Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'How to Stand Up to a Dictator' is part-memoir, part-manual for journalism in authoritative states


Maria Ressa's new book is called "How To Stand Up To A Dictator." She knows. She has. Maria Ressa leads the news site that she co-founded, Rappler, and it's reporting on the corruption, malfeasance and human rights crimes of the Philippine regime of former President Rodrigo Duterte. She was recognized for her bravery in journalism, along with Russian editor Dmitry Muratov, with a Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. And yet Maria Ressa faces several criminal charges in the Philippines. The book is not only a memoir but an alarm bell for a world to resist the malicious disinformation on massive, divisive social media platforms. Maria Ressa joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

MARIA RESSA: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: I feel the need to put some perspective on our conversation. How many years in prison do you face?

RESSA: I mean, it depends on which part and which month and depending on which case, right? At its most, the maximum prison sentence was 103 years. And now, I - it has been rolled back. There's seven left, and that's - it's the rest of my life still, about 75 years or so.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you have to worry about what you say in an interview?

RESSA: I do in specific cases. I will stick to the facts.

SIMON: Maria Ressa, what do you think social media platforms are doing to us?

RESSA: Creating our worst selves. We know - in 2018, MIT said that lies spread faster than facts, that if you see a lie, you are 70% more prone to share it, to retweet it, than a really boring fact. When you take that to its extreme, what does that mean? Lies are rewarded. So we have created a situation where there are no facts. And without facts, you can't have truth. Without truth, you can't have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality. You cannot have democracy.

SIMON: Oh, my. But at the same time, didn't you need and have to use social media to become a force for honest and bold reporting with Rappler?

RESSA: Especially if you're online, right, Scott?

SIMON: Yeah.

RESSA: I mean, when we were creating Rappler in 2011, my elevator pitch is that we build communities of action, and the food we feed our communities is journalism. But that was before surveillance capitalism ratcheted up.

SIMON: Surveillance capitalism, I should ask - when we become the product, in a sense, because everybody is putting together a database?

RESSA: Yeah. I think more than that, it's like we're essentially cloned. So machine learning builds a model of you that knows you better than you know yourself. And then, they use AI to take all of our clones, and that is the mother database for microtargeting. And when this happens, our emotions, or essentially our biology, is weaponized against us. Your view of the world is changed through your emotions.

SIMON: You suggest that the Philippines were a particular target for Cambridge Analytica.

RESSA: It was actually Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, right? He called us the petri dish. And part of the reason is because until 2021, we Filipinos spent the most time online and on social media globally. And before social media, we were the SMS, or the texting, capital of the world. So when Chris Wylie said that Cambridge Analytica tested these tactics of mass manipulation in countries like the Philippines and that if it worked here in our country, then they would - his word was port it over to you, right? And I mean, the weirdest thing for me is that the two biggest stories in my career had to do with how Filipinos were the testing ground for attacks against America. That's 9/11 and now information warfare.

SIMON: Well, tell us how that worked in the Philippines.

RESSA: Probably the first pilot recruited by al-Qaida - he was in supermax prison at that point in time. His name is Abdul Hakim Murad. And he told Filipino police about a plot to hijack planes and crash them into buildings. And he named the buildings - the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the Transamerica building and then other buildings.

SIMON: Yeah. You have suggested in interviews that whether we know it or not, the world is in a kind of World War III now. How so?

RESSA: So I started looking especially after the presidential elections of the Philippines - May this year - when we overwhelmingly elected Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son and the - only son and namesake of our former dictator, who was in power for almost 21 years. So he was overwhelmingly elected partly because information operations starting in 2014 changed history in front of our eyes. It turned Marcos from a pariah into a hero. Then, you had all these other elections coming up and kind of the rise of the far right. The world is shifting geopolitically. And we're in - I keep saying we're in the last two minutes when you just look at the number of democracies globally. We have been rolled back to 1989 levels. Today, 60% of the world is under autocratic rule.

SIMON: Of course, I don't have to tell you 'cause you've had conversations with some of them. The leaders of high-tech enterprises, of social media platforms will say, look, we are a democracy. Everyone can participate. Everyone can have an account. Anyone, more or less, can say whatever they want. That's democracy.

RESSA: Yeah, absolutely. Everyone can say what they want. But it's not about freedom of speech; it's about distribution. It's about the fact that these platforms, because they make more money at it, distribute incendiary materials, lies laced with anger and hate, that those get greater distribution that repeatedly pound, essentially, free speech. In my case, I was pounded after we did this weaponization-of-the-internet series with an average of 90 hate messages per hour.

SIMON: You know, you could just come to the U.S. and be a talking head - write more books and have a life, have a good life.

RESSA: I run a company called Rappler that has been forged in fire. We survived six years of Duterte. We continue to do investigative journalism. This is a high-stakes game of chicken. But I know we are standing on the right side, not just of history, but of the law. I'm not going to give up. I think this is the battle that matters.

SIMON: Maria Ressa, her book, "How To Stand Up To A Dictator: The Fight For Our Future." Thank you so much for being with us.

RESSA: Thank you.


Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.