How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future

- By Maria Ressa Penguin Random House, £20 (hardcover)

I’ve admired Maria Ressa for a long time, reading the online news source Rappler (which she cofounded) since its 2012 launch. Ressa’s co-win of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, with Dmitry Muratov, felt like a shared triumph for members of the Filipino press who struggle against censorship. Her latest book is then one part victory lap and one part rallying cry to ‘hold the line’ – a slogan that, for Ressa, means maintainin­g integrity against tyranny.

The author divides her memoir into three parts: the first predictabl­y recounts her adolescenc­e in the Philippine­s and United States, then her initial career in journalism; the second narrates Rappler’s genesis and social media; the third traces Ressa and Rappler’s recent resistance against the Philippine Government’s hostility, as well as interrogat­ing the negative impact of Facebook (now Meta)’s decision to privilege commercial growth or, more appropriat­ely, world domination, over regulating disinforma­tion (when Ressa told Mark Zuckerberg in 2017 that 97 percent of Filipinos are on Facebook, he asked, ‘Wait Maria, where are the other three percent?’).

While the personal touches – such as her relationsh­ip with childhood friend Twink Macaraig – are earnest, Ressa’s humanity isn’t really at stake. What is, however, are attitudes pertaining to social media and tyrannical regimes, making Ressa’s frank criticisms and account of Rappler’s counteract­ive initiative­s against Meta and the Philippine government important. In chapter six she claims that social media (Facebook in particular) fuelled ‘the rise of digital authoritar­ians, the death of facts, and the insidious mass manipulati­on we live with today’. Rappler developed its Sharktank database to combat Meta’s apathy and political lies, capturing and mapping billions of posts, comments, groups and users on Facebook in an ‘informatio­n ecosystem’ to ‘identify posts that are meant to mislead’. When Ressa was arrested in 2019 on cyber-libel charges, for example, the Sharktank captured how reactions to that event were split.

The book pales with its corny preachings about morality. It finds its true mark, however, with Ressa’s precise journalist­ic facticity and the outlining of e’orts to preserve the field’s integrity, such as when, in 2017, Rappler and other outlets establishe­d #Factcheckª«, a multilayer check system that also works with lawyers to maintain accountabi­lity. It is these examples, more than any cliché about ‘believing in the good’, that o’er meaningful guidance about how to stand up to a dictator. Marv Recinto

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