#MovePH: How social media and technology are changing you

Maria A. Ressa
The Internet and new media technology is changing the way we think, changing and playing with the plasticity of our brains, actually rewiring our synapses – and, consequently, changing the way we act.
On Friday, August 8, 2014, MovePH, Rappler’s citizen engagement arm, won the 2014 Globe Tatt Awards for Best Social Media Movement.  When it was still an experiment on Facebook, Maria Ressa first introduced MovePH publicly nearly 3 years ago at the very first Tatt Awards.  She was part of the panel of judges in 2011 and delivered this keynote speech on August 26, 2011. This lays out many of the key ideas behind Rappler.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you tonight about the big ideas that have brought us all together. The Internet and new media technology is changing the way we think, changing and playing with the plasticity of our brains, actually rewiring our synapses – and, consequently, changing the way we act.

It’s changing power structures around the world – I’ll give you both positive and negative examples. And finally, as many of you here already know, it is giving you power the generation before never had. We live through it every day and take it for granted, but make no mistake.

The changes are cataclysmic.

Changing your brain’s chemistry

I’ll begin with you. The first change is physiological. How many of you have Facebook accounts, Twitter? How much time do you spend on social media? Are you addicted? Chances are to some degree, you are. Your dopamine levels, the chemical that causes addiction, increases when you’re using twitter or facebook.

It’s proven in FMRI imaging studies. Remember, our emotions are really just chemical reactions and social media is tweaking your emotions by changing the chemical levels in your brain. Because your emotions are heightened, your expectations and the way you behave shifts. I first studied this because I wanted to know how people consumed news. Academics complain about tabloid journalism, but the reality is that it’s now become the norm globally. That’s largely because that’s the way people in general want to get their news.

Why? Because the technology we use has kept us on a perpetual emotional high. This is not just social media but all the interruptions in the modern day world – flooding our brains with dopamine and other hormones like oxytocin – helping condition us to like “sensationalism” over “objectivity.”

Anyway, the way you think is different. The reason I’m writing a book now is because I wanted to find out how the Internet has affected my brain. And BOY, it has. As a reporter, you tend to live on adrenalin, but this constant dopamine fix of social media has a downside.

We are creating a generation that can’t focus, is bad at multi-tasking and lacks concentration. The upside is we’re more engaged. We’re more social. We can decide – with minimal costs – to act TOGETHER. A recent study came out that showed that students on Facebook don’t do as well in school but they’re more developed socially.

So here you are – being changed by the media you consume.

While one person can spark or tip towards meaningful change, one person can’t do much on his or her own. You need to harness a group. And for much of human history, scientists realized that the most number of people we could hold together socially or for any meaningful endeavor is 150. It’s called Dunbar’s number. Not coincidentally, that’s the average number of friends people have on Facebook. It requires effort and money to get beyond that number.

Harnessing the crowd

For most of human history, there only existed two ways we can harness human capabilities. You either create a company or a bureaucracy – which requires a lot of capital, money to hire, create a hierarchy and communicate internally so you can get the group to achieve a shared purpose. It’s the principle behind companies and governments.

The second way is to create markets, which also requires institutions to set rules, maintain and regulate. That also costs money.

The third way happened less than a decade ago. We now have the power to harness networks – at almost no cost. Let me give you two concrete examples of this: Wikipedia and A MILLION VOICES AGAINST FARC in Colombia.

The ability to harness networks and move people to action is called crowd-sourcing, and a development that will change businesses and institutions globally. James Surowieki wrote a book called THE WISDOM OF CROWDS where he wrote that “large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant – better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions.” He listed the four criteria you needed to make that happen: diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, aggregation.

This is the idea behind the citizen journalism program I led at ABS-CBN. Now every news organization in the Philippines has one, but when we started in 2005, it was a novel idea since most journalists were wary of mixing with non-professionals. Well, that’s another idea that’s been tossed out the window.

Professional journalists have to redefine their roles today because now everyone is a journalist. Everyone in this room has the power to publish – something only large organizations with money could afford to do in the generation before us.

Let me end with some big examples of the power of crowd-sourcing and social media, new ways of connecting networks of people. Let’s go to the phenomenon of the Arab spring, the huge protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya. It set off a debate about Facebook and Twitter revolutions – with people saying yes it is, no it isn’t.

Regardless of what we call it, the Internet – and social media in particular – helped ignite long-standing grievances, broke walls of fear, spread courage and fast-tracked what may have taken months and years without instant communications – all this leading to the downfall of dictators.

The medium that carries the message shapes and defines the message itself.

Social media movements

Social media’s instantaneous nature pushed the speed at which these revolutions unraveled and spread discontent – and courage – virally across the region. The first messages created ripple effects, amplified and pushed further by countless, nameless people spreading not just the message itself but their emotions – what psychologists call emotional contagion.

It’s extremely powerful, and it created protest movements that were difficult for authoritarian governments to control. Why? Because they were modeled on the networks of the web – loose, non-hierarchical, leaderless. You don’t know whom to arrest, no political parties to tear apart, no underground revolt to dismantle. This is the people, and any government that fights its people will ultimately fail.

On the flip side, it can also make it easier to organize looting and riots as we saw recently in London. British officials actually talked about controlling or shutting down social media.

Every powerful tool can be used positively and negatively. I think the earlier we focus on the positives, the sooner we can think of innovative applications.

So the Internet can bring down governments, empower its people, help spread democracy. What other things can it do? A lot more. It can help in governance. It can help change behavior and infuse new meaning into political processes.

For countries like the Philippines, there’s a great opportunity for journalists and the people to come together and help identify needs and push for solutions. Many of you are doing this now in your areas of influence, but we are envisioning something that puts all our energies together.

A group of friends and I are now working on a project that aims to evolve journalism and use new technology to harness citizens for nation-building. We are creating a pilot, scalable model that can be used in countries like ours with weak institutions and weak governance. I want to see change in my lifetime, and technology now gives us the ability to do it ourselves.

If you get a chance tonight, you can see a little of this conversation on Facebook. Visit Move.PH on Facebook and tell us what you think. Be part of the experiment and watch it evolve.

Let me end the way I began. It’s a time of cataclysmic change. The sooner we recognize that and embrace it, the sooner we can begin to think of new applications, new ways of doing things, new systems for harnessing collective efforts … the sooner we step into the future.

Thank you, Tatt Awards, for giving me the opportunity to see the work of so many talented Filipinos who have embraced this brave new digital world. I learned a lot by being part of this process. Remember, we should be at the forefront of this revolution because we are officially the social media capital of the world, according to ComScore.

Every day, I wake up and try to assess how the world has changed since I fell asleep. Of course, the first thing I do is look at Twitter and see what others around the world have sent me. Social media connects us globally now. How many of you guys saw Inception? That’s my metaphor for our world today. The Internet is the second level of reality that is quickly changing reality. What we do in the virtual world is changing the real world.

Congratulations to the winners tonight! You all are amazing and already know first-hand the power you wield to influence people. Now we just have to make sure we use it wisely. May the Force be with you! – Rappler.com

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Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.