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5 things we learned from Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa's SXSW keynote

Earl Hopkins
Austin American-Statesman

While veteran journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa was bound by a virtual screen during her South by Southwest keynote, her presence was felt inside the Austin Convention Center.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner dug into the spread of misinformation and how it's been weaponized by the world's political powers to threaten democracy.

Ressa said her breaking point came in 2016. By then, the spread of misinformation on social media was apparent on a global scale. She said platforms like Google and Facebook were splintering people's perception of truth through their algorithms.

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"The algorithmic choices were exploited by misinformation networks," said Ressa, who worked as an investigative reporter for nearly 20 years for CNN in Southeast Asia.

She added: "They are making editorial decisions at scale, and the choices they make are encoded in algorithms."

Ressa was joined in the SXSW event by Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Agora Institute. The two journalists agreed that these systems have been coopted by the world's dictators to threaten democracy.

"I'm not talking about something conspiratorial. There's just a concerted, focused push from a whole tide of dictatorial regimes who want to reinvent dictatorship for the 21st century, who want to undo the great victories of democracy," Pomerantsev said.

In an hourlong conversation with Stephen King, CEO of global philanthropic organization Luminate, Ressa and Pomerantsev broke down the battle for truth and its place in the Russian war on Ukraine. They also asked one thing from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a fellow SXSW 2022 speaker.

Here are five things we learned from the session. 

1. 'A chilling effect'

Ressa said the spread of misinformation has also come with the stifling of journalists in the forms of intimidation, harassment and even legal action.

The Manila-born journalist has faced legal battles for her work in the Philippines, where she's fought against disinformation and criticized Rodrigo Duterte, her country’s authoritarian president. And because of one of seven pending legal cases, she was unable to make her flight to Austin in time for her keynote session.

"That's kind of the state of the world and Filipino democracy," she said. "Once you can stifle journalists, you create not just a chilling effect, but you create examples."

To illustrate the latter, Ressa mentioned Filipino Sen. Leila de Lima, whom she said has been unjustly imprisoned for speaking out against Duterte.

2. 'Being neutral isn't enough'

Pomerantsev said the fight against misinformation is about minimizing harm.

He pointed to the censorship of Russian citizens who protest their country's attack on Ukraine. He said many are aware of what's going on, but there's a distrust in social media and news organizations. 

"There's very little motivation to see reality," Pomerantsev said. "It makes you feel uncomfortable. It means you have to face up to the fact that you might be the bad guys, and it's scary. If you admit to yourself what's going on fully, then you have to do something about it, (and) then you'll get 15 years for saying the word 'war.'"

But Pomerantsev urged other powers to step up, and for more support to be given to organizations transmitting accurate depictions of the war. 

He described Russian President Vladimir Putin as the "master of disinformation" and a leader who will continue strengthening his dictatorship if he faces no further resistance.

"Putin is the kind of evil leprechaun that runs in front of the other dictators sort of saying, 'Look at me, the Rumpelstiltskin. I'm going to push it, push it, push it.'

"Being neutral isn't enough."

3. 'The other side is not asleep'

Ressa said that tech, security and business sectors now have the power to make sure real journalism reaches the masses.

She said responsibility to safeguard truth also belongs to governments, and without their intervention, those who support or allow the spread of misinformation will be allowed to act with impunity.

As news organizations have embraced their roles in the fight for truth, Pomerantsev said tech companies and other influential industries need to find their place in the battle. 

"The tech companies, like the business community (and) the security community, have to understand where they're sitting in this new dynamic," he said. "The other side is not asleep.

"The other side is building alliances, as we see Russia and China are building alliances right now around their strategic messaging and disinformation and (are) about to start supporting each other with arms. ... Everybody has a responsibility to respond."

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4. 'It's about going to the facts'

Ressa said administering the facts is the answer to disinformation.

"Without facts, you can't have truth; without truth, you can't have trust; and without trust, we have no shared reality," she said. "There's no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world's existential problems."

Pomerantsev said the adoption of rational choice, or the assumption that people will sift through falsehoods to find accurate information, is unrealistic.

Instead, he said more outlets need to create an environment where facts matter and democracy exists. But wondering when people will naturally gravitate toward truth is "pathetic," Pomerantsev said. 

"We have to think about what's the motivation for people to start engaging in reality, with the facts, (and) how to get people to the point where they start internalizing the doubt that they feel," he said. "People do feel doubt in Russia, but because doubt is so uncomfortable, they're pushing it away."

5. One request for Mark Zuckerberg

As for Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Ressa wants only one thing: for the billionaire to address the role social media, including Facebook, has had in the spreading of misinformation. 

She said: "All the studies of social media have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts on social media."