Maria Ressa, one of two journalists awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for their efforts to protect democracy through freedom of speech and information, lashed out at social media and big tech firms at the prize ceremony in Oslo on Friday. She accused them of allowing, even prioritizing, a “toxic sludge” of lies, hatred and disinformation to run through “our information ecosystem.”
Ressa and her new fellow Nobel Laureate Dmitry Muratov used the Nobel podium to graphically describe the risks and dangers facing journalists all over the world, especially in authoritarian countries. Ressa, founder of the investigative reporting site Rappler in the Philippines, and Muratov, editor and founder of the independent newspaper Novaja Gazeta in Russia, have both faced death threats, arrests, official harassment and seen colleagues killed.
“The world isn’t as happy with democracy any longer,” Muratov said, adding that “dictators” are also “making it easier to carry out violence.” Muratov talked about the challenges and need for his newspaper to report on corruption, deadly conflicts in Chechnya and Ukraine, ongoing torture in Russian prisons and regular travesties of justice, noting that “journalism in Russia is in a dark period now.”
Muratov called for new investigations into the murders of Novaja Gazeta’s journalists since Russia’s own investigation “hasn’t produced any results,” nor have international probes. He claimed UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had “promised to contribute but he has possibly forgotten that, so here’s a reminder.”
Social media full of ‘fears, anger and hate’
Ressa, meanwhile, spoke about the murders and threats to democracy in the Philippines since Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016, and how another of her Filipino colleagues had been shot and killed just 36 hours before her Nobel Lecture. At least 63 lawyers have also been killed, a senator who demanded accountability from the government has been jailed, and the Philippines’ largest broadcaster lost its franchise to operate. She worries about “an absence of law and democratic vision for the 21st century.”
Ressa stressed most of all how journalists have lost their role as the professional “gatekeepers” who worked to make sure the flow of public information was factual, edited and in keeping with journalistic principles before being published. Now technology and especially social media can allow an unedited flow of information, with Ressa slamming their “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.”
She specifically mentioned Brazil, Hungary, France, the US and her own Philippines, where elections next year can be heavily influenced by social media. She noted how “American internet companies” can “make more money by spreading hate and triggering the worst in us.”
Attacks on her own newssite Rappler “began five years ago,” she said, “when we demanded an end to impunity on two fronts: Duterte’s drug war and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. Today it has only gotten worse, and Silicon Valley’s sins came home to roost in the United States on January 6 with mob violence on Capitol Hill.” She maintains that online violence has become real world violence.
She called social media, meanwhile, “a deadly game for power and money” in which “highly profitable micro-targeting operations are engineered to structurally undermine human will.” It has also ruined the business model for established media, Ressa believes, as “destructive corporations have siphoned money away from news groups and now pose a threat to markets and elections.” Facebook is now the world’s largest distributor of news, yet “lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts on social media.” Journalist-gatekeepers have been replaced by these “American companies controlling our global information ecosystem, biased against facts, biased against journalists. They are, by design, dividing us and radicalizing us.”
That’s not good for peace in the world, which is why the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose to award the Peace Prize “not to journalists as such,” said committee leader Berit Reiss Andersen (a lawyer herself and former head of Norway’s Bar Association) but rather to “two outstanding representatives of the press.” Andersen said in her opening remarks that Ressa and Muratov are “fearless” and “prominent” defenders of freedom of expression and freedom of information. She also called them “participants in a war where the written word is their weapon.”
Ressa hopes the world can act as it did after the atomic bomb attacks on Japan that ended World War II: “We need to create new institutions, like the United Nations, and new codes stating our values to prevent humanity from doing its worst.” She called for “shifting social priorites to rebuild journalism” while “regulating and outlawing” the big tech firms and “surveillance economics that profit from hate and lies.”
She was referring to how companies like Facebook and Google gather data on human behaviour and sell it to the highest bidder. It can then be used as a weapons, like meddling in elections.
Facebook, meanwhile, defended itself after Ressa’s attacks, with Camilla Nordsted of Facebook Norden telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that “freedom of the press is a cornerstone in our democracy and therefore we work actively to support news organizations and journalists around the world so they an do their important work.” Nordsted went on to claim that Facebook “invests massively in both people and technology to become better, remove damaging content and hinder misuse of our platforms in the Philippines.” She claimed Facebook was working “to better understand and handle risks in the Philippines” and that the company would continue to invest in security.”
Facebook founder Zuckerberg has earlier denied the company is more interested in profit that personal security. He has also contended that Facebook doesn’t intentionally promote polarizing content.
Funding issues, too
Both Ressa and Muratov also pointed to the need for funding for critical journalism, while Ressa stressed that journalists themselves also “need to embrace technology” and roll out platforms like Rappler recently did that are “designed to build communities of action.” Muratov noted, meanwhile, that his newspaper continues to publish a printed edition because not everyone has internet access in Russia, especially not inside prisons.
“It’s an illusion that progress can be made through technology and violence, and not through human rights and freedom,” he added in his speech. “Peace, progress and human rights are all intertwined.”
The prize ceremony audience inside Oslo City Hall on Friday had to be cut down from around 1,000 to just 200, because of Corona infection control measures. The audience included, however, Norway’s king, queen and crown prince, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and several members of his government, the lead justice on Norway’s Supreme Court, leaders of Norwegian journalism organizations, other human rights activists and several ambassadors, including those from Russia and Myanmar, where military dictators have just sentenced Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to prison. They all seemed to be listening when caught on camera.
“These were strong speeches that gave everyone a lot to think about,” Støre told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on his way out of the prize ceremony. “It also makes an impression that these two travel home with great uncertainty over what will meet them there.” Neither Vladimir Putin’s nor Duterte’s regime can have been pleased by what the journalists claimed, especially when Muratov called journalism “an antidote for tyranny.” Støre said Ressa’s attack on social media and large internet companies was also “thought-provoking.”