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Nobel Peace Prize winning journalist Maria Ressa made a virtual
appearance at the University of Delaware in late April, at a
conversation entitled “Exposing Truth, Challenging Power.”
Nobel Peace Prize
winning journalist Maria Ressa made a virtual appearance at the
University of Delaware in late April, at a conversation entitled
“Exposing Truth, Challenging Power.” The journalist discussed her fight
for press freedom under the authoritarian regime of outgoing Philippine
President Rodrigo Duterte and warned of the ways in which authoritarian
regimes worldwide are using technology and social media platforms to
thwart democracy. The event, which was hosted by the Department of
Communication, was moderated by Professor Emeritus Ralph Begleiter in
front of an audience in Mitchell Hall that watched Ressa live on video.
Ressa is the co-founder of Rappler, a digital-only news site leading
the fight for freedom in the Philippines, and has been arrested multiple
times and endured political harassment from the government. She was
scheduled to be at UD in person but those plans were derailed when the
Philippine Court issued her only six of the seven necessary approvals
Ressa was born in the Philippines but moved to New Jersey with her
family when she was nine. She later earned a degree in English and
certificates in theater and dance from Princeton University before
returning to the Philippines to begin her career in journalism.
Ressa shared the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with Russian journalist
Dmitry Muratov. (Muratov was recently in the news for auctioning off
his Nobel Peace Prize medal for $103.5 million, to raise money for
Ukrainian refugees.) The Nobel Peace Prize committee noted, “As an
investigative journalist, [Ressa] has distinguished herself as a
fearless defender of freedom of expression and has exposed the abuse of
power, use of violence and increasing authoritarianism of the regime of
then-President Rodrigo Duterte. She and Rappler have also documented how
social media are being used to spread fake news, harass opponents and
manipulate public discourse.”
Ressa devoted the majority of her remarks at UD to the impact that
social media has on public opinion, and on the insidious ways that it
pulls its audience in to stay online and keep clicking. Take social
media algorithms, which some may view as benign or even helpful in that
they screen out extraneous posts and keep only “relevant” content. Ressa
encouraged her UD audience to instead think about the way that
algorithms can be used to alter public opinion about political issues.
“When you think about it, algorithms on social media platforms are
really opinions in code,” said Ressa. “They serve as gatekeepers to
prevent you from hearing other messages.” She also spoke of the
hyper-socialization that social media platforms promote. “Can we even be
alone with our thoughts anymore? The ‘toxic sludge’ that is posted is
designed to keep you scrolling.”
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The event was hosted by the Department of Communication, and
moderated by Professor Emeritus Ralph Begleiter. Begleiter and Ressa
were colleagues at CNN.
As Ressa’s stature has grown worldwide, so, too, has the Philippine
government ramped up its attacks on her both professionally and
personally. For example, she shared samples of social media posts
designed to dehumanize her. In one post, a photo of her is displayed
below that of a Neanderthal man, to show their supposed resemblance. The
caption reads: “She’s not the victim. She’s the abuser of press
Duerte retired and was replaced by his running mate, Ferdinand Marcos
Jr., on June 30. Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, will be vice
president. It remains to be seen whether Ressa’s political harassment
will abate with Marcos in power.
Despite the conditions in which she lives and works, Ressa was,
nonetheless, upbeat at her UD appearance, and remarked, “We are in the
middle of dark times and need to walk out of it and make it better.”
She referenced the Arab Spring as, at least initially, a time when
social media was used for social good. In the present-day war in
Ukraine, Ressa says credit needs to be given to Ukrainian President
Volodymyr Zelenskyy for using social media effectively. “It’s not a
reflection of the platform itself, it’s a reflection of how Zelensky has
inspired his people and people all over the world.”
The event was a bit of a reunion for Ressa, who spent nearly two
decades working as a lead investigative reporter in Southeast Asia for
CNN, and for Begleiter, who worked two decades in CNN’s Washington
bureau as its world affairs correspondent. More than once, Ressa began
her response to a question by noting, “Oh, I wish I could be there in
person with you.”
Article by Margo McDonough, photos by Evan Krape
Originally published July 01, 2022