Social media platforms "used for evil and need to get fixed," leading journalist says

By Steve Frank

/ CBS News

Rappler CEO on Facebook disinformation

Maria Ressa, one of four figures Time magazine cited when it recognized journalists as its 2018 "Person of the Year," said that for a time, information operations on Facebook "demolished" her reputation and peace of mind. Ressa told CBSN's Reena Ninan on Friday her story should serve as a cautionary tale for the United States.

Ressa is the CEO and executive editor of Rappler, a Philippine news site that has reported on President Rodrigo Duterte's increasingly authoritarian government and his bloody war on drugs.

In December, Ressa was indicted on charges of tax evasion related to Rappler and faces the possibility of 10 to 15 years behind bars in convicted. She insists the charges are politically motivated and designed to silence her and the news site she founded in 2012.

"We always say information is power, right? Well, what happens when information is tainted and toxic sludge poisons are introduced into the body of democracy?" she asked.

Time magazine's 2018 Person of the Year covers, recognizing Jamal Khashoggi and other journalists persecuted for their reporting. Time/ CBS News

Ressa said the attacks against her and Rappler began appearing on Facebook in the summer of 2016. After Rappler published a three-part series on social media propaganda in early October of that year, she said she was pummeled by an average of 90 hate messages per hour.

"At the beginning, for about two weeks, I was trying to respond. And then I realized they're not looking for an answer, they want to pound me into silence," Ressa told CBSN on Friday. "And that was when I realized this is something new. It's a new weapon against journalists."

Philippines Media
Employees of Rappler, an online news outfit known for its critical reporting on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, work inside their office in metropolitan Manila, Philippines on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. AP

Ressa calls the Philippines "Facebook country" because 97 percent of Filipinos on the internet use the social media platform.

"It's incredibly important for us look at it because Facebook, the social media platforms, are now the world's largest distributor of news, of facts — and yet they haven't accepted the gatekeeping rules that journalists use to have and that's a problem because lies now spread faster than truth," she said.

Ressa said social media appeals to the worst of human nature.

"It's like taking all of our hate and fear, fanning the anger, fanning our fears and creating an us against them — this is what terrorists do — and that's how you build ideology," she said.

Ressa was among four figures Time magazine cited as "Guardians" in the "war on truth" when it recognized journalists as its 2018 "Person of the Year." The magazine said it wanted to emphasize the importance of reporters' work in an increasingly hostile world.

The other three were either murdered or imprisoned – including slain Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi; the staff of Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where five people were shot to death in June; and Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo — jailed in Myanmar since December 2017 after investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslims.

time.png
Time magazine's 2018 Person of the Year covers, recognizing Jamal Khashoggi and other journalists persecuted for their reporting. Time/ CBS News

"Part of the reason trust has been so shattered is not because of what journalists are doing, it's because lies are masquerading as truth and people can't tell the difference. It is a breakdown of trust and that is methodically done," she said.

Ressa says the social media tactics used in the Philippines and the U.S. are very similar, "we're just a little further along."

Social media intereaction "can be used for good, mind you, we know this in the Philippines, that's how Rappler grew so fast," Ressa said. "But by the end of 2015, with instant articles, it's been used for evil and it needs to get fixed."

Ressa praised Facebook for the recent takedowns of some "benevolent networks," but she is hopeful social media giant will take more action.

CBSN reached out to Facebook for a comment Ressa's reporting on the disinformation on the social media platform, but have not yet received a response.

First published on February 1, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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