Jun 28, 2022 - Technology

Nobelist Maria Ressa: Social media is corroding U.S. democracy

Photo of Maria Ressa smiling wearing glasses and a red jacket
2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa in Geneva on May 3, 2022. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. is "far worse off than you think" when it comes to social media undermining its democracy, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and journalist Maria Ressa told Axios.

Why it matters: Ressa, a Filipino American co-founder of news organization Rappler, says the next wave of elections around the world, including the U.S. midterms in November, provides another opportunity for social media to spread disinformation, divide people against one another and incite violence.

  • "Most people, they don't realize they're being manipulated, that these platforms are biased against facts. You don't get facts. It's toxic sludge. Social media encourages anger, hate, conspiracy theories. There's violence," and it's getting worse, Ressa said in an exclusive interview ahead of a Tuesday speech in Honolulu at the East-West Center International Media Conference.
  • "Online violence is real-world violence," Ressa says, citing incidents around the world, including the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and recent mass shootings by radicalized killers.

She argues nations need to require accountability for tech firms like Meta, which owns Facebook, and Twitter.

Catch up quick: Ressa was co-awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.

  • Rappler gained recognition for its coverage of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal war on drugs. The news site has also reported on the spread of fake news on social media and the government's use of bots to manipulate public opinion.
  • Muratov's independent news organization, Novaya Gazeta, ceased publication after Russian President Vladimir Putin cracked down on Russian media outlets that did not support his false narrative about the war waged against Ukraine.
  • Last week, Muratov sold his Nobel for a record $103.5 million and pledged the proceeds to help Ukrainian children.

Ressa said she has hope that the EU will take steps to regulate social media companies as efforts in the U.S. have stalled. But she warns that the global problem needs global solutions, both in law and practice by social media companies themselves.

When asked what advice she'd give to Elon Musk, who is in the process of buying Twitter, Ressa cautioned the billionaire about the consequences of unchecked free speech.

  • "There's a reason why, when news organizations were gatekeepers, we had standards and transparency. Free speech unchecked is like a person yelling fire and there’s not a fire. Free speech at all costs has costs."

Since being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Ressa still faces threats to herself, and Rappler, the media company where she serves as chief executive, still faces several lawsuits from the Filipino government, which has tried to put Rappler out of business for writing critical news coverage.

  • Now that the Philippines has elected Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as its new president, Ressa said she has received no indication that the incoming president will change course.
  • "The short answer is it's TBD. Who knows what the new administration will do. If the rule of law wins, these cases [against me and Rappler] will be thrown out. I look forward to a new administration and their upgrading of the rule of law."

Marcos Jr. ran his campaign without answering tough questions from Rappler journalists or other independent news organizations, Ressa said, instead choosing to travel with a team of video bloggers who spun out pro-Marcos stories on social media. He won in May with 59% of the vote.

  • Ressa argued that social media enables politicians to create their own echo chambers of information, where the truth is irrelevant because a narrative — even full of falsehoods — is more compelling.

What's next: Independent news media "lost" in Russia, Ressa said. She raised concerns about the future of democracy next in Brazil, Kenya, and the U.S., which are dealing with similar threats of fractured information systems and have upcoming elections.

  • "We will all end up like Russia if we don't do better," Ressa warned.
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