The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov is a big victory for free expression. In an era when attacks on the press have been increasing, Ressa and Muratov are a reminder of the critical role the Fourth Estate plays in upholding democracy. But Ressa’s win has another dimension as well: It also is an indictment of the failings of Facebook.
Ressa, a former CNN journalist, is co-founder of Rappler, the Philippines’ most prominent independent news outlet. Rappler began its life in 2011 as a Facebook page before transitioning to a full-fledged news website. Like several other countries in its region, the Philippines relies heavily on Facebook for access to the online world. Filipinos have been known to say that Facebook is virtually equivalent to the Internet for them.
The first time I heard Ressa speak, she told how she had once tried to explain to Mark Zuckerberg that the company’s dominance in her country brought with it a huge social responsibility. Ressa told Zuckerberg that 97 percent of Filipinos used Facebook, and she invited him to the Philippines to get a better understanding of the problems that result. Zuckerberg seemed to ignore the invitation, concentrating instead on how Facebook could increase its domination in the country. “What are the other 3 percent doing, Maria?” he allegedly asked.
Since the rise of President Rodrigo Duterte, Ressa has given eloquent voice to a widespread unease over Facebook’s role. She has criticized not only its active role in the spread of disinformation but also its apparent lack of concern for the broader implications of its activities in the non-Western markets where the majority of its users live. (Facebook has endured widespread criticism for failing to enforce its own policies against hate speech in India and its lack of attention to violent content that abetted genocide in Myanmar.)
Ressa and her team of intrepid Rappler reporters have investigated the Duterte regime’s extrajudicial killings, and intimidation of its opponents. After the election that brought Duterte to power in 2016, Ressa uncovered a group of Facebook pages that were spreading disinformation to 3 million people. She forwarded her evidence to Facebook — but the company did nothing. As Ressa told the New York Times’ Kara Swisher in 2019: “Facebook is now the world’s largest distributor of news and yet it has refused to be the gatekeeper, and when it does that, when you allow lies to actually get on the same playing field as facts, it taints the entire public sphere.”
Facebook has also signally failed to prevent the onslaught of abuse Ressa and her team have faced from Duterte and his thugs. She and her staff have experienced violent, threatening, often sexualized online vitriol that threatens their credibility, personal safety and mental health — much of it organized by Duterte supporters paid to act as “troll armies.” The abuse has actively echoed and reinforced the Duterte government’s efforts to bludgeon Ressa into silence, including criminal charges over alleged offenses from tax evasion to cyber libel. Ressa has spent nights in jail and faced other restrictions on her freedom of movement.
According to a report released this year by the International Center for Journalists and UNESCO, for every Facebook comment in support of Ressa, 14 others attacked and undermined her. She was called a “presstitute.” Users called for her rape and beheading. Facebook did little to stop the onslaught — its inaction is even more appalling because of the clear links between the abuse and the Duterte regime’s skill at organizing online trolls. Even though the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist, Ressa says the platform told her there was little it could do to protect her because of her status as a public figure.
Facebook claims to be working to remove such abuse, though its internal documents show that it allows users to call for the death of public figures like Ressa. And so the attacks on Ressa and her colleagues continue virtually unabated — as does the state-sponsored use of fake accounts, manipulated media and disinformation campaigns to influence public discourse. Ressa has pressed on — despite the abuse, despite the criminal charges, despite the violent threats. She has kept up her pressure on the Duterte regime and another regime that is larger, more influential and perhaps more dangerous: Facebook itself.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s award to Ressa is a recognition of her courage in standing up to a strongman, yes, but it is also a mark of appreciation for all she has taught the world about the ways social media — and Facebook in particular — can be used to harm public safety and democracy. She started this crusade before “fake news” became a household phrase, and she deserves the world’s recognition for her far-sightedness.
Her Nobel Prize is just recognition of the importance journalism plays in supporting democracy and defending human rights. But it is also an indictment of the suffering social media platforms have caused by spreading harmful disinformation and failing to protect women and other marginalized communities from online abuse. Giving Ressa the prize for peace makes a statement we should all keep in mind: Disinformation threatens peace.
Nina Jankowicz, the director of external engagement at Alethea Group, is a global fellow at the Wilson Center and author of “How to Lose the Information War” and “How to Be a Woman Online.”