The MOST HATED Sexiest WOMAN Alive
“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.