Maria Ressa to Address Harvard Graduates

Philippine journalist and Nobel Peace Prize honorand will speak at Commencement.

Maria Ressa

Maria Ressa | Photograph by Alecs Ongcal

Maria Ressa, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 (with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov) for her brave, independent news coverage of her native Philippines, will be the honored guest speaker at Harvard’s 373rdCommencement exercises, scheduled for Thursday, May 23, the University announced today.

The honorand was born in Manila in 1963 and moved to the United States with her family at age 9. After attending Princeton, she worked as a local correspondent for CNN beginning in 1995, covering the advent of terrorism in Southeast Asia. She cofounded the Rappler news site in 2012. In the Nobel Prize committee’s description:

As an investigative journalist, she has distinguished herself as a fearless defender of freedom of expression and has exposed the abuse of power, use of violence, and increasing authoritarianism of the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte. In particular…Ressa has focused critical attention on President Duterte’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign. She and Rappler have also documented how social media are being used to spread fake news, harass opponents, and manipulate public discourse.

At a time of rising political antagonism within the United States, increasing references to violence toward perceived political opponents, and disquiet about the effects of social media on discourse generally, Ressa’s selection seems especially pertinent.

In unveiling the news, Alan M. Garber, interim president, said:

Maria Ressa embodies Veritas. For nearly 40 years, she has dedicated herself to truth—its pursuit, its advocacy, and its defense—no matter the repercussions. Her unshakable commitment to free expression and her courageous fight against disinformation are an inspiration to all who value democracy. We look forward to welcoming her to campus and to acknowledging her outstanding contributions to society.

(Garber, as provost, has in recent years served as master of ceremonies at the Commencement morning exercises, reading honorands’ biographies before the president confers their degrees. Obviously, for this year’s iteration, he will play a different role.)

According to the University announcement, Ressa is an inaugural Carnegie Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Global Politics at Columbia University. In July, she will join Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs faculty as a professor of professional practice. She currently serves as vice-chair of the leadership panel of the Internet Governance Forum, appointed by the United Nations Secretary General in 2022.

An Information System Tainted by “Toxic Sludge”

If Ressa’s Nobel Prize address is any indication, she may use the occasion of her Commencement oration to deliver some powerful, even sulphurous, observations. A witness to a corrupt democracy whose elected president resorted to the extra-judicial execution of thousands of purported drug dealers and users (and, at the time of her address, the murder of 22 journalists), she juxtaposed two sides of “our information ecosystem, which determines everything else about our world. Journalists, the old gatekeepers, are one side of the coin. The other is technology, with its god-like power that has allowed a virus of lies to infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, anger, and hate, and setting the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world.” (As a journalist, she noted, “In less than 2 years, the Philippine government filed 10 arrest warrants against me. I’ve had to post bail 10 times just to do my job. Last year, I and a former colleague were convicted of cyber libel for a story we published 8 years earlier at a time the law we allegedly violated didn’t even exist. All told, the charges I face could send me to jail for about 100 years.”)

Taking aim at the conditions that enable authoritarianism, she continued, “Our greatest need today is to transform that hate and violence, the toxic sludge that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritized by American internet companies that make more money by spreading that hate and triggering the worst in us.”

Applying those observations to the United States, Ressa said:

Silicon Valley’s sins came home to roost in the United States on January 6 with mob violence on Capitol Hill.

What happens on social media doesn’t stay on social media.

Online violence is real world violence.

Social media is a deadly game for power and money, what [Harvard Business School professor emerita] Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, extracting our private lives for outsized corporate gain. Our personal experiences are sucked into a database, organized by AI, then sold to the highest bidder. Highly profitable micro-targeting operations are engineered to structurally undermine human will—a behavior modification system in which we are Pavlov’s dogs, experimented on in real time with disastrous consequences in countries like mine, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, and so many more. These destructive corporations have siphoned money away from news groups and now pose a foundational threat to markets and elections.

Facebook is the world’s largest distributor of news, and yet studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts on social media.

These American companies controlling our global information ecosystem are biased against facts, biased against journalists. They are—by design—dividing us and radicalizing us.

Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world’s existential problems: climate, coronavirus, the battle for truth.

In that battle, she said, “Democracy has become a woman-to-woman, man-to-man defense of our values. We’re at a sliding door moment, where we can continue down the path we’re on and descend further into fascism, or we can each choose to fight for a better world. To do that, you have to ask yourself: what are YOU willing to sacrifice for the truth?”

The Internet vs. Veritas: A Commencement Through Line

Ressa’s selection represents an interesting through line among recent Commencement speakers since Harvard conferred an honorary degree on Facebook (now Meta) co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg ’06, LL.D. ’17.

In 2019, then-German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke about her journey from Soviet-dominated East Germany toward freedom— but also about the threats from information technology: “Are we laying down the rules for technology, or is technology dictating how we interact? Do we prioritize people as individuals with human dignity and all their many facets? Or do we see in them merely consumers, data sources, objects of surveillance?”

The next year, appearing remotely during the pandemic, amid rampant misinformation about COVID-19, then-Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, speaking from a journalist’s perspective, warned, As “education, expertise, experience and evidence” are “devalued, dismissed and denied,” the idea of objective fact is being undermined, “all in pursuit of political gain.” As evidence, Baron cited “a systematic effort to disqualify traditional independent arbiters of fact,” from the press to the “courts, historians, even scientists and medical professionals—subject-matter experts of every type.” Amid a global pandemic, he said, “Only a few months ago, I would have settled for emphasizing that our democracy depends on facts and truth. And it surely does. But now, as we can plainly see, it is more elemental than that. Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Misinformation, disinformation, delusions and deceit can kill.”

And in 2022, then-New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also focused on “the fragility of democracy”—especially given the role of social media. As she put it, “I doubt anyone has ever created a group titled ‘political views I disagree with, but choose to enter into respectful dialogue with to better understand alternative perspectives.’” Not ducking individuals’ responsibilities in an era of the aggressive, abusive “keyboard warrior,” Ardern stressed that:

The time has come for social media companies and other online providers to recognise their power and to act on it.

That means upholding their own basic terms of service.

That means recognising the role they play in constantly curating and shaping the online environments that we’re in. That algorithmic processes make choices and decisions for us—what we see and where we are directed—and that at best this means the user experience is personalised and at worst it means it can be radicalised.

It means, that there is a pressing and urgent need for responsible algorithm development and deployment.

We have the forums for online providers and social media companies to work on these issues alongside civil society and governments. And we have every reason to do it.

Let’s start with transparency in how algorithmic processes work and the outcomes they deliver. But let’s finish with a shared approach to responsible algorithms–because the time has come.

“Impunity Online Naturally Led to Impunity Offline”

Compared to those prior speakers, Ressa addresses these issues from her front-line journalistic experiences—many of them acquired at high personal risk. Her blunt memoir, How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future (2022), details toughening experiences, from her young girlhood in Manila (including the years after her father’s death and her mother’s departure for the United States), through her own move to New Jersey and her education at Princeton (where she was especially shaped by the Honor Code). Like so many other people who have had to make such journeys between cultures, Ressa had further lessons to absorb, including turning away from a comfortable career path to a fraught one in journalism, and coming to terms—in a very traditional society—with her own gay identity.

Among the most eye-opening of those experiences was Ressa’s gradual discovery that social media, and especially Facebook—ubiquitous in the Philippines—could be both the source of information vital to reporters and, if left to their own profit-driven paths, overwhelmingly dangerous sources of dis- and misinformation. She writes of “the beginning of my growing disillusionment with the company that had initially opened up such exciting possibilities for Rappler. Today, I’m beyond disillusioned. I believe that Facebook represents one of the gravest threats to democracies around the world, and I am amazed that we have allowed our freedoms to be taken away by technology companies’ greed for growth and revenues”—a process that “brought out the worst in humanity.”

It is one thing to hear national leaders discuss information flows and policy issues in the abstract. It is perhaps a more visceral immersion to hear someone covering an extralegal government trampling law and lives explain how that came to be. Of her internet-saturated society, Ressa writes:

…the Philippines is ground zero for the terrible effects that social media can have on a nation’s institutions, its culture, and the minds of the populace. Every development that happens in my country eventually happens in the rest of the world….

This book is my attempt to show you that the absence of rule of law in the virtual world is devastating. We live in only one reality, and the breakdown of the rule of law globally was ignited by the lack of a democratic vision for the Internet in the twenty-first century. Impunity online naturally led to impunity offline, destroying existing checks and balances. What I have witnessed and documented over the past decade is technology’s godlike power to infect each of us with a virus of lies, pitting us against one another, igniting, even creating, our fears, anger, and hatred, and accelerating the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world.

•••••••

The Norwegian Nobel Committee obviously thought highly enough of Maria Ressa’s courage, and the good that has come from it, to recognize her and her fellow honorand with the 2021 Peace Prize. Today, as the U.S Supreme Court decides cases that touch on social-media platforms’ contents and state controls or self-regulation, amid a national election campaign that is expected to be inundated with social media untruths and, for the first time, influenced by AI-generated misinformation, those themes seem ever more pertinent. By life experience and professional commitment, Ressa, should she choose to do so, may sharpen the conversation over truth, information, and discourse: matters at the heart of Harvard’s mission and methods, at a time when the University is struggling to live up to its own aspirations.

Read the University announcement here.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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