'A Thousand Cuts' Documentary Tracks Disinformation In Duterte's Philippines NPR's Ailsa Chang talks with Filipino journalist Maria Ressa and documentary filmmaker Ramona Diaz about President Rodrigo Duterte and the spread of disinformation on social media in the Philippines.

'A Thousand Cuts' Documentary Tracks Disinformation In Duterte's Philippines

'A Thousand Cuts' Documentary Tracks Disinformation In Duterte's Philippines

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NPR's Ailsa Chang talks with Filipino journalist Maria Ressa and documentary filmmaker Ramona Diaz about President Rodrigo Duterte and the spread of disinformation on social media in the Philippines.


Freedom of the press is enshrined in the Philippines' constitution. But that hasn't stopped President Rodrigo Duterte from trying to thwart journalists time and again.


PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: (Speaking Tagalog) Reporter, they will be allowed to criticize us. But you'll go to jail for your crime.

SHAPIRO: Your reporters, they will be allowed to criticize us. But you will go to jail for your crimes, he says.

One of his targets is Maria Ressa, one of the founders of the digital news network Rappler. Filmmaker Ramona Diaz has made a documentary about Ressa, Duterte, the president's war on drugs and the spread of disinformation online. The film is called "A Thousand Cuts." Ressa and Diaz talked with our co-host Ailsa Chang from the Sundance Film Festival.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Ramona, I want to start with you. You know, given all the journalists who are under siege in the Philippines, what made you want to focus on Maria Ressa and on Rappler?

RAMONA DIAZ: I think because by the time I started researching the film, which was in 2018, I found that they were really the loudest voice speaking up against President Duterte. Then I met Maria and thought, wow, this could be an angle. One thing led to another. And the day after I got to the Philippines, she got arrested.


DIAZ: So sometimes, you know, the story's just, like - it happens in front of you; you got to jump in.

CHANG: And Maria, you worked in traditional media in the Philippines for quite some time. I mean, you were in several high-level positions for CNN, for example. You are now leading a digital news network - Rappler. I'm curious - how have you seen the relationship between the government in the Philippines and the reporters in the Philippines change under Duterte?

MARIA RESSA: It's like night and day. You know, I - maybe this is my 34th year as a journalist. And I think, you know, you have to think about this - it's not just the Philippines but globally. It seemed like everywhere the rules of engagement with power - all of those rules were thrown out the window in 2016.

CHANG: When he came to power?

RESSA: Actually, he came to power in May 2016. A month later, you had Brexit. And then, like dominoes falling, you go all the way to Trump's election in the United States. But I think this is the beginning of exactly what social media has done to our information ecosystem and the weaponization of that compounded by the abuse of power.

What I've lived through under the Duterte administration is unprecedented. Well, even the fact that I've gotten arrested or I have eight different charges, I have to ask for permission to travel - that my rights have been curtailed because I'm a journalist.

CHANG: Maria, you've been arrested twice, right?

RESSA: Yes, I have.

CHANG: How representative is that - is your experience compared to the experience of other journalists working in the Philippines now?

RESSA: I think I'm the cautionary tale. You know? There's a saying in Indonesia that the nail that stands up gets the hammer.

DIAZ: I think because they were also - Rappler was the new kid on the block, you know? And also, you know, Rappler's led by women (laughter). They really didn't think that they were going to do anything, I think.

CHANG: Oh, interesting.

RESSA: Then they didn't do their research.

DIAZ: Yeah.

CHANG: Ramona, as you've said, you know, this isn't just a film about Maria Ressa and Rappler. This is also a film about Duterte's war on drugs.


DUTERTE: Until I see the last pusher out of the street, until the last drug lord is killed, this campaign will continue to the very last day of my term.

CHANG: Despite this regime's willingness to resort to violence, you point out that Duterte and his political allies are still massively popular in the Philippines. And your film says that Duterte supporters, they're actively engaged in spreading support for him and they're actively engaged in spreading hate to his detractors. How does that work?

DIAZ: If the question is, why is Duterte still popular after all this time? - I think because he does sell that narrative of law and order. You know, in the language of, like, violence, he says, you know, I will get revenge.

CHANG: Right.

DIAZ: Whoever has put you in poverty, I will revenge. And I will change it. I think that the language of revenge is more powerful. It's also macho, right? It's a very masculine way of speaking, which I think people really relate to and understand. And it goes deeper, I think, than just saying, I'm going to change things.

CHANG: Right. Well, besides the tone that he's striking and the message that he's pushing, your film also talks about the disinformation campaign that he is waging against his opponents. Maria, can you kind of explain what that has looked like in the Philippines over the last few years - and how much of that has been directed at you?

RESSA: So a ton has been directed at me. And you know what? It is good because I got to know exactly what's happening. And let me put it in context 'cause what is happening in the Philippines is exactly what's happening in the United States. It is exactly what is happening in many democracies around the world, which is - you say a lie a million times, it becomes a fact. Right? You take a fissure of society. You create us against them, and then you fuel anger and incite hate. You manipulate people for a political purpose.

CHANG: Right. We learn from this film that most people in the Philippines are on Facebook and that the methods used by Cambridge Analytica, a lot of them - now, this is the firm that exploited Facebook to affect the 2016 election in the U.S. This film says that Cambridge Analytica tested out its methods in the Philippines first. I mean, why do you think they chose the Philippines as the testing ground or this - the petri dish, if you will?

RESSA: Because 100% of Filipinos on the Internet are on Facebook. It's extremely powerful. Part of the reason President Duterte is extremely popular is because of these information operations on social media, which is part of the reason you have to look at Facebook and its culpability in this.

CHANG: So given the challenges presented by a leader like Duterte and the ease with which information and disinformation spreads in the Philippines, how hopeful are the two of you about the chances for real democracy in the Philippines?

RESSA: Look - you got to have hope. How hopeful? You know, the line I have used for the last three years - we will hold the line. And we hold the line, right? The president has two years left in office. I don't think Filipino values have changed. I don't think it is OK to kill people. I think we're horrified at where we are and we're trying to find a way to turn the world right-side up.

Filipinos can't do this alone. The original sin is Silicon Valley. They have to right the information ecosystem. Facts have to have a place. Otherwise, if you don't have facts, you can't have truth. Without truth, you can't have trust. And without any of these things, democracy can't survive. So please do something on your end here in the United States.

DIAZ: You know, I have to be hopeful. And that's why I wanted to make the film. You know, every film I make is sort of like a yearning for the homeland. This one was something else. This one was some - trying to understand, first of all, the appeal of President Duterte and trying to figure out what - where this will all lead.

I have to have hope. And I think the tide is turning just a little bit. But that happens, right? And charismatic leaders who come and try to - like, they capture your imagination until they don't. Right? Something breaks. And then you wake up and say, wait. This is not us; this is totally not the Philippines. It's not the Filipinos. And we - he doesn't represent us.

CHANG: Maria Ressa is the CEO of Rappler. And Ramona Diaz's new film is called "A Thousand Cuts."

Thank you very much to both of you.

DIAZ: Oh, you're very welcome.

RESSA: Thanks for having us.


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