Peace Requires Justice, Justice Requires Truth

by John M Repp

Maria Ressa is a Filipino woman who jointly won the Nobel peace prize with a Russian editor in 2021. It is rare for a journalist to win the Nobel for peace; the last time that happened was in 1936 when a German reporter won for describing what was happening inside Germany. He could not accept the prize because he was in a Nazi concentration camp. Ressa founded Rappler which is a Filipino digital media company driven by uncompromising reporting. She jokes “First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened next.”

Journalists, like scientists, seek the truth. It is not their job to stretch the truth to sell their product. Journalists can be some of the defenders against the creeping fascism showing itself across the globe, if they inform the people of the truth about what is going on with their government and the economy. Fascism is based on a lie that certain minority groups are responsible for the economic and political problems in a country, fatefully ignoring the real power held by the huge corporations, global bankers, and the financial elites. Those targeted by the lie experience repression.

In a legitimacy crisis, fascists see that the people are ready to rise and might figure out who is really in charge, so they deflect the anger of enough of the unhappy and discontented toward a scapegoat: in the case of the Nazis, the scapegoats were the Jews; now, in the US, it is the “woke”, the “socialists”, the “immigrants” or anybody but the people really in charge. Fascists want power and celebrate domination and they protect the real elites.

Ressa must have just been in America. I saw her on the Stephen Colbert show on November 30, 2022. She was interviewed on Amanpour and Co on December 7, 2022. It is worth a look.

She has just published a book How to Stand Up to a Dictator. It appears that now (December 14, 2022) she is back in the Philippines where the government has lodged multiple false charges against her. She faces more than 100 years in prison.

Ressa thinks that what has happened in the Philippines needs to be understood by American citizens. Now in the Philippines, almost 100% of the people are on Facebook and other social media. It is where most get news. Anybody can post on social media, and even more insidious, with computer programs called “bots” i.e., robots, bad actors (she calls them “troll armies”) can post thousands of messages containing misinformation and make it look like the posts came from real people. For malign foreign despots like Putin social media is a good way to spread false facts and ideas. In addition, some people who work to get out the truth and report it, like Ressa, were often “bombed” with hundreds of nasty messages to shut them up.

The series she wrote about the weaponization of the internet, starting in 2016, explains some of the dynamics of our information ecosystem. The social media companies’ goal is to hold our attention for as long as they can. They learn what we like and feed us more of the same. But a real source of the danger is the fact is “lies are more interesting than facts.” That makes the goals of the social media companies, and the goals of the disinformation operatives the same: grabbing more attention so advertisers can also snatch a look from people. 

Ressa at first thought social media had great potential to be a positive force for a democratic society. It could help us be better informed. Then, she watched Duterte, elected in 2015, wage a “war on drugs” that turned out to be the violent repression of the most deprived citizens in the Philippines. More recently, she has watched the family name of Marcos be transformed from pariah in 2014, when dictator Ferdinand was ousted, to hero in 2022 when Marcos’ son won the presidential election.

So, America, you have been warned. Ressa is very worried about what could happen here in 2024. We need the rule of law in the virtual world. We need to find a way to make the original promise of the World Wide Web come true. A campaign of lying for political advantage is not “free speech”. If we revere our democracy, if we hold it sacred, then we should treat our public spaces, the forums where we express ourselves, just like we treat the spaces inside a courtroom where telling a lie is perjury. For a democracy to work, we must find good sources who want to report the truth. “You can’t have integrity of elections without integrity of facts.”

Maria Ressa giving her speech accepting the Nobel peace prize in 2021.