Rappler: Redefining journalism in a social world

Maria A. Ressa

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Rappler wants to harness new technology, analyze how it’s changing us as people and attempt to use it for social good

Technology and social media can significantly alter real world outcomes.  I’ve proven that to myself after we rolled out social media for the Philippines’ largest television news group in 2007.  They were early successes, partly because our campaigns were created for a country which was dubbed the texting capital of the world and, in 2010, named by ComScore as the social media capital of the world.

In a 2007 campaign we called “Boto Mo, Ipatrol Mo” – which roughly translates to Patrol Your Vote, we took the traditional power of broadcast media and combined it with new media – the internet, mobile phone technology and social media – to create the first instance globally where a news media organization called on citizens to create user-generated content for a very active, political purpose – to patrol their votes and push for clean elections. 

We moved one step ahead of western media organizations because of our unique political situation: a country of 88 million people in a democracy which still used manual voting and counting … where charges of fraud, cheating and violence in elections are constant and consistent. 

No candidate ever admits losing in Philippine elections. They just say they were cheated! And as far as violence – well, in 2007, the Philippine National Police said it was one of our most peaceful elections ever – with nearly 130 people killed in 217 poll-related incidents of violence!

The results: anecdotal evidence that cellphones in the hands of ordinary people acted as a form of deterrence, preventing officials from using government resources for their campaigns and committing other illegal acts of electioneering as well as helping expose election violence to a nationwide audience. 

In the weeks leading up to the 2007 elections, we received 500 messages a week, and on election day, we received a message a minute. This is crowdsourcing for a political purpose.  In the process, it breathed new life into idealism and supported individual battles of integrity in far-flung areas of a nation of 7,100 islands. Working together, professional journalists and citizen journalists could shine a national spotlight on local instances of corruption or violence.

Emotions spread faster

While that was successful, I could already see the next iteration in our call for user-generated content. In 2007, two Harvard professors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, began publishing a series of studies using available data from the Heart Study in Framingham, Massachusetts. By using new data visualization and mapping techniques, these social scientists concluded that social networks networks magnify what they’re seeded with, spreading emotions and behavior like happiness,[1] loneliness,[2] political views & voting behavior,[3] sexual behavior & disease contagion,[4] smoking and even obesity.[5] 

They formulated the Three Degrees of Influence Rule, which states that emotions and behavior spread through three degrees in a social network. For example, if I’m feeling lonely, my friend has a 52% chance of feeling lonely. My friend’s friend (two degrees) has a 25% chance of feeling lonely because I do, and my friend’s friend’s friend (three degrees) has a 15% chance of feeling lonely. 

I was fascinated with finding practical applications for this idea. Focus-group discussions showed us that the Filipino youth were dissatisfied and disillusioned with our country’s political processes. So we decided to spread hope. We crafted a campaign that would show, not tell, and use action, not words. 

We added a simple tagline to our original campaign.  In 2009, it became “Boto Mo, iPatrol Mo: Ako ang Simula.”  “Ako ang Simula” – literally translated means “I am the beginning.”  In spirit, it means “Change Begins with Me.” We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel so we drew from universal messages.  This was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s “Be the Change You Want to See.” 

We decided to spread hope through empowerment, and we seeded every single communication point with that message. It was a call to action in both the physical and virtual worlds.

The results magnified our 2007 campaign 7 to 8 times and again showed me how a mass media campaign combined with technology and social media can inspire action and user-generated content for a tactical, political purpose.

From 2009-2010, we monitored the impact of our experiments in media for social change.  Our research arm conducted monthly focus-group discussions which allowed me to tweak the campaign’s progress and choose which platform was appropriate for each message. 

We also participated in nationwide surveys, culminating in a final nationwide report conducted by credible polling institution, Pulse Asia. Its July 2010 survey showed the full impact of our AKO ANG SIMULA campaign. It said Filipinos reached the highest level of optimism nationwide since the Pulse Asia surveys began in 1999, with 53% optimistic and only 11% pessimistic (the lowest the group has recorded).  It also showed a boost to our network’s credibility ratings.

Social media’s tipping point

A lot more was happening in 2009, which was a banner year for social media. That was when it hit a tipping point. The numbers tell the story: if Facebook was a country, it would be the third largest in the world. There were 30,000 hours of videos uploaded every minute on YouTube, reaching a billion views per day. More than 1.5 million pieces of content were shared daily; 25 billion every month, and this is my personal favorite which said it all. In 2009, social media overtook porn as the number 1 activity on the Internet. 

In 2011, as Author-in-Residence and Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research at RSIS in Singapore, I began to seriously study how technology was changing the people using it and, more specifically, I began to use the same studies I used for communication campaigns to look at how terrorism, which is a volatile cocktail of emotions, can spread through social networks. Those findings are published in my new book, 10 Days, 10 Years: FROM BIN LADEN TO FACEBOOK.

News events in 2011 validated ideas I was playing with: the Arab spring, the London riots and Occupy Wall Street showed how quickly social media can amplify and spread emotions virally across societies. As you can see, these news events have both positive and negative consequences. In the London riots for example, looters planned attacks on social media just as the clean-up was also planned on social media.  This more than any event shows us how social media is a tool that can be used for good or evil.

The medium that carries the message shapes and defines the message itself. Social media’s instantaneous nature pushed the speed at which these revolutions unraveled and spread discontent virally across borders. The first messages created ripple effects, amplified and pushed further by countless, nameless others spreading not just the message itself but their emotions – what psychologists call emotional contagion, modeled on the networks of the web – loose, non-hierarchical, leaderless.   

What is Rappler?

These are the ideas and experiences that went into the creation of Rappler, a social news network. Rappler comes from the root words “rap” (to talk) + “ripple” (to make waves).  A new company which went “live” in 2012, we are composed of veteran award-winning, investigative journalists working with digital natives, artists, NGO, IT & television professionals. Rappler wants to harness new technology, analyze how it’s changing us as people and attempt to use it for social good. In the process, we redefine journalism, build communities, and crowdsource actions for specific purposes.

We wanted to create a pilot, scalable model for countries like the Philippines, where institutions and governance remain weak, leading to a lack of accountability. They need to be societies where internet and mobile penetration rates are high enough to create an alternative distribution platform that could empower the bottom of the pyramid, and there must be high adoption rates to new technology and social media.

Rappler lies at the center of 3 overlapping circles: professional journalism, technology and crowdsourcing or what James Surowiecki called, ‘the wisdom of crowds’ – when large groups of people take small steps to create something specific and unique. Rappler gives rich media stories (true multimedia drawing on our broadcasting, print and television backgrounds) with a blend of expert opinion and the wisdom of crowds.

At its center is the Philippines’ only hearts-and-minds approach to news. Every story has a unique mood meter. Neuroscientists say the very act of defining how you feel makes you more prone to listen to reason. So after watching or reading a story, you can click how you feel. After clicking on your mood, you’re then prompted to write why you feel that way and to share both the story and your comments on your social networks. 

While you’re doing that, the data from every mood meter is aggregated onto the site’s mood navigator – which exhibits a crowd-sourced mood of the day. That’s only the first crowdsourcing Rappler does. In the coming days, expect to see aggregation and visualization of data that help show why specific crowdsourced actions are necessary. 

Social media is changing behavior

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies (FMRI) – brain scans – of people on Facebook and Twitter show that social media is literally rewiring our brains and agitating our emotions. These studies show elevated levels of dopamine, a chemical that causes mild addiction, as well as oxytocin, the “love hormone.”  If you hug someone longer than 6 seconds, your body begins to produce oxytocin. It’s behind the need to connect, 3rd in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These are only some of the biological reasons why social media is addictive.

One more key idea is behind Rappler’s mood meter: the findings that up to 80% of the way people make decisions is not because of rational thought but because of their emotions. 

When you put these ideas together, you begin to see a fundamental shift in the way our minds consume media and how technology is heightening our emotions. By anchoring emotions on stories, Rappler stimulates community engagement and creates specific crowdsourced actions which can spread faster through social media.

Understanding social media begins with understanding technology and its real world impact on people and social networks. If we start there, then it’s easier to see potential applications for the future, one where journalism creates a participatory culture and taps collective intelligence for nation-building. – Rappler.com



Now the CEO of Rappler, Maria A. Ressa was the Senior Vice-President of ABS-CBN’s News & Current Affairs Division and the Managing Editor of ANC. A version of this article first appeared in the Asian Journal of Public Affairs, Vol. 5, No. 1. 

[2] J.T. Cacioppo, J.H. Fowler & N.A. Christakis, “Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 97 (2009).

[3] J.H. Fowler, M.T. Heaney, D.W. Nickerson, J.F. Padgett & B. Sinclair, “Causality in Political Networks,” American Politics Research, 39:437 (2011).

[4] P.S. Bearman, J. Moody & K. Stovel, “Chains of Affection,” American Journal of Psychology, 110 (2004) and J.J. Potterat and others, “Sexual Network Structure as an Indicator of Epidemic Phase, Sexually Transmitted Infections, 78 (2002).

[5] N.A. Christakis & J.H. Fowler, “The Spread of Obesity in  Large Social Network Over 32 Years,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 375 (2007).


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Maria Ressa


Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 37 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, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, and How to Stand up to a Dictator.