Spread of fake news meant to silence, intimidate critics – Maria Ressa

Camille Elemia
Spread of fake news meant to silence, intimidate critics – Maria Ressa


'Social media provided cheap armies to potential authoritarian and dictators to control and manipulate public opinion,' says Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa

MANILA, Philippines – Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa testified before the Senate and said that some governments resort to spreading fake news to silence dissent.

Ressa said the phenomenon of fake news is a global issue and cited a study on “patriotic trolling” or  state-sponsored online hate and harassment campaigns to “silence and intimidate.” (READ: Propaganda war: Weaponizing the internet)

She said Rappler participated in a study, set to be released “in the next few months,” which is similar to the one published by FreedomHouse.org, a US-based non-government organization, last November.

“They studied 65 countries around the world and found… that social media provided cheap armies to potential authoritarian and dictators to control and manipulate public opinion,” Ressa said.

The NGO reported that the Philippines has a cadre of paid online commenters as part of a “keyboard army” that sought to support President Rodrigo Duterte and attack detractors of the administration.

Ressa also presented before the Senate committee on public information and mass media the data that showed how social media, specifically Facebook, is being used to harass critics of the administration. (READ: Fake accounts, manufactured reality on social media)

“So I think what you’re seeing in our country is something that’s similar to other countries around the world, when a campaign machinery becomes weaponized. And the irony, of course, is it didn’t become weaponized until after President Duterte won. That happened in July of 2016,” Ressa said.

She then explained how certain social media users were found to be fake, using others’ photos and using cut-and-paste commenting styles. It was found, she said, that these people would usually comment or post their messages on campaign pages of Duterte and, citing one example, combining those the pages supporting Bongbong Marcos. (READ: How Facebook algorithms impact democracy)

Ressa’s testimony came amid the Securities and Exchange Commission decision to revoke Rappler’s license for supposedly violating the 100%-Filipino ownership rule. (READ: TIMELINE: The case of Rappler’s SEC registration)

Rappler and other local and international groups have slammed the ruling seen as a curtailment of press freedom. The company has already appealed the decision before the Court of Appeals.

No need for new laws

As for possible legislation to address the issue, Ressa said there are already sufficient laws against fake news.

“I don’t think we should have more legislation. We should impose existing laws on this and demand accountability. I think the problem is lack of accountability, the impunity that is happening now,” she added.

Palace Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, Businessworld Editor Roby Alampay, and Kapisanan ng mga Broadkaster ng Pilipinas chairman Ruperto Nicdao Jr shared the same sentiment.

“We note there are already existing laws which may be tapped in seeking redress against fake news or against false information,” Andanar said.

Alampay said: “I believe there are enough laws, laws on libel, slander. There are laws on disinformation, laws should hold officials accountable or the data that they come up with.” – Rappler.com

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Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com