshana Zuboff wrote a 750-page book called Surveillance Capitalism. She had spent her life, 40 years, looking at machines and how [tech] plays out in a business model. Surveillance capitalism takes all of [your] data and uses that data against the individual. [We must find] that balance where we own our own data — and there are some countries that have done this. Estonia, for example, if the government was getting access to your driver’s license, you would get a notification. You own your data. This is not the case in the United States or in many other parts of the world.

On the importance of finding new models to distribute fact-based news

This is the world we’re living in today, and I think part of what needs to happen now is we need to call a spade a spade. Journalists can’t just work. Because if we do that, we will not have distribution. Creating the journalism is now very, very different from distributing the journalism. And if you are using social media for distribution or search, you’re relying on big tech to do it. And big tech has been driven by surveillance capitalism.

On the need to combat ‘alternate facts’ 

Americans are walking into elections now. And the question that I have is, if we don’t have facts, how are you going to vote? If you’re being insidiously manipulated, how are you going to vote? Integrity of elections is going to be impossible if we don’t have integrity of facts.

[I was speaking to Al Gore and he] pointed out, “[We] cannot solve the climate crisis if we do not solve our democracy crisis.” And I think that’s a fundamental problem of technology. This idea [in tech] that personalization is the right way to make money – in the old days the house that would have 20 people each with their own separate realities, that would be called an insane asylum.

Maria Ressa was on Duke’s campus as a part of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy’s 50th Anniversary, with generous support from the David M. Rubenstein Distinguished Lecture Series. 

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About Policy 360

Policy 360 is a series of policy-focused conversations hosted by Judith Kelley, Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Guests have included luminaries like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Humanities Medal winner Isabel Wilkerson and former director of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim, as well as researchers from Duke University and other institutions.

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