When journalist and activist Maria Ressa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, she had been subjected to online trolling for years. “If you’re the target of attack,” she told the audience at the annual Annenberg Lecture this past weekend, “the goal is not to make you believe anything. It is to pound you to silence.”
But for Ressa, a longtime CNN bureau chief who later co-founded Rappler, a digital-only news site in the Philippines, silence isn’t an option. “What used to be extremist behavior has now moved into politics. This is dangerous,” she said. “We’ve been here before. We do not want to be here again with the kind of technology that acts like gods without knowing what is happening. We cannot opt out.”
It’s that kind of resolve that Penn President Liz Magill referenced in introducing Ressa. “She’s tough, incisive, tenacious, brilliant, and obviously, she has a gift of courage that all of us can admire,” Magill said. “Any of her brushes with peril would have been enough to stop most of us. Getting out in one piece would have been enough.”
Ressa joined Magill, Annenberg School for Communication Dean John L. Jackson, Jr., and members of the Penn community to discuss those obstacles and the possible solutions—and sacrifices—necessary to ensure that truth prevails. The event was the first Annenberg Lecture held in person since the pandemic. It was also the third time Ressa has spoken at the Annenberg School, including at the launch symposium for the Center for Media at Risk and for the Center’s symposium on how journalists operate in authoritarian states.
At Sunday’s lecture, she began by describing the battle we all currently face for “facts, truth, trust.” “Without these three,” she said, “we have no shared reality, we cannot solve any problem together, and we cannot have democracy.”
She then spoke about social media and big data, about how lies spread faster than truths, and the way in which these platforms are being used on a grand scale as manipulation tools by authoritarian regimes. “If you can make people believe lies are the facts, then you can control them,” she said.
Ressa had data to back up her points. In one example, she showed a graph with about a dozen words representative of attacks against the media in the Philippines. Between mid-2015 and mid-2017, bayaran, which means “corrupt” in Filipino, appeared in some 50,000 social media posts and about 1.7 million comments about journalists. In that same timeframe, the word for “biased” appeared in about 1 million comments, peaking at around 30,000 comments a day.
Social media have become the new gatekeepers, Ressa said. Here, she returned to the point she’d previously made about the spread of disinformation, citing a 2018 MIT study. “Lies spread faster than facts, at least six times faster. And especially my generation, we [are] prone to spread it at least six times more,” she said. “A tweet that’s a lie, especially if laced with anger and hate, you are more prone to retweet it 70% of the time.”
What results, she said, is that these lies then become the facts. “In the end, [this] changes how you feel, because it weaponizes your fear, anger, hate. It changes the way you look at the world.”
Despite the difficult subject matter, Ressa introduced some levity into the conversation, feigning jealousy at someone who admitted to not carrying a cellphone, laughing along with the audience when she described the lengths she’d had to go to secure permission to leave her country, where 10 arrest warrants had been issued for her in two years.
At the end of her talk, she offered recommendations for how to fight back.
“We’re literally the batteries powering the social media platforms, our data. Think ‘The Matrix.’ Our energy, our data is powering this. Then combine ‘The Matrix’ with ‘Truman Show,’ where we’re each performing,” she said. “Step out of that. This is it. You have to turn from a user or a consumer to a citizen.” And, Ressa added, no one needs to do this alone.
She mentioned a whole-society approach she and colleagues pioneered. At the bottom of a four-layer pyramid sat 16 news organizations—from hyperlocal to national—that worked together to check facts. They then ran an “influencer marketing campaign” with NGOs, human rights groups, businesses, and others. “Their instructions were to take those boring fact-checks and spread them with emotion, but they couldn’t use hate,” she said. “We found out that inspiration spreads as fast as hate.”
Next, they shared the data weekly with researchers and academics but also with the public, explaining who was getting targeted, what the meta-narratives were, and who was “winning.” Finally, law firms and legal groups “filed tactical and strategic litigation to protect the members of the three layers below them,” Ressa said. “At least 21 cases filed in three months.”
Later Jackson facilitated a handful of questions from the in-person audience and those viewing remotely. The questions addressed, for example, what advice Ressa might give to those who want to have a similarly positive impact, whether it’s feasible to opt out of social media altogether, how far she would go to pursue the truth, where TikTok falls in this conversation, and more.
Jackson closed out the conversation with gratitude for Ressa and the work she does. “As a storyteller who is trying to get us to see ways to what I hope will be a more just future, I want to thank you for your courage and your wisdom and on behalf of the entire school, just say keep doing what you’re doing,” Jackson said. “One of the things that gets me most excited about the work going on here at Annenberg is that it’s working in service to that same goal. Thank you for being a leader on it.”
The annual Annenberg Lecture, sponsored by the Annenberg School for Communication and the Annenberg Public Policy Center, brings to Penn leaders in academia, politics, public policy, or the media. It combines two previous lectures, the Walter and Leonore Distinguished Lecture in Communication, which started in 1992, and the Leonore Annenberg Lecture in Public Service and Global Understanding, which began in 2006. Both series and the subsequent single lecture honor Ambassador and Mrs. Annenberg, without whose vision and support the Annenberg School and Annenberg Public Policy Center would not exist.