Maria Ressa's 'How to Stand Up to a Dictator' is a memoir and manifesto
Maria Ressa laid out her vision for the future of public service journalism over a dinner in a Japanese restaurant in Manila in 2013. Ressa, who made her name in Asia as a correspondent for CNN, had helped launch Rappler, a digital news start-up, on a Facebook page two years earlier.
Over sushi and beer, she told me her plan was to harness social media and Big Data to finance investigative journalism and create online communities in her native Philippines to help solve some of the country's major problems, including political corruption.
It was forward-looking, idealistic and sounded like a magic bullet.
Several years later, we caught up at a college reunion in the U.S. — we'd been classmates in the 1980s. Ressa was again in her natural state: optimistic and thinking ahead. Moving around campus, she shot Facebook Live videos, including a performance by an a cappella group. A social media evangelist, she saw the videos as a way to report in real time and — again — build community.
That fall, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines. A populist autocrat, he launched a murderous war on drugs that killed 7,000 people in the first year, according to Amnesty International.
After Rappler exposed the campaign and the way Duterte supporters used Facebook to manipulate public opinion, she and Rappler came under online attack. In just the few months since we'd seen each other, Ressa's tone had changed.
The death threats start
"Getting a few death threats now," she wrote me in a private message in the fall of 2016. "This is another country."
Ressa had no idea.
As she recounts in her book, Ressa pressed Facebook to crack down on Duterte's online army, but says the company was more interested in profits than protecting public discourse. One afternoon in 2019, as she met with Facebook's disinformation team, one of Rapplers' co-founders entered the room.
"Maria, don't turn around," she said. "They're here to arrest you."
Plainclothes officers from the Filipino equivalent of the FBI had arrived to take her into custody. As she writes, it was the first of ten arrest warrants that would be issued against her over the next two years. One of Rappler's young reporters live streamed the event — on Facebook.
This is just one of the head-spinning scenes in Ressa's new book, How to Stand Up To a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future, a memoir and manifesto that traces her humbling and harrowing journey from social media advocate to democracy defender in just a few years.
Full disclosure: I didn't know Ressa well in college — but as fellow journalists we've become friends. To me, one of the book's greatest values is providing a first-person account of how an authoritarian regime weaponizes social media to try to cripple a free press and dismantle democracy. It is one of the major stories of our time. Last year, Ressa shared the Nobel Peace prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.
Ressa grew up in Manila and moved to Toms River, New Jersey, at age 10. A dark-skinned minority who stood just 5' 2", she served as president of her class three times and was voted "Most Likely to Succeed." She writes that she felt compelled "to keep racking up achievements and superlatives, because if I didn't, then I didn't belong there."
In college, she focused on theater and, afterwards, returned to the Philippines on a Fulbright fellowship in search of her roots. She arrived a few months after the People Power movement had swept dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power. Inspired, Ressa turned to journalism.
The dictator's playbook
Thirty years later, a new strong-man, Duterte, came to power in the Philippines. For Ressa, the dictator's playbook became a lived experience. While Duterte's supporters attacked political opponents online, the government weaponized the legal system to punish them even more. When a tycoon criticized Duterte, the government charged his company with securities violations and drove his company's stock price down 46 percent.
In turn, the government targeted Rappler with various criminal cases, including charges of tax evasion and cyber libel, all of which Ressa and the company deny. The stakes are high. Ressa faces more than a century in prison on charges that human rights groups say are trumped up.
Ressa pins much of the blame for the erosion of democracy on Mark Zuckerberg. She repeatedly showed Facebook how Duterte's supporters were using the platform to spread disinformation, but says she was largely ignored. When she met Zuckerburg in 2017, she urged him to visit the Philippines and see for himself, pointing out that 97% of Filippinos online were on Facebook.
"Wait, Maria," she recalled Zuckerburg saying, "where are the other three percent?"
"I believe Facebook represents one of the gravest threats to democracies around the world," she writes, "and I'm amazed that we have allowed our freedoms to be taken away by technology companies' greed for growth and revenue."
Of course, disinformation is not exclusively a tactic of the political right and social media platforms can be used for good or ill. Ressa acknowledges she was naïve. Rappler held workshops to train students to become citizen journalists. Among the thousands of people Rappler trained were some who took those skills and became "key propaganda voices" for Duterte's social media army — and used them against Rappler.
"I was the truest of true believers in the power of social media to do good in the world," Ressa writes ruefully.
90 hate messages an hour
Books on technology, democracy and autocracy can be dry, so Ressa describes in detail what it is like to be personally targeted by a dictator. After a singer and Duterte supporter attacks her on Facebook Live, Ressa's Facebook feed is bombarded with 90 hate messages an hour.
"I was angry and my heart was pounding," she writes.
As she prepares to fly back to Manila amid risk of arrest, she packs a pair of pajamas, a tooth brush and a change of clothes in her carry-on in case police haul her off to jail after she lands.
Ressa demonstrates how to stand up to a dictator: expose his or her methods, don't back down, and risk your freedom. More prescriptively, she calls for legislation to hold technology companies accountable, more investment in investigative journalism and more collaboration between news organizations and those who care about democracy and facts.
"I refuse to live in a world like this," she writes. "I demand better. We deserve better."
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent.