Filipina Nobel Prize winner Ressa delivers dire warning for democracy in 2024

John Bechtel
Filipina Nobel Prize winner Ressa delivers dire warning for democracy in 2024 Maria Ressa, editor and CEO of Philippine news site Rappler, speaks during the Nobel Prize Summit 2023: Truth, Trust and Hope, at the National Academy of Sciences Building in Washington, May 24, 2023.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP

Democracy could die depending on the outcomes of general elections in Taiwan, the United States and elsewhere in 2024, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa warned on Tuesday as the Philippine news editor addressed a gathering of journalists in Washington.

Ressa, editor and CEO of Rappler, a crusading news website based in Manila, noted there would be 90 elections of critical importance this year and next.

She singled out the Taiwanese election scheduled for January 2024, followed by the Indonesian vote to elect a successor to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in February, along with the U.S. presidential election in November.

“We’ll know whether democracy lives or dies by the end of 2024,” Ressa said during a speech before members of the National Press Club.

Earlier in her talk, she expressed concern about autocrats using social media to establish power, noting that a Swedish study had shown that 72% of the world’s population lived under authoritarian rule.

“We are globally electing illiberal leaders democratically,” she said. “If we don’t have integrity of facts, we can’t have integrity of elections.

Back home in the Philippines, Rappler under Ressa’s leadership had angered former President Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2022) because of its critical coverage of his administration’s bloody war on drugs. The Duterte administration retaliated by going after her though the courts.

In January, a court in Manila acquitted Ressa of tax evasion, but she is appealing a cyber-libel conviction against her at home.

“If we do this as it is business as usual and let the tech move forward, we will continue electing illiberal leaders,” she said Tuesday, warning that they could “crush democracy from within” and create alliances with other autocrats.

Rappler, which has 10 reporters on staff, did use artificial intelligence during the 2022 presidential campaign, she noted during her talk.

“The future is in our hands. This is it. We have to use generative AI,” she said, adding there were 18,000 candidates who ran for different offices in last year’s Philippine general election and that she had wanted a biography for each one.

To accomplish her goal, Rappler staff structured the data and the system created the biographies. Each biography included a note to inform readers that while the information was created by AI, it was checked by Rappler researchers.

“It worked,” she said.

Philippine voters overwhelmingly supported Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for president in the May 2022 polls. Ressa noted that social media had helped change the public’s recollections about his father, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, who was driven from office and the country by a people-power revolt in 1986.

Following the election, Rappler continued using AI despite concerns that it could produce false information.

“What we did was fix the parameters so the data it would use, the demand for it would limit its ability to hallucinate,” Ressa said.

Such concerns about social media are not new for Ressa, who used the term “toxic sludge“ of disinformation when accepting her Nobel Prize in December 2021.

“[T]he toxic sludge that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritized by American internet companies that make more money by spreading that hate and triggering the worst in us … well, that just means we have to work much harder,” she said at the time.

Ressa shared the award with Russian newspaper editor Dmitri Muratov. On Tuesday, she said he planned to stay in Russia despite being declared a “foreign agent” by the government in Moscow. 

Muratov announced he would leave his post as editor of Novaya Gazeta to mount a court challenge.

“Muratov categorically disagrees with the decision of the Ministry of Justice and is filing a lawsuit,” Novaya Gazeta said in a statement, according to Voice of America.

In Washington, Ressa said she had posted a link to a 10-point plan to “reclaim our rights” on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter and which is owned by Elon Musk.

“We urge rights-respecting democracies to wake up to the existential threat of information ecosystems being distorted by a Big Tech business model fixated on harvesting people’s data and attention, even as it undermines serious journalism and polarizes debate in society and political life,” the website said.

Among the points are: protect citizens’ rights to privacy; publicly condemn abuses against the free press and journalists globally; urgently propose legislation to ban surveillance advertising; protect media freedom by cutting off disinformation upstream; and create a special envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General focused on the Safety of Journalists.


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