Nobel prize winner Maria Ressa joins SFU for conversation about democracy

President Joy Johnson presented Ressa with SFU honorary doctorate degree

The photo is of Ressa and Off sitting on stage together as they engage in conversation. There are numerous people in the audience before them. A screen behind them has a large photo of Ressa and the title “How to Stand Up to a Dictator.”
Ressa shared that our information systems are influenced by the algorithmic choices of social media companies. PHOTO: Pranjali J Mann / The Peak

By: Pranjali J Mann, News Writer

On September 13, the SFU Vancouver speaker series invited Maria Ressa, the 2021 Nobel peace prize winner, journalist, and CEO and co-founder of online news agency, Rappler. She was awarded the SFU Honorary Doctorate Degree by president Joy Johnson to acknowledge her exceptional contributions to the field of journalism, freedom of press, and combating misinformation. Ressa’s upcoming book, How to Stand up to a Dictator, will analyze misinformation across the world, including “Duterte’s drug wars, America’s Capitol Hill, and Britain’s Brexit.” 

Carol Off, former CBC radio host of the show As It Happens moderated the discussion with Ressa regarding “the threat disinformation campaigns pose to our increasingly polarized democracies.” 

Ressa mentioned her interaction and interview with former Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte. Before Duterte was president, Ressa interviewed him and confirmed he committed extrajudicial killings. Off attributed this to Ressa’s reporting style: “This is the beauty of your reporting style and your vulnerability — you get people to tell you things.” 

As Ressa delved into the story, she said, “I didn’t want them to be numbers. This was horrifying.” Ressa revealed the police underreported the number of deaths to avoid the attention of human rights groups. As their government was altering casualty reports and releasing fake news, Ressa said, “This is what I call death by a thousand cuts of our democracy. But this is also a death by a thousand cuts of our history, it’s a death by thousand cuts of facts and literal people.” 

Calling social media attacks on herself as “propaganda war,” she stated that in today’s technology, “you say a lie a million times, it becomes a fact [ . . . ] And this is a bandwagon effect.” She noted the way “Facebook algorithms impact democracy.” Ressa received up to 90 hate messages on Facebook an hour — which she refers to as “hate at [an] exponential scale.” 

Ressa explained that machine learning models use the photos uploaded to Facebook to create clones of users. This is then used to design artificial intelligence models which curate targeted advertisements. “What was used for advertising is now used for geopolitical power play. And that is the danger [ . . . ] Online violence is real world violence,” according to Ressa. 

The commodification and erosion of journalism is affecting the health of democracies worldwide. Off noted as many countries will be voting for the heads of their states in 2024, a trend to elect authoritarian and illiberal democracies will be on a rise. Ressa indicated this is because technology companies and digital authoritarians use “social media platforms manipulate our emotions, they spark fear, anger, hate [ . . . ] that changes us.”

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