Philip­pines pro­vide a warn­ing how a na­tion can turn into a so­cial me­dia dystopia

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY MARIA RESSA Maria Ressa is a for­mer CNN bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta, In­done­sia. She is the au­thor of “From Bin Laden to Face­book” and co-founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Rap­pler, based in Manila. She wrote this for the Los An­ge­les Times.

What is hap­pen­ing to the Philip­pines is a warn­ing to democ­ra­cies around the world.

More than three years ago, lies laced with anger and hate be­gan to sys­tem­at­i­cally tear our democ­racy apart in the Philip­pines. They split open the frac­ture lines in our so­ci­ety, eroded trust in our in­sti­tu­tions, cre­ated and in­flamed ideas of “us against them.”

Like a virus, this dis­ease spread fast. With the help of so­cial me­dia, Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte was elected in May 2016. A month later, there was Brexit in Britain. Then Don­ald Trump in the United States, fol­lowed by Jair Bol­sonaro in Brazil.

Amer­i­can tech­nol­ogy giants cre­ated the plat­forms that en­abled ma­nip­u­la­tion at a mass scale, struc­turally de­signed to un­der­mine democ­ra­cies by play­ing to our worst selves. Other Western dig­i­tal com­pa­nies such as Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, which was founded by Stephen K. Ban­non, the for­mer Trump White House ad­viser, and funded by billionair­e Robert Mercer, har­vested data on tens of mil­lions of Face­book users to cre­ate psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­files used to tai­lor con­tent specif­i­cally for them. The goal was to sup­port in­sid­i­ous in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tions, whether in pol­i­tics or busi­ness. It is — as it has al­ways been — about power and money.

The Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica whistle­blower Christo­pher Wylie told me this month that the Philip­pines was used by that com­pany as a “petri dish” for test­ing tac­tics used for be­hav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion: among them, to dis­sem­i­nate pro­pa­ganda and ma­nip­u­late voter opin­ion. Af­ter all, Filipinos lead the world in spend­ing the most time on­line (more than 10 hours a day) and on so­cial me­dia for the fourth year run­ning. With Free Ba­sics, Face­book is our in­ter­net.

Wylie said what Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica and its par­ent com­pany, SCL, learned in the Philip­pines and other coun­tries in the global south, that they could “port” to the West. The United States had the high­est num­ber of com­pro­mised Face­book ac­counts in the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica scan­dal. The coun­try with the sec­ond largest num­ber of com­pro­mised ac­counts? The Philip­pines.

The de­struc­tion of our democ­racy be­gan with a com­bi­na­tion of vi­o­lence and fear, where ram­pant lies and vi­cious per­sonal at­tacks on­line pounded their tar­gets into si­lence. Th­ese at­tacks were then fol­lowed by govern­ment ac­tions and the use of the law to ha­rass and in­tim­i­date per­ceived crit­ics and dis­senters.

I know this first-hand. I co-founded Rap­pler, a news web­site that has strug­gled to hold govern­ment to ac­count and end im­punity for its bru­tal drug war, which the United Na­tions and hu­man rights groups say has killed as many as 27,000 peo­ple. We were also the first to sound the alarm glob­ally on the weaponiza­tion of so­cial me­dia.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter our 2016 Pro­pa­ganda War se­ries was pub­lished, I re­ceived an av­er­age of 90 hate mes­sages an hour on so­cial me­dia meant to threaten me and tear down our group’s cred­i­bil­ity. Th­ese at­tacks were in­tended to shift pub­lic per­cep­tion and cre­ate a band­wagon ef­fect. That was fol­lowed a year later by top-down at­tacks: Pres­i­dent Duterte in his sec­ond State of the Na­tion ad­dress re­peated the lies that spread ex­po­nen­tially on so­cial me­dia. A week af­ter that, the first sub­poena for our records ar­rived. Then numer­ous fish­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions turned into cases.

In a lit­tle more than a year start­ing in Jan­uary 2018, the Philip­pine govern­ment filed 11 cases and in­ves­ti­ga­tions against us for al­leged for­eign own­er­ship, se­cu­ri­ties fraud, tax eva­sion and many other lu­di­crous charges. I had to post bail eight times in a three-month pe­riod, and this year, I was ar­rested twice and de­tained once.

We’re not alone in fac­ing th­ese bot­tom-up at­tacks on so­cial me­dia and top-down per­se­cu­tion by the govern­ment.

The data Rap­pler has gath­ered show that in 2016 any­one on Face­book who ques­tioned Duterte’s drug war be­came a tar­get. That in­cluded hu­man rights ac­tivists, jour­nal­ists and news or­ga­ni­za­tions. Our val­ues have been un­der­mined and we’ve been painted as cor­rupt at best and for­eign agents and coup plot­ters at worst.

Cur­rent tar­gets are church lead­ers, lawyers and op­po­si­tion politi­cians — ba­si­cally any­one who ques­tions the govern­ment, in­clud­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Leni Ro­bredo, who is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for al­leged sedi­tion.

The vir­u­lent dis­in­for­ma­tion tac­tics Filipinos are liv­ing with have al­ready been de­ployed in other democ­ra­cies. In those places, jour­nal­ists are on the front lines.

In the past, news or­ga­ni­za­tions were both the gate­keep­ers of facts and distrib­u­tors of news. Now Face­book and other so­cial me­dia tech­nol­ogy plat­forms have be­come the world’s largest dis­trib­u­tor of news, but they left be­hind the re­spon­si­bil­ity of gate­keep­ing.

The de­sign of to­day’s tech-based at­ten­tion econ­omy spreads lies faster than facts. With­out facts, you can’t have truth. With­out truth, you don’t have trust. With­out this foun­da­tion, democ­racy as we know it is dead.

The Philip­pine Con­sti­tu­tion, which is pat­terned af­ter the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion with a Bill of Rights, guar­an­tees free­dom of the press. But as the wheels have be­gun to come off our democ­racy, the laws meant to pro­tect us have been turned against us.

If you’re Amer­i­can, look to us to see a dystopian fu­ture. Still, I be­lieve there is a way to avoid our fate.

What I’ve learned is that you must fight while you’re strong. You will only get weaker over time be­cause the virus of lies saps civic en­gage­ment. Sec­ond, de­mand en­light­ened self-in­ter­est from tech com­pa­nies. Their plat­forms can­not be al­lowed to sub­vert free will and choice by ma­nip­u­lat­ing us with­out our knowl­edge. Third, the press, academia and civil so­ci­ety — the truth tell­ers — have to join forces to pro­tect the facts. Don’t take the bait of emo­tions. Seek what we have in com­mon over what drives us apart.

The fight can be won, but it can also be lost. Our ex­pe­ri­ence in the Philip­pines is a grim re­minder that Amer­i­can democ­racy and democ­racy as we know it around the world now hang in the bal­ance.

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