Books & the Arts / May 29, 2024

In Maria Ressa’s Philippines

The Nobel Prize–winning journalist’s memoir offers a portrait of a country’s struggles to battle the forces of populism and social media.

Noah Flora

Maria Ressa in Manila, Philippines, 2021.

(Photo by Ezra Acayan / Getty Images)

Looking over Singapore harbor from Facebook’s dazzling new office there, Maria Ressa knew that the bodies were piling up back home in the Philippines. Some had been gunned down by police, others by masked men on motorbikes. The corpses were hog-tied, wrapped in duct tape, or left to bleed out in the streets. It was August of 2016. Rodrigo Duterte, who had campaigned on a promise to kill drug users on a mass scale in order to eradicate crime, had recently won the Philippines’ presidential election. Ressa was in Singapore to deliver a grave warning. She explained to the executives at Facebook’s Asia-Pacific outpost that she and her team of journalists had been investigating for months how Duterte’s campaign had used the social media platform to distribute misleading propaganda about its proposed War on Drugs and to ultimately influence the election in his favor by coordinating with a hired army of trolls and bots.

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Her presentation drew uncomfortable reactions. It was obvious to Ressa that Facebook’s Singapore team had never dealt with anything like this before. Facebook was not yet under the microscope: It was a year before Mark Zuckerberg would publicly confirm to The Washington Post that Facebook had sold political ads to the Kremlin-linked troll farms that tried to influence the United States’ 2016 presidential election. Her Manila-based news outlet, Rappler, took Facebook to task for propagating disinformation with a three-part investigative series in October 2016 called “Weaponizing the Internet.”

In it, the Rappler team documented how Duterte’s online network had boosted misleading articles and images on Facebook in order to manufacture support for him. In one instance, his campaign spokesman circulated a disturbing image of a slain 9-year-old girl that went viral, attributing her death to a culture of immorality fueled by drugs. The Rappler series revealed that this photograph originated not in the Philippines but in Brazil. The series then analyzed how trolls used Facebook features like Pages and Groups to extend the reach of this type of pro-Duterte propaganda to millions of accounts.

Duterte’s reign proved to be disastrous. In his six-year term, he oversaw a dramatic increase in police and military power and a clampdown on dissent, using crises like the Covid-19 pandemic to justify a greater military presence in civilian life. The toll of his War on Drugs proved to be staggering: Some estimates say 25,000 people were killed in the crackdowns between 2016 and 2020. The country has garnered the ignoble status of having the highest jail occupancy rate in the world as the police swept the streets, corralling hundreds of thousands of people—including activists and journalists—into overcrowded prisons.

Ressa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her efforts to safeguard press freedom under Duterte’s regime. In her recent memoir, How to Stand Up to a Dictator, Ressa seeks to understand how her country backslid into autocracy. She sees social media—in particular the way it works as an unchecked political force—as a scourge to democracy, every bit as much as the regime itself. “The breakdown of the rule of law globally was ignited by the lack of democratic vision for the internet,” she argues.

While there is no question that, over the last decade, Facebook has acted as a novel disruptive force in politics globally, Ressa’s preoccupation with social media overshadows other intractable factors in her country’s crack-up, such as the scars left behind by colonialism and its persistent inequality, which gave shape to Duterte’s powerful online machine. The same “black ops” tactics were used in the Philippines’ most recent presidential election to vault his successor—a member of the country’s most entrenched and corrupt political family, the Marcos dynasty—into its highest seat of power. But to understand the rise of Duterte and Marcos, disinformation is only part of the picture, and one that belies a more complex reality: the populace’s growing distrust of a liberal elite that has failed to resolve the Philippines’ greatest social ills.

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A record-shattering 55 million voters took to the polls for the Philippines’ presidential election in 2022. Bongbong Marcos, the victor by a landslide, had spent the previous two decades revising (in the public and on social media) the dismal record of his late father, Ferdinand Marcos, the kleptocrat who declared martial law in 1972 and ruled as a one-man government until he was ousted in 1986. As a candidate, Bongbong avoided participating in debates and presented few concrete policy proposals. The backbone of his campaign was a vague promise to return the country to its “golden era,” as well as a network of Facebook and YouTube accounts spouting propaganda aimed at exonerating the Marcos family of corruption. A report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism showed that Bongbong had forgone Facebook Ad spending in favor of paying influencers directly to peddle falsehoods in an effort to “appear more organic.” From its humble beginnings on forgotten platforms of the early aughts like Friendster, Bongbong’s revisionist machinery has reached its zenith on TikTok, where teens filmed their nostalgic elders’ teary-eyed reactions to patriotic anthems from the Marcos era.

Around 2016, as Rappler journalists began tracking Duterte’s disinformation networks, they immediately noticed overlaps between the accounts sharing pro-Duterte and pro-Marcos content. In 2019, Ressa and her Rappler team published another three-part series aimed at Bongbong’s propaganda machine. A main objective of his disinformation network was to obscure the origin of the family’s riches with claims that the estimated $10 billion plundered from the nation’s coffers during the Marcos era was in fact obtained through legal means. But as Nick Davies reported in The Guardian, there is a long financial paper trail left by the Marcoses that points to “the biggest theft in history”: contracts, share certificates, bank records, scribbles on notepads, diary entries. The Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), established shortly after the regime was toppled, was tasked with recovering the “ill-gotten wealth accumulated by former President Ferdinand E. Marcos.” Half a century later, the PCGG is still tabulating the receipts.

The level of corruption cannot be overstated: From 1965 to 1986, Ferdinand Marcos organized the entire Philippine economy into a personal reservoir of cash. He established companies and issued decrees that gave him and a coterie of cronies monopolies over key consumer markets. He raided the central bank. He stole from foreign aid and military assistance funds. He siphoned off reparations that Japan had paid to the Philippines for damages during World War II. He opened a vast network of offshore accounts that protected all this plunder. The family purchased houses, yachts, planes, helicopters, and sports cars. All the while, the people floundered. From 1970 to 1985, the national debt skyrocketed 900 percent, to $25 billion. By 1985, the year before Marcos was deposed, over half of the population was living below the poverty line.

The younger Marcos’s vlogs on Facebook elide all of this, instead pointing to the various infrastructure projects that his father supposedly implemented as president (though these were also debunked) in order to paint a far rosier picture of the past. But the human rights abuses, as with the family’s stolen wealth, piled up in the decade under martial law: 3,240 extrajudicial killings, 70,000 imprisonments, 34,000 incidents of torture.

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The tipping point was the People Power (or EDSA) Revolution of 1986, a remarkable three days of popular demonstrations along Manila’s main artery, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), of a pitch and magnitude that, though largely peaceful, overwhelmed the nation’s armed forces and caused the international community—namely, the United States—to withdraw its support for the Marcos regime. The Marcos family, including Bongbong, who was 28 at the time, fled to Hawaii, where they remained in exile until 1992. They returned to the country after Ferdinand Marcos’s death and, in the decades since, have slowly rebuilt their political profile in their home province of Ilocos Norte, where Bongbong served as governor from 1998 to 2007, before setting his sights on the presidency.

Ressa immigrated from the Philippines to the United States as a young child in 1973, a year after martial law began. Graduating from Princeton in 1986, she returned to the country of her birth as a Fulbright scholar in the freshly smoldering aftermath of the EDSA Revolution. Through the connections of a childhood friend, she found herself in a newsroom at a time when the field was clear for newcomers. The big stations were in the process of restructuring; having lost all credibility among viewers, a whole generation of Marcos-era news anchors had just been sacked. Maharlika Broadcasting System, formerly owned by Marcos allies, became People’s Television. Ressa was hired as a newscast director at the station. And so she found her calling in journalism.

At this time, the Philippines was gripped by the budding promise of regime change. The new president, Corazon Aquino, who rode the wave of revolution to the presidency, established the PCGG to reclaim Marcos’s treasure hoard for the country. She also set about freeing the hundreds of political prisoners who had languished in detention under martial law. Aquino oversaw the ratification of a new Constitution that imposed term limits on all future presidents and reaffirmed civilian control over the military. Her administration inaugurated what is now known as the “EDSA regime”: a series of successive reformist governments that touted accountability and “good governance,” liberalized trade, and ended the nation’s budget deficit.

Ressa rose up through the ranks of the post-Marcos media ecosystem alongside a cohort of young journalists who were infused with the spirit of the EDSA Revolution and explicitly viewed their work as part of a new nation-building project. Gone were the days of the “envelopmental journalism” that had flourished during the Marcos era (referring to the packets of money given to journalists at press conferences in return for favorable coverage). Ressa became CNN’s Manila bureau chief in 1988, and in 2005 she went on to become the head of ABS-CBN—at the time, the largest news organization in the country—where her team began to experiment with direct audience engagement through social media.

Ressa’s journalistic ethos was shaped by EDSA’s overarching mandate to stamp out the corruption that had reached its zenith during martial law. But by 2015, when Duterte trounced all other candidates in the presidential race, the Philippines’ decades-long reformist project was flagging. The poverty rate had nominally improved in the 50 years since Marcos, but inequality between the country’s richest and poorest remained stubbornly unchanged. Meanwhile, several of the post-Marcos presidencies were beset by their own corruption scandals. The people’s frustration was evident: President Joseph Estrada’s brazen embezzlement of government funds was considered so egregious that he was ousted by another EDSA-style mobilization in 2001.

“The same old Marcos-era corruption problems persisted,” Ressa says of this and another watershed moment in 2013, when President Benigno Aquino, the son of Corazon, was implicated in the biggest corruption scandal the country had seen since the Marcos years: Some $200 million in discretionary funds had been diverted into shell companies, as well as the bank accounts of several government officials, under his administration. A hundred thousand people mobilized in Luneta Park in the heart of Manila to voice their dissatisfaction—“the first social media–organized protest in the Philippines,” according to Ressa, who by this time was covering events at the news organization she had just founded in 2012, Rappler.

On the heels of this momentous government scandal, which effectively discredited the same political family that, over the course of the previous half-century, had become synonymous with democratic reform, the subsequent 2016 elections were widely considered to be a referendum on EDSA. Duterte, formerly the mayor of Davao, a city in the southern Philippines, and an outsider to Manila politics, railed against the Aquinos and presented himself as a plain-speaking, no-nonsense alternative to the entrenched political families and the hypocrisy of their reformist rhetoric.

The significance of the Philippines’ People Power Revolution of 1986 cannot be dismissed. Across Asia and the rest of the world, it ignited a wave of pro-democracy movements that looked to the Philippines for inspiration, from South Korea to Indonesia, reaching as far as Czechoslovakia in Eastern Europe. And in the Philippines itself, huge strides toward democracy were made in the decades after the revolution, not the least of which was a flourishing, inventive, and critical national press, which Ressa played a major role in developing.

But as illustrated by the scandals that hobbled the administrations of Joseph Estrada and Benigno Aquino in the 2000s, People Power was not enough to resolve the fundamental problems of Philippine society, including a government that effectively operates as a vehicle for a small class of ruling families to enrich themselves at the expense of a suffering populace. “There was a yawning gap between the EDSA Republic’s promise of popular empowerment and wealth redistribution, and the reality of massive poverty, scandalous inequality, and pervasive corruption,” writes Walden Bello, an activist and politician who was arrested last year on trumped-up charges. And the members of this opportunistic political elite are beholden not to the people they were elected to serve, but to business interests and their cronies. In this regard, Duterte proved to be no different: His tenure in office ended with a Senate investigation into the awarding of massive pandemic response contracts that appeared to favor companies with alleged links to his economic adviser.

In Ressa’s worldview, bad-faith actors like Duterte are on a mission to sabotage the project of liberal democratic reform and have used social media to misinform and “[create] behavior at a scale that brought out the worst in humanity.” At the same time, she acknowledges that Facebook is not the underlying force in the Philippines’ reactionary shock: “Technology didn’t do all this alone; it was the accelerant, to set fire to the kindling built up by decades of liberal progress.” One gets the sense that perhaps because Ressa has dedicated so much of her life to EDSA’s legacy, she has a hard time articulating a critique of it. What she implies is that the shortcomings of EDSA itself engendered the rise of Duterte and Marcos. That Ressa cannot say this outright in her book speaks to the severity of the Philippines’ quagmire: Resolving its problems will require reckoning not only with Marcos’s nostalgia for a false golden era but also with the failure of the reformist paradigm that has shaped the nation’s political identity for the last 30 years.

On the afternoon of February 13, 2019, plainclothes officers arrived at the Rappler newsroom with a warrant for Ressa’s arrest. The Rappler reporters stopped their usual work and pulled out their smartphones. “If we see our faces on the net, you’ll be sorry,” one agent said to 24-year-old Aika Rey, who was livestreaming the confrontation. “We’ll go after you.”

Ressa was charged with “cyber-libel” for an old Rappler story that had linked one of the Philippines’ richest business tycoons to drugs and human trafficking. Since it was passed in 2012, the cyber-libel law has been used to muzzle a number of journalists and activists—including, recently, Walden Bello. Meanwhile, Duterte’s punitive use of Facebook extended into his presidency through the targeted online harassment of opposition politicians and critical journalists. Rappler was high on his list of nemeses. As the face of the news organization and an outspoken critic of Duterte’s policies, Ressa found herself embattled on two fronts: a vindictive legal system on the one hand, and on the other, an army of Facebook trolls later revealed to have been coordinated by a government bureau called the Presidential Communications Operations Office. “What you’re seeing is death by a thousand cuts,” Ressa told the BBC after a guilty verdict against her in the cyber-libel case in 2020. “Not just of press freedom, but of democracy.”

Ressa had founded Rappler eight years earlier, a website that quickly grew to rival the older major news networks with its investigative reporting and social-media-first approach to journalism. In the early half of that decade, optimism still existed about social media’s capacity to effect meaningful political change, inspired by events like the 2011 Arab Spring, in which social media was used as a tool for mobilizing the protests that toppled several authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. At the time of Rappler’s inception, Ressa believed that Facebook was a powerful democratizing force that could facilitate engagement in the public sphere.

The emotional arc of Ressa’s memoir is her disillusionment with Facebook over the last decade of her career, as her personal vision of the platform proved to be increasingly at odds with the reality of the company as an expanding enterprise that was rapaciously seeking new markets. A year after that meeting in Singapore, where her warning fell on deaf ears, Ressa had the chance to address Mark Zuckerberg directly at a developer conference in San Jose, California. She invited Zuckerberg to come to the Philippines to see firsthand the damage that Facebook had wrought. When he hesitated, she became insistent: “Ninety-seven percent of Filipinos on the internet are on Facebook, Mark,” she told him, to which he merely replied, ominously, “Wait, Maria, where are the other three percent?”

Facebook’s adventures abroad followed an old imperialist logic: Faced with the prospect of market saturation in the West, the company had to look outward, toward the less-developed world, to sustain growth. Those efforts ramped up in 2013 with the advent of Internet.org, an ostensibly not-for-profit initiative and pet project of Zuckerberg’s that promised to help connect people in emerging markets to the Internet. The idea was for Facebook to make deals with local telecommunications operators to offer a small suite of stripped-down Web services—Facebook chief among them—for free, through an app.

From 2014 to 2017, Internet.org was rolled out in two dozen developing countries, from Zambia to Colombia and India to Iraq. But the scheme was test-launched in the Philippines before anywhere else, in partnership with Globe, at that time the second-largest mobile phone company in the country. By some measures, it was a success: Ressa points out that within 15 months, Globe had overtaken its rivals. But almost from the start, the initiative was sharply criticized as a cynical ploy for Facebook to expand its customer base under the auspices of humanitarianism.

For Ressa, it is telling that Facebook chose the Philippines as the lab rat for Zuckerberg’s monopoly experiment. This kind of thing “had a history,” she writes. As a former colony of the United States, many of the Philippine state’s apparatuses of repression were forged in the crucible of American empire. The colonial authorities had “extraordinary freedom for bold social experimentation frequently barred by legal or political challenges at home,” notes the American historian Alfred W. McCoy. He argues that the US Army’s efforts to crush Filipino resistance to colonial occupation at the turn of the 20th century served as the test case for counterinsurgency and surveillance operations that were exported back to the United States itself. Today, colonial powers have been replaced by “foreign businesses experimenting in gray areas [that] came to the Philippines because it had few or no internet regulations, and what regulations it did have, it didn’t enforce,” Ressa writes.

Although she touches on the larger structural problems here, such moments in the book are fleeting. Instead, Ressa gives most of her attention to the notion that Facebook “changes” people’s behavior (especially among the “less educated,” she adds) in such a way that they can be persuaded to act unwittingly against their own interests by voting for someone like Duterte or Marcos. But there are deeper historical forces that offer a much more meaningful explanation for the last decade in Philippine politics, such as the persistence of crony capitalism and the failure to address widespread inequality. While these points are mentioned in Ressa’s book, they could have been made much more powerful with a change in emphasis.

Yet the story continues: Ressa is appealing the six-year sentence for cyber-libel that she was given in 2020, and Rappler is still fighting a 2018 government order to shut down. Marcos has promised to continue his predecessor’s War on Drugs, but “in a different way,” shifting the focus from low-level offenders to high-level suppliers—though a December 2022 study by researchers at the University of the Philippines found that drug-related killings in the first five months of Marcos’s presidency already exceeded those in the last six months of Duterte’s administration. Still, there is reason to hope: The spirit of democracy lives on. The 55 million people who voted in 2022 was the highest turnout on record, including more than half of the registered voters between the ages of 18 and 30. “We are handing you a broken world,” Ressa laments in an address to the younger generation. “You have to be stronger and smarter than we are.”

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Noah Flora

is a writer. His work has appeared in The NationThe Progressive, and the Asian American Writers Workshop.

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