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Maria Ressa on Facebook, Truth and the Crisis of Democracy

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Maria Ressa on Facebook, Truth and the Crisis of Democracy

By: Maria Ressa, CEO and Executive Editor, RAPPLER

Wow! A lot has happened with Facebook in the past week – starting with a one-day loss of almost $120 billion, making it the largest single drop in Wall Street history.

This happened despite the fact that FB’s revenues grew 42% year-over-year this quarter and that the tech giant now counts 2.5 billion people using at least one of its apps. That’s huge considering that there are only about 3.5 billion people in the world with access to the internet.

Here’s the problem: there isn’t much room to grow. Facebook’s user base in the US is stagnant, and for the first time, its base in the EU dropped 3 million, a third of that because of GDPR, EU’s data privacy law which went into effect on May 25.

Worldwide, Facebook grew by just 22 million users, driven largely by India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Coming home is where it becomes interesting.

Let’s look at how Filipinos have reacted to FB since 2016.

In January 2016, Alexa, which ranks the top sites in the Philippines, had Facebook consistently as #1. Then presidential elections happened, anger spread on social media.

By July 2016, the social media campaign machinery was weaponized, targeting perceived enemies and critics with exponential hate. Most folks watched in horror; many shut down Facebook, and by January 2017, Facebook dropped to #8.

Here’s why.

Rappler began gathering data in July 2016, and in August, we were alarmed. In a meeting with three Facebook officials in Singapore, I handed the data that showed that a sock puppet network of 23 fake accounts can influence up to 3 million others and outlined the campaigns of hate that seemed to be turning our world upside down, creating a spiral of silence. I told them we were so alarmed that we began a #NoPlaceForHate campaign to help those who were bullied or intimidated.

I jokingly warned, “Please study this and do something about it. After all, US elections are coming up, and Trump could win!” We all laughed then, but when he won in November, they asked for the data again.

By late September, we were ready to publish our series on the weaponization of the internet – particularly of Facebook – where 97% of Filipinos on the internet connect.

Although we were partners, Facebook stonewalled.

So we published a 3-part series in October 2017 without any statement or action points from them.

Part 1: Propaganda War: Weaponizing the Internet: In the Philippines, paid trolls, fallacious reasoning, leaps in logic, poisoning the well – these are only some of the propaganda techniques that have helped shift public opinion on key issues

Part 2: How Facebook algorithms impact democracy: Its algorithms decide what you see. And they don’t distinguish fact from fiction.

Part 3: Fake accounts, manufactured reality on social media: Suspicious and fake Facebook accounts share common practices, forming a nest that spreads lies and propaganda

Back then, we zeroed in on the core problem (the subhead of Part 2): Facebook's algorithms determine your reality, except the social giant refuses to delete lies.

Fast-forward nearly two years later, and cheap armies on social media are rolling back democracy globally.

Caption: Rappler receives NDI's Democracy Award, November, 2017Margo Gontar, StopFake (Ukraine), Madeleine Albright, Philip Howard (Oxford Computational Propaganda Research Project) and me

Now there's a new July 2018 report by the Oxford Computational Propaganda Research Project that found evidence of formally organized social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries, up from 28 countries last year.


This Saturday after Facebook’s battering on Wall Street, Britain’s House of Commons select committee on digital, culture, media and sport published what may be the most comprehensive global look at what we stumbled into nearly two years ago.

The committee chair, Damian Collins, said: “We are facing nothing less than a crisis in our democracy based on the systemic manipulation of data to support the relentless targeting of citizens, without their consent, by campaigns of disinformation and messages of hate.”

Read the report here.

Collins talks about “Facebook’s complete lack of moral responsibility”, “moral leadership”, its executives’ “disingenuous” responses, and their refusal to “avoid answering questions to the point of obfuscation.”

It burrows and explodes the Cambridge Analytica, SCL, AIQ and their influence on foreign elections, including the Philippines (buried on p. 54).

More alarming, according to Collins, are “just how many connections take you back to Russia. At every step of the way. There’s never been a point where we’ve thought, ‘Oh, it’s not as bad as we feared.’ The connections just seem to deepen and become more significant.”

Remember in October 2016, when President Duterte surprised everyone, including our Department of Foreign Affairs, by announcing during his visit to Beijing that the Philippines would pivot from the United States to China … and Russia.

I always felt that the use of social media during the campaigns still seemed homegrown. The difference was the use of anger, much of it justified because of the slowness of the trickle-down effect. However, the weaponization of social media coinciding with the drug war’s front in July – that was different. Not homegrown.

Even our solution, the database we nicknamed ‘the shark-tank’, came from research on effective responses against Russian disinformation in the Ukraine.

Let me end with where we are in the Philippines today.

Facebook admitted that we are Patient Zero in the global fight against disinformation.

It took roughly a year of online exponential hate and propaganda attacks to translate to real-world action, like the charge that Rappler is foreign-owned (we are not).

It was first floated in social media in February 2017, created and amplified by the propaganda machine. In July 2017, it came out of the mouth of President Duterte during his second State of the Nation address. That was followed a week later by the SEC case.

So there’s a distinct link between the virtual and the real world: floated on social media, the propaganda machine is the harbinger of changes to come in the real world. We’ve seen it happen with Leila de Lima and former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

Keep an eye on the intense continuing attacks against Vice President Leni Robredo.

The good news?

Last Friday, the Court of Appeals said it believed the clause singled out by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) gave Omidyar Network, Rappler’s PDR holder, “some amount” of foreign control. However, it said the SEC was wrong in trying to revoke Rappler’s license and remanded the case back to the SEC, especially since Omidyar had never exercised that “right” and had shown “good faith” by waiving it then donating the PDRS to Rappler staff.

Help us continue the battle for truth and accountability!

This blog was initially distributed as a newsletter and is republished with permission. Click here to subscribe to the newsletter Brave New World with Maria Ressa.


WAN-IFRA External Contributor


2018-07-31 11:21

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