Maria A. Ressa, LL.D. ’24, Harvard Commencement Address 2024

A warning about social media, the erosion of trust, and threats to democracy

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Maria Ressa Commencement Address

Thank you, President Garber. And thank you former President Gay, who called me last year to extend this offer.

It’s an incredible honor to address the distinguished Harvard faculty, the mysterious Harvard Corporation, and the loving friends and family who have traveled far and close to be here with you today. But wait. Most of all, despite everything, because you worked really hard, I am so thrilled to congratulate the battle tested graduates of the Class of 2024.

This was a harder speech to write than the Nobel lecture, you know. Because, since 2021, the world has gotten so much worse.

We live in a dystopian science fiction world where everything can change in the blink of an eye. When you have been forced to turn crisis into opportunity. No one knows this better than the class of 2024. A pandemic meant no high school graduation. Your first year here in lockdown, wearing masks, afraid of contact, you laid out all of the problems, the existential problems we face today. We were pushed online in the virtual world. And that made things worse because the accelerant to conflict and violence, to us against them, to wars that have killed tens of thousands, sparking historic campus protests, that accelerant is technology.

It turned what once used to be our civilized Harvard, thinking slow, public discussions, into what’s become a gladiator’s battle to the death. I know this firsthand. The Philippines, America’s former colony, 110 million people, was social media’s petri dish. For a crucial six years, Filipinos spent the most time online and on social media globally. And we became the testing ground for these American tech companies, their platform’s designs, exploited by power and money in information warfare. It became worse when Tik Tok joined the fray. If the tactics worked on us, it was deployed for you. That’s what happened in 2016 when 126 million Americans were targeted by Russian disinformation. And on January 6, in the violence on Capitol Hill, when Silicon Valley’s sins came home to roost.

Because I accepted your invitation to be here today, I was attacked online and called antisemitic by power and money, because they want power and money. While the other side was already attacking me because I had been on stage with Hillary Clinton. Hard to win, right? But I’d already survived Information Operations from my own government: free speech, used to pound you to silence. Ninety hate messages per hour in 2016. That was eight years ago. Fed me death threats for breakfast. They attacked the way I looked. The way I sound. They dehumanized me. But you know, the funniest thing, because when you’re the target, you just have to laugh, is that I was supposedly both CIA and communist. None of these were true. But the end goal, please know this, is chaos. Break down trust. If you don’t have the right information, you can’t act. That’s partly the reason why journalists are on the front lines. The meta narrative, disinformation networks seeded against us—and this is globally—was “journalist equals criminal.” Then the bottom up attacks in the Philippines against us began on social media. That was followed a year later by the weaponization of the law. In 2019, I was arrested twice in about a month, posted bail eight times in about three months. I thought I was going to have to do a workflow for arrests. But before it all ended, I had 10 arrest warrants. Rappler and I paid more in bail and bonds than our dictator’s wife, Imelda Marcos—you remember her shoes? She was convicted for corruption. But I did nothing wrong, except to do my job, to report the facts. To hold power to account. For this, I had to be okay with spending the rest of my life in jail. At one point it was more than a century in jail that I faced. To be here today, I had to ask for permission to travel from our Supreme Court. Anyone else out here on bail? Just me? It taught me a valuable lesson.

I loved the speeches of the students today. They were incredible. Because these times will hopefully teach you the same lesson I learned. You don’t know who you are until you’re tested, until you fight for what you believe in. Because that defines who you are. But you’re Harvard. You better get your facts right. Because now, you are being tested. The chilling effect means that many are choosing to stay silent because there are consequences to speaking out. I’m shocked at the fear and anger, the paranoia splitting open the major fracture lines of society. The inability to listen, what happened to us in the Philippines. It’s here. The campus protests are testing everyone in America. Protests are healthy. They shouldn’t be violent. Protests give voice. They shouldn’t be silenced.

But you live in complicated, complex times, where I think administrators and students also face an unacknowledged danger: technology, making everything faster, meaner, more polarized, with insidious Information Operations online that are dividing generations. Rappler will be documenting this and publishing in the next couple of weeks. Maybe Rappler’s experience can help you. After all, we were in Hell. And now we’re in Purgatory, right? It can get better. And here’s three ways we’ve learned right?

One, choose your best self.

Two, turn crisis into opportunity. And

Three—it’s wonderful to have heard this several times from the stage today—three, be vulnerable.

One, choose your best self. Set and stay focused on your goals, but know the values you live by. How important is power? How much money will make you happy? Because the only thing you can control in the world is you. Too often, we let ourselves off the hook, refusing to look at our own difficult or ugly truths. We rationalize bad behavior. Remember that character is created in the sum of all the little choices we make. If you’re not clear about your values, you may wake up one day and realize, you don’t like the person you’ve become. So choose your best self.

You’re standing on the rubble of the world that was. Recognize it. I said this in the Nobel lecture: an atom bomb exploded in our information ecosystem, because social media turned our world upside down, spreading lies faster than facts, while amplifying fear and anger, fueling hatred, by design, for profit. Whether it’s the eye of social media or generative AI, we don’t have integrity of information. We don’t have integrity of facts. And here’s three sentences I’ve said over and over. Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality, no rule of law, no democracy, we can’t begin to solve existential problems like climate change. This outrage economy, built on our data, micro targeting us, transformed our world, rewarding the worst of humanity. Online violence is real world violence. And as you’ve pointed out, people are dying from genocide in Myanmar, fueled by Facebook, according to the UN and Meta itself, to Ukraine, Sudan, Haiti, Armenia, Gaza.

The challenge, the challenge today is whether our international rules-based-order still works. Does it? The challenge is justice core to our humanity. Too many powerful people are getting away with impunity, from countries to companies. And it is dividing us in ways that are literally destroying us, destroying democracy, destroying trust. In Cambridge Common, just on the other side of that gate, there’s a marker to American patriot William Dawes, who like his more famous friend Paul Revere rode through here sounding the alarm. The British are coming. Well, today’s equivalent, an alarm that’s made me feel like Cassandra and Sisyphus combined, because I feel like I’ve been shouting since 2016 when I watched our institutions crumble quickly in the Philippines, and I will say it now: the fascists are coming.

In 2023, the global democracy index fell to its lowest level ever. Today, 71 percent of the world lives under autocratic rule. We are electing illiberal leaders, democratically. And once in power, these autocrats not only crush institutions in their countries, but they form alliances and create Kleptocracy, Inc. This is your challenge. It is our challenge. And Harvard played a role in getting us here. Seven years ago, Mark Zuckerberg stood at this podium, finally got his degree. And said that his life’s purpose was to connect the whole world. “Move fast, break things,” Facebook said. Well, it broke democracy. In my book, How to Stand Up to a Dictator, we were fighting two, I mean, two, not just Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, he’s one man who crushed institutions. But even more powerful was Mark Zuckerberg because he, along with tech bros, are controlling the world. Okay. I will shut up. Enough, right? Because let me bring it to you. The battle to regain trust begins now. With all of you. Harvard says it educates the future leaders of the world. Well, if you future leaders don’t fight for democracy right now, there will be little left for you to lead.

How do you do this? And this leads to Two. Turn crisis into opportunity. I think you’ve lived through this, except the crisis is here to stay. In Rappler, my co founders, and one of them is here, Glenda Gloria, who was a Nieman Fellow from 2018. We learned to embrace the worst scenarios we could imagine. And this happened during our darkest times. Then we work flowed what our company would do. We drilled our team, and we prepared for the worst. We also learned, strangely, to become punching bags, because we didn’t want to tear down our judiciary. We didn’t want to tear down our government. We knew how potent fear is. And we tried to step in. I mean, at some point, you get angry when silence is consent. But you understand. Well, I did have good news. Remember, we put out all of our worst case scenarios. And the reality we lived through was so much better than we could have imagined. Hell, Purgatory, right? It didn’t mean we weren’t afraid. We just made a pact among the four co-founders of Rappler that only one of us could be afraid at any single time. We rotated the fear. But now, for you, for us, the corruption of our information ecosystem is about to get worse. Because of deep fakes, you can’t trust your eyes and ears. Because of chatbots, you can’t trust that the person you’re communicating with is even human. After Elon Musk bought Twitter, he fired its trust and safety team. Meta and Google also cut some of their staff. So as half the world goes to the polls, goes to vote this year, there will be fewer safety measures in place to protect us. Now, big tech is choking traffic to news sites, which means you will get less news in your feeds. How do you know what’s real? How do you know what’s fact when your emotions are what’s manipulated, when our biology is hacked? Instead of the facts, the “enshittification” of the internet is in full bloom, more trash, more propaganda, more information operations that push our emotional buttons. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo deleted X last year, calling it a human sewer. We will have to struggle harder, for agency, for independent thought. And it’s not just the tech companies that abdicated responsibility for protecting us. It’s also democratic governments like the United States. Tech is the least regulated industry around the world. That’s why the U.S. needs to reform or revoke section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

We need to stop the impunity. We also need to acknowledge our crisis of faith. I’ve always believed in the goodness of human nature. But that has never been tested as much as it is today. When the incentive structure of the technology that connects us rewards the bad, eliminates the best of who we can be. So, we need to restore our faith in humanity, and that starts with compassion. There’s a word that goes beyond empathy in South Africa. I love this word. Ubuntu: I am, because we are. It’s a deeper faith in another person. It’s deeper than stepping in someone else’s shoes. But in order to get there, to get to Ubuntu, we have to lower our shields.

Which leads us to Three. Be vulnerable. You’ve accomplished a lot to be here today. You might think being vulnerable is weak. And it is hard to trust. But in every relationship, in every negotiation, in order to move forward and accomplish anything meaningful, someone lowers their shield first, brings down their ego, their defense mechanism; then others follow. Let that person be you. Because when you’re vulnerable, you create the strongest bonds. You restore trust, and the ability to find creative solutions to intractable problems. You become resilient, and enable the most inspiring possibilities. So, choose your best self. Turn crisis into opportunity. Be vulnerable. This is it. This time matters. What you do matters. The war isn’t just happening in Gaza, in Sudan, in Ukraine. It isn’t just out there. It’s in your pocket. Each of us is fighting our own battles for facts, for integrity, because the dictator-to-be can zoom in and target each of us. So let me end by reminding you: we’re standing on the rubble of the world that was. And we—you—must have the courage, the foresight, to imagine and create the world as it should be: more compassionate, more equal, more sustainable. Your Harvard education gives you the tools. Make it a world that is safe from fascists and tyrants. Alone, no matter how much of a superstar you are, you will accomplish very little. We will accomplish very little alone. This is about what we can do together, to find what binds us together. Our world on fire needs you. So, Class of 2024, welcome to the battlefield. Join us.

 

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