Journalist Maria Ressa, who this year won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in the Philippines as chief executive and co-founder of digital media company Rappler, says she has seen the future. It’s not clear.
“Our dystopia is coming for you,” she said at the DealBook Online Summit on Wednesday.
Ms. Ressa has risked her life and freedom by denouncing the corruption of the government under Rodrigo Duterte, the authoritarian president of the Philippines. She has been arrested, faces numerous legal battles at home and needs permission from the authorities to travel, including to the United States to see her parents.
Winning the Nobel Prize has shed light on her difficulties. But the political struggle in the Philippines continues for reasons beyond local politics, and she believes it is an indicator of what lies ahead for the United States and the world.
Ms Ressa said the dangers she faced have been greatly exacerbated by the way Facebook works, adding to the division and misinformation, she said, ultimately leading to more polarization affecting the election. “Polarization is built into the recommendation engine for growth,” said Ms. Ressa.
She pointed to the Facebook Papers, a trove of thousands of internal documents — including those detailing Facebook’s investigation into its impact on users — leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen. Ms Ressa asked, “What happens when social media is optimized – in the words of technology – to the point that it is now a behavior change system where information operations change us?”
Ms. Ressa said that when Rappler started in 2012, she had high hopes for Facebook. “I drank the Kool-Aid,” she said. “I thought we could use technology to jump-start development, to build institutions from the bottom up. Until 2016 it went pretty well.”
But then, she said, she started noticing changes in the kind of information that bolstered the platform. Rappler began monitoring the link between the social media giant and current events such as Brexit, the election of Emmanuel Macron in France and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
“I went to Facebook in Singapore with the data we had that was quite alarming,” she said. “And I gave it to them and thought they would do something immediately so we could do the story because we were partners. And they didn’t.”
A few months later, Rappler published a series called “Weaponizing the Internet,” and Ms. Ressa says she was bombarded with about 100 messages an hour. “If you expose the machine,” she said, “the machine will come for you.”
But Ms. Ressa said she didn’t believe breaking up Facebook was the solution because other companies are using similar algorithms. Instead, she insisted on regulating the algorithms.
Algorithms, she said, are contributing to an erosion of democracy worldwide, not least in the Philippines, where presidential elections will be held next year.
“This is existential,” Mrs. Ressa said. “We are, as it were, on the abyss. And if we don’t get the rule of law back in these elections, I don’t know what will happen to us.”
Watch the full interview: