MARIA RESSA

The MOST HATED Sex­i­est WOMAN Alive

Esquire (Philippines) - - MAN AT HIS BEST - In­ter­view by Kris­tine Fonacier Pho­to­graphs by Fruh­lein Econar

“De­spite her size, fear­less enough to write an eye­wit­ness ac­count of Al-Qaeda,” Esquire trum­peted in 2010, when the web­site named Maria Ressa to its list of 195 Sex­i­est Women Alive. It’s a fac­toid that was res­ur­rected ear­lier this year by (let’s be frank) fake news sites and hy­per­par­ti­san blogs, os­ten­si­bly to hold her up anew to so­cial me­dia ridicule. “They’ve said worse,” says Ressa, a life­long jour­nal­ist whose rè­sumé in­cludes lead­er­ship po­si­tions at CNN and ABS-CBN. “Name the an­i­mal, I’ve been called it. This isn’t new.”

Her book Seeds of Ter­ror, which Esquire ref­er­enced in its blurb, was pub­lished in 2003; since then, she’s also pub­lished From Bin Laden to Face­book, fur­ther but­tress­ing her rep­u­ta­tion as ar­guably the re­gion’s fore­most me­dia ex­pert on ter­ror­ism in Asia. An­other in­ter­est­ing fac­toid, though of du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion: record­ings of her TV re­portage were re­port­edly found in Bin Laden’s lair in Afghanistan.

But it’s not even her fo­cus on ter­ror­ism that’s made a tar­get out of Ressa. In 2010, she left her post as head of the news and cur­rent af­fairs depart­ment at ABS-CBN in or­der to put up Rap­pler, herald­ing the ad­vent of on­line news. Since Rap­pler of­fi­cially launched in 2012, Ressa and her team have be­come the poster chil­dren (and punch­ing bags) for mod­ern news me­dia in the Philip­pines, draw­ing both ac­co­lades and ire from politi­cians and from the pub­lic.

Ressa spoke to Esquire dur­ing an in­ter­est­ing time: Af­ter a week that saw huge shake-ups in tra­di­tional me­dia, the pres­i­dent him­self—at the State of the Na­tion Ad­dress, no less—trained his at­ten­tion on Rap­pler, which he al­leged was “fully owned by Amer­i­cans.” Be­fore Ressa took to Twit­ter to re­ply (“Pres­i­dent Duterte, you are wrong. @rap­pler­dot­com is 100% Filipino owned. Any leader should vet his in­for­ma­tion”), she an­swered our ques­tions about the so­cial me­dia wars, the fu­ture of news, and her con­tin­u­ing op­ti­mism about Filipinos.

ESQUIRE: When you started Rap­pler in 2012, hav­ing come from a long ca­reer in tra­di­tional broad­cast me­dia, peo­ple must have said you were crazy.

MARIA RESSA: They did, but you could see it com­ing. [In my book, From Bin Laden to Face­book, I say that] in­for­ma­tion cas­cades are ev­ery­thing. And dig­i­tal ac­tu­ally makes it very, very ef­fi­cient. And I knew that if we could tap this, if evil guys could tap this to spread the ide­ol­ogy of ter­ror­ism, why can’t the good guys use it to en­able and em­power?

ESQ: In the Philip­pines, you saw that we were ripe for that, too.

MR: Big time. In ABS-CBN, we em­braced ci­ti­zen jour­nal­ism. In the phys­i­cal world, you can only pass an idea on to every per­son you’re talk­ing to— it’s one-to-one. But if you’re in the vir­tual world, you’re au­to­mat­i­cally speak­ing one to many. That’s su­per ex­cit­ing, right?

I could see it com­ing, even when I was in ABS-CBN. I threw ev­ery­one on Twit­ter and I threw them to Face­book. I was the one who said, you know, every re­porter will now tweet. Be­cause, nor­mally, if you leave this in the hands of bu­reau­cra­cies, it’ll never hap­pen, be­cause you have to make the ar­gu­ment that it is worth the risk.

Here’s the other part—be­cause we were also the first ones go­ing in, we could help shape its evo­lu­tion, and we were far more proac­tive. Filipinos, in gen­eral, be­came far more proac­tive on so­cial me­dia and be­came far more pos­i­tive, I think. Part of it was, when you get there first, if you are among the first, you help shape what that land­scape looks like. And that was the best fun that we ever had, you know?

ESQ: But we’ve also seen the back­lash to that kind of power.

MR: We didn’t re­ally see the back­lash ‘till 2016….To do so­cial me­dia re­ally well, you have to be vul­ner­a­ble, right? And for a large com­pany, be­ing vul­ner­a­ble is anath­ema—no­body wants to do that. This is the dilemma we now face. In 2016, the same thing was twisted against us—and I will say that, it wasn’t used just against Rap­pler, but against every Filipino on so­cial me­dia.

So, th­ese were the two war­ring things: now we know the evil, we know the good. Which one will win? There’s a bat­tle for it now. Now I think, in the long term, we will use it for good but it’s go­ing to be like get­ting rid of the pol­lu­tion that’s there. I think peo­ple will be­come more savvy. We just have to live through th­ese very painful times.

ESQ: Do you think that you were ahead of the curve in terms of us­ing so­cial me­dia?

MR: Glob­ally? Yes. When we started Rap­pler, the idea was to ac­tu­ally be able to crowd­source both help and in­for­ma­tion dur­ing times of cri­sis. There’s an av­er­age of 20 ty­phoons every year, and when we started Rap­pler, [disas­ter risk re­duc­tion] was ac­tu­ally a goal.

I wanted to con­nect the gov­ern­ment’s first re­spon­ders, in­stead of hav­ing to call a hot­line where no one an­swers, you could tweet, you could post, you could SMS. And we built the tech plat­form we called Agos. If Uber can build an Uber for cars, why can’t we do that [for in­for­ma­tion]? Bot­tom up, top down. We con­nect bot­tom up: So­cial me­dia calls for help and in­for­ma­tion, from the top down there are gov­ern­ment first re­spon­ders and work flows. And so that was the first ex­per­i­ment of crowd­sourc­ing on a larger scale.

NDRRMC [Na­tional Disas­ter Risk Re­duc­tion and Man­age­ment Coun­cil] and the Of­fice of Civil De­fense, they’ve done pre­sen­ta­tions glob­ally that show this. We built Agos [Rap­pler’s disas­ter in­for­ma­tion plat­form]—so I made it very no-risk for the gov­ern­ment. We built it and we said, here, let’s do it! We’ll help you ex­e­cute be­cause we have a civic en­gage­ment arm that ac­tu­ally sits at the Of­fice of Civil De­fense every time there is a typhoon. We launched Agos a month be­fore Typhoon Yolanda. We launched it then be­cause that’s when we had scaled enough so that we had enough of a com­mu­nity that would then vol­un­teer to help dur­ing dis­as­ters. So, that was ex­cit­ing.

So yes, were we first glob­ally? Yes, ab­so­lutely. We built on top of what Haiti did, with Ushahidi [a com­pany that built open-source map­ping tech­nol­ogy], but on ours there’s now a dash­board, for ex­am­ple, where vol­un­teers can in­put. It’s a whole sys­tem and the gov­ern­ment’s been us­ing it. In 2015, NDRRMC put it into their op­er­a­tional work­flow.

You know our change model? What you see on so­cial me­dia is only the tip of the ice­berg. The post or tweet car­ries an emo­tion, and that emo­tion trav­els on so­cial net­works, and those so­cial net­works change be­hav­ior. That was al­ways our change model that we wanted to see whether it re­ally worked like that. And all of our ex­per­i­ments on so­cial me­dia showed us it did.

ESQ: But, as you said, the tone of on­line con­ver­sa­tion changed in 2016…

MR: That same change model worked to elect Pres­i­dent Duterte, right? He was the one who rec­og­nized it best among the politi­cians, and they were able to mo­bi­lize peo­ple. And they did a very good job at it.

ESQ: Have you tweaked your change model then, since last year, in light of ev­ery­thing that is hap­pen­ing?

MR: No, it’s still the way it is, right? That will al­ways be there. It’s how we deal with peo­ple who want to take ad­van­tage of it. This is what I loved about mov­ing onto the In­ter­net. I did tele­vi­sion be­fore be­cause it in­flu­enced peo­ple. It helped show you the bat­tle for truth! That’s es­sen­tially what it is. It was easy in the old days.

Now, we’ve gone through a phase where we’ve em­pow­ered peo­ple and given them a voice against old power struc­tures. Now, they’ve been able to or­ga­nize them­selves both for good and for evil. In the past, I used to say evil was ISIS, Al Qaeda— they all use this. But now the same thing, it’s be­ing able to take ad­van­tage of that ex­po­nen­tial curve in reach. Now, all politi­cians can do it. So, this is our change model, and it works! The emo­tion is what en­ables so­cial net­work to run.

I al­ways say fam­ily and friends are your phys­i­cal so­cial net­work, but so­cial me­dia are your fam­ily and friends on steroids—and that net­work in­flu­ences be­hav­ior. This is our con­ver­sion fun­nel. Every sin­gle cam­paign is the same ex­act thing that works in pol­i­tics.

ESQ: There are dan­gers, too. With that same model, you’re vul­ner­a­ble to at­tack.

MR: Liv­ing through it, you have to just weather it. In the end, they’re not re­ally in­ter­ested in en­gag­ing in ideas, which is the rea­son for re­spond­ing. They just want to hit you with a charge un­til it sticks.

ESQ: Has any of it stuck?

MR: I think in the short term, peo­ple who don’t know news, peo­ple who don’t have any real back­ground in it, they can be mis­led. But I go back to maybe my best de­fense and the best of­fense, which is phys­i­cal-world ac­tions. In the end, there will be a track record.

You can’t give up on your work—you in­flu­ence a large num­ber of peo­ple right off the top! If you give up on it, and some peo­ple have, they shut down

their Face­book. That’s ab­di­cat­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity as well. You know, Face­book helped in Rap­pler’s phe­nom­e­nal growth, but I also think Face­book has ab­di­cated re­spon­si­bil­ity by not clean­ing it­self up. But just be­cause they’re be­hav­ing poorly, doesn’t mean we need to be­have poorly, right?

ESQ: Do you mean to be a pri­mar­ily Philip­pine-based news net­work with in­ter­ests out­side or do you want to ex­pand your fo­cus to the re­gion?

MR: I’ve never wanted to just be a Philip­pine-based net­work. The rea­son why we are based here is be­cause we’re Filipino. I ac­tu­ally thought about set­ting up Rap­pler in Sin­ga­pore and the rea­son why we didn’t was be­cause it was con­nected to our iden­tity: I’m pri­mar­ily a jour­nal­ist, and I am Filipino.

I wanted to be global from the be­gin­ning, but be­cause we’re based in the Philip­pines in the same way that CNN is based in At­lanta, it makes our per­spec­tive unique. So, for us, our strength is the Philip­pines. All of our edi­tors have writ­ten books on cor­rup­tion: Chay [Hofileña] wrote the book on me­dia cor­rup­tion, Marites [Dañguilan Vi­tug] wrote the book on ju­di­cial cor­rup­tion, Glenda [Glo­ria] and Gemma [Ba­gayaua Men­doza] and Aries [Rufo], who is now gone, they wrote the book on mil­i­tary cor­rup­tion. Aries wrote the book on cor­rup­tion in the Church. So, it’s like for us, we know this land­scape re­ally well. What we wanted to do was to cre­ate some­thing that wasn’t there be­fore.

ESQ: You didn’t fore­see that it was go­ing to be this cru­sade.

MR: We’re not just throw­ing words out into the vac­uum—What we want to do is to ac­tu­ally have a di­rect link between what we cre­ate, a vi­sion of truth and spot­light­ing ar­eas that re­quire pub­lic at­ten­tion, and we put that to­gether with real world action, be­cause you can build.

So, if you ask me what Rap­pler is in one sen­tence, it’s not just an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism group; Rap­pler builds com­mu­ni­ties of action. From the very be­gin­ning, that was our goal. So, it was both with the use of tech­nol­ogy and the re­gional and global per­spec­tive.

ESQ: You be­gan talk­ing about how crowd­sourc­ing was at the heart of what you wanted to do, but over the past few years, there’s just been back­lash against crowd­sourced con­tent.

MR: I still be­lieve that the prin­ci­ple—re­gard­less of ex­e­cu­tion, and as tech­nol­ogy—gets bet­ter. What’s com­ing on­line? Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, neu­ral net­works, right now you have ba­sic ma­chine learn­ing. This can be a whole dif­fer­ent world from what I grew up in. I think that older folks, my gen­er­a­tion, hold on to th­ese rules like they’re the Bi­ble and it just isn’t true, be­cause you fun­da­men­tally al­tered the land­scape, and what’s done that is tech­nol­ogy. I think jour­nal­ists to­day and to­mor­row have to face [the chal­lenges of tech­nol­ogy.]. And if the tech com­pa­nies don’t help in this, if they con­tinue to take the lion’s share of the rev­enues, then how are the democ­ra­cies go­ing to work when the pri­mary sources of in­for­ma­tion no longer ex­ist?

The dis­ci­pline of jour­nal­ism is more im­por­tant to­day than ever be­fore, and I ac­tu­ally think that crowd­sourc­ing can help that. If you think about it, fun­da­men­tally, crowd­sourc­ing is ex­actly what a jour­nal­ist does any­way. It’s just that there’s so much in­for­ma­tion that peo­ple are del­uged with that they can’t ac­tu­ally just watch and see how this group or that group is ma­nip­u­lat­ing them. It’s a far more chaotic land­scape. You have to tell peo­ple what’s hap­pen­ing be­cause they’re only look­ing at their neck of the woods; they’re not look­ing at ev­ery­one else’s…I’m hop­ing that what this would do is cre­ate a more sen­si­tive, more wary, more ed­u­cated [au­di­ence]. I know me­dia lit­er­acy will take time.

ESQ: Do you think the so­cial me­dia plat­forms should ex­er­cise more con­trol?

MR: That’s the rea­son why I think Face­book, at least in the Philip­pines, is the only group that has the power to act in the short term. I think, when you’re the plat­form, you need to draw the line between free­dom of ex­pres­sion and dan­ger­ous speech—speech that in­cites hate or mob vi­o­lence, whether that is an on­line mob or real mob. That [kind of] speech, that doesn’t be­long. That is against the law.

ESQ: Okay, now I want to get into that, be­cause first of all you and your re­porters have been tar­geted by the on­line mob in a very per­sonal and a very fright­en­ing way.

MR: I sup­pose it’s a badge of honor (smiles) ABS-CBN was ac­tu­ally hit first dur­ing that time, and then af­ter ABS, it was the In­quirer be­cause of its Kill List, then af­ter that it was GMA for a lit­tle bit, then us.

ESQ: Yes, but not…

MR: Not the way I was hit. We were also the only ones who did sto­ries on the pro­pa­ganda ma­chine.

ESQ: What was the re­cep­tion like on that se­ries?

MR: Peo­ple said: that’s why, yes, thank you! But at the same time, of course, the ma­chine turned on us, which we ex­pected. I think the big­gest prob­lem is that news groups haven’t yet re­al­ized that this is not the time to stand alone. This is ac­tu­ally a time to col­lab­o­rate with other news groups. If news groups had worked to­gether for the truth in­stead of fo­cus­ing on the petty ri­val­ries, we would have had the abil­ity to help shape the nar­ra­tive against the pro­pa­ganda ma­chine bet­ter, be­cause in the end, that ma­chine is ma­nip­u­lat­ing peo­ple.

ESQ: That also goes against old-fash­ioned re­porters’ in­stincts. I mean, maybe now that the younger batch is look­ing to col­lab­o­rate…

MR: You know what? You need to go back. What is the end goal? What are the things we’re still try­ing to work on? Some­thing we’re all try­ing to work on, and we all de­cided to do this, is to fight fake news.

One thing that’s weak­en­ing the fabric is that when one news group does a story, we don’t fol­low up on each other’s story. Even when it comes to at­tri­bu­tions, many news groups don’t at­tribute any­more when we re­ally should.

ESQ: Why are you still op­ti­mistic?

MR: If I wasn’t op­ti­mistic, I wouldn’t be here. If you weren’t op­ti­mistic, you could leave the coun­try.

ESQ: I’m think­ing about it.

MR: Don’t, be­cause this is our gen­er­a­tion’s bat­tle. This is our bat­tle. Do you stand up and be counted, or do you walk away? And I don’t mean stand up against gov­ern­ment, I just mean, this is a time where you de­fine who you are and what val­ues you stand for.

ESQ: As a child grow­ing up through Mar­tial Law, I still think to that time as fear­some, and I think of the very real dan­ger of be­ing taken away and to be dis­ap­peared, a fear that you don’t seem to share.

MR: It’s not that I don’t share it. I worked un­der au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments be­fore. In some ways, it was eas­ier to work through Suharto’s In­done­sia be­cause you knew what the rules were, and you pushed against those rules. I think the way to not be afraid is as­sess the worst-case sce­nar­ios and pre­pare for them. And you de­cide what risks are ac­cept­able and what risks are not. Now that I’m much older, it’s not that I’m not afraid. It’s that I pre­pare for any­thing that might hap­pen. And that’s the same for our team. No one wants to be at­tacked, but if that’s what you have to go through to get to the end, then you take it and move for­ward.

Do we have a choice? I can’t change who I am. I’ve been a jour­nal­ist my whole life. I’ve lived through worse. I’ve been nearly kicked out of coun­tries, I’ve been shot at. This is not any dif­fer­ent. What is dif­fer­ent is the mas­quer­ade. That is part of the rea­son that you have to shine the light and say here it is. Gov­ern­ments have long in­tim­i­dated peo­ple who op­pose them, and they’ve in­tim­i­dated those they be­lieve can threaten them.

The best gov­ern­ment un­der­stands it needs th­ese checks and bal­ances. That they serve a pur­pose.hWe don’t op­pose the gov­ern­ment, we do our jobs—we’re jour­nal­ists. That’s why we need to stay the course. We just need to.

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