obituary

Remembering Madeleine Albright, democracy icon

Maria Ressa
Remembering Madeleine Albright, democracy icon

FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY. NDI 2017 Democracy Award recipients with Secretary Albright and Senator Murphy at the November 2 dinner in Washington DC: (left to right) Secretary Madeleine Albright, Dr. Phil Howard (Oxford Internet Institute), Maria Ressa (Rappler), Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), Margo Gontar (StopFake.org).

Margot Schulman

Writes Maria Ressa: 'I will remember how outspoken she was, and while many stayed silent, she helped shine the light on what was happening to us in the Philippines.'

I woke up to the devastating news of Madeleine Albright’s death. We were supposed to be at an event together in February, and I worried when she canceled at the last minute. I’ve known her for more than two decades, first as a reporter literally running after her, then since 2015 actually working with her to try to use technology to help jumpstart development. In 2017, she was among the first to recognize the dangers of disinformation and our work to expose it. In a few days in 2018, I was one of 15 people to be driven by her untiring work ethic to bridge the gap between old power (and our old world order) and new power (technology). It was in Germany, right when the first law to try to curb platform excesses was put in place. 

Finally, I will remember how outspoken she was, and while many stayed silent, she helped shine the light on what was happening to us in the Philippines – and to me personally as I faced 10 arrest warrants in less than two years. 

For that, she will always have my thanks. Rest in peace, Madeleine Albright. 

It’s no surprise that, when disinformation exploded like an invisible atom bomb in our information ecosystem, Madeleine Albright recognized it, called it out, and helped give me and Rappler the support to continue our work exposing this insidious manipulation. In November 2017, the National Democratic Institute she chaired gave us our first award for fighting back against the attacks we were living through. Its annual dinner was presciently titled: “Democracy vs Disinformation: The Fight for Facts.” 

“Our chair, Madeleine Albright, has presented NDI’s highest award, the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award, to leading democracy icons,” NDI wrote me, mentioning past awardees like Vaclav Havel, Kofi Annan, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “I think the only other Filipino to receive the award was Cory Aquino, when we were all very much younger. :-)” 

DEFYING CONVENTION. The photo was sent to me by NDI on August 24, 2017. Madeleine Albright giving the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award to the late Cory Aquino in 2004.

Receiving an award from Madeleine was exciting, my memories tinged with the first time I met her: ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ annual security meeting, in 1997 in Subang Jaya, Malaysia. This was an annual event I covered, where I would normally finish reading a book because most of the time, we were waiting outside closed doors for the entrances and exits of the foreign ministers. For someone based in Asia, ASEAN was one of the few times we could interact with world leaders, and as CNN’s Jakarta bureau chief, I had better access. I remembered a burst of energy as Madeleine rushed down the red carpet, rapid-fire talking to an aide, wearing a bright blue suit with her pin. It was a stark contrast to Warren Christopher the year before, giving a news focal point right as the Asian financial crisis was about to take center stage.

Her first year, she created headlines with her strong focus on human rights, right at the time when ASEAN admitted Myanmar. I barely remember them now, but I do remember Madeleine as Madonna slash Evita Peron singing “Don’t Cry for Me, ASEANies”. That was the first time some journalists were able to see the closing dinner performance through a video we watched but didn’t release. 

Madeleine and I met again in Aspen in 2015, where along with a small group, including former New Zealand Prime Minister and UNDP chief Helen Clark, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, we spent two days looking at how technology could be used for development.

BELTING IT OUT. At dinner at the home of Richard Blum and Senator Dianne Feinstein, Madeleine kept singing, along with Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, and Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia. Photo by Maria Ressa

In 2017, it was exactly 20 years since we first met. Hours before she would give us the award, we sat at NDI’s DC office, and I reminded her of the many times I chased her as a reporter. We laughed about her ASEAN performances, like in 1998 when she sang with Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov to the tune of West Side Story’s Maria:

“The most beautiful sound I ever heard – Yevgeny, Yevgeny, Yevgeny.” 

To which he sang:

“Madeleine Albright – I just met a girl named Madeleine Albright, 
And suddenly I find, she thinks she’ll change my mind, 
For free.”

She talked about what fun they had rewriting the lyrics, the vodka they drank during rehearsals, and how the US and Russian delegates performed as the Jets and the Sharks. They stole the show, and I lamented how I missed those years, the stability in the personalities and the issues addressed in ASEAN. 

Then I mic’d her up, set up my cellphone on a tripod, and did a Facebook live interview on Rappler’s page, starting with asking why populism was on the rise globally and whether this was a failure of democracy. She talked about displacement and disruption, and how populist leaders were exploiting fear to turn populism to authoritarianism. 

Remembering Madeleine Albright, democracy icon

“Technology has been absolutely instrumental in all of this,” she answered live for our Facebook audience. “The hard part is that technology is a double edged sword. It has connected us in the most incredible ways and has allowed people in rural areas of any country, women, for instance, not to have to walk miles to pay their bills … that’s the good part. The downside of it is that it has disconnected, disaggregated voices, so that people feel either alone or totally the victims, and they don’t know they’re victims of kind of an echo chamber in terms of facts and information, and don’t know what the truth is.” Some tech companies now admit, she added, that “they created Frankenstein.”

“Some of the groups that are being awarded by NDI tonight are looking at fighting fake news,” I pointed out. “There is evidence of mass manipulation. Where do you see this heading?” We’re all connected, I thought: after all, when Donald Trump called CNN and the New York Times “fake news”, about a week later, Duterte called Rappler “fake news.”

“Well, I’m very troubled by it,” she responded. “I do think it’s terrible when people don’t know what the truth is, that they are being bombarded with a variety of information and made-up things, and that those who are really good at this kind of thing – the Russians, for instance – are able to manipulate information, put it into the airwaves and a variety of ways, and persuade people that lies are true, and that is what is so damaging to democracy.” 

The next day President Trump was departing for his Asian tour: APEC, ASEAN and state visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Top on the agenda: security issues with North Korea and trade. It was particularly tricky because he had issued such conflicting statements, like congratulating Duterte for his drug war, and pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which for years had been the cornerstone of American economic policy in the region. Of course, the role of China was top of mind.

“Very interesting for me to see that all of a sudden, the Chinese are taking the lead on climate change, when you can barely breathe in Beijing. And then also that they are developing a variety of tentacles into the trading system through the Belt & Road Initiative, and so I do think that they are filling in where we are stepping back,” said the woman known as “Multilateral Madeleine”. “I have so believed in American leadership because it’s with others … I really do believe that there are ways that multilateral action can help us all. It is not a sign of weakness but of strength to have partners that do things together.”

When we finished our live, she told me a little bit about the book she was writing, an extension of some of what she said in our interview – how fascism under Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler happened – and what those times can teach us today about our own new autocrats and the gradual destruction of democracy. After all, Mussolini and Hitler were both elected, then they used the levers of power they received legally to cut down competing centers of power. Each used fear, coopting and corrupting security forces. Like today in the Philippines or under Trump in the United States, they promised a return to glory days – simpler, supposedly better times. 

“Fascism is not an ideology,” Madeleine said, “it’s a process” – going on to quote Mussolini about taking power: “‘If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices,’” she said. “I thought there were a lot of feathers being plucked.” 

“Agree, but for me, it’s democracy’s death by a thousand cuts,” I replied. I told her about what Inspire magazine, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula propaganda, published in November 2010: “this strategy of attacking the enemy with smaller but more frequent operations is what some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts. The aim is to bleed the enemy to death.” 

During this time when we were weathering relentless social media attacks, I remained careful about the words I used, but hearing Madeleine use “fascism” made me re-examine what I was seeing through new lenses. I wrote it down in my notebook, and in the coming weeks, I re-evaluated isolated details within a new context. 

I rushed to the hotel to write my acceptance speech, which I finished 30 minutes before I walked into the ballroom. It was wonderful to have my parents attend that awarding. While I was running around, NDI’s Raissa Tatad, a Filipino-American, took care of my parents (thank you, Raissa) and it was so good to see my mom speaking to Madeleine. When I came up behind them, I heard two moms talking about how difficult it is to raise kids today. 

DEMOCRACY AWARD. At the NDI awarding ceremony, November 2, 2017. From left to right: Frieda Arenos, Hermelina Ressa, Jerry Hartz, Peter Ressa, Scott Hubli, and Raissa Tatad. 

Madeleine’s sixth book, Fascism: A Warning, was published in April 2018, and she lays out the signs that alarmed her. Today, governments with fascist tendencies range across the ideological spectrum, from socialism in Venezuela to conservative nationalism in Hungary to democracy in the Philippines. These leaders draw strength from inciting anger, which they then mold into solidarity and purpose (whether real or not). They control information and use “us against them” to forge that solidarity. It’s not a surprise that the first experiments in manipulating social media came from Russia and Vladimir Putin, but a country like Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan is interesting as well. She writes about Rodrigo Duterte, but there are many others like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Cambodia, China, Myanmar.

I got to spend more time and to actually work with Madeleine starting with dinner on June 21, 2018. Fifteen of us the Atlantic Council called V360, including Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden, Steve Hadley, former US national security adviser, and Richard Edelman, whose company runs an annual trust survey, were invited to spend a weekend together in Berlin to study disinformation and its impact on power. 

Madeleine Albright led the V360 meetings and discussions, which rotated among us in terms of presenters to start each conversation. It was fascinating because in close quarters, old power met with new power, trying to find a language to bridge the gap. Facebook was represented by Elliot Schrage, Katie Harbath, and Nathaniel Gleicher; Microsoft had John Frank, its vice president for Europe. We met on the sidelines of the Digital Forensics Lab’s 360/OS annual meeting, where Katie and I did a plenary together and where Madeleine gave a keynote speech lumping the Philippines with North Korea, China, Venezuela, and Turkey!

The fifteen of us also held off-the-record meetings with Germany’s Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer, the president of the Bundestag Wolfgang Schauble, Minister of State Niels Annen, and the Minister of Justice & Consumer Protection Katarina Barley – right at the time when her office was implementing the Network Enforcement Act, also called the Facebook Act, or NetzDG (although I had to look up its German name numerous times that weekend and learned to pronounce it: Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz). It was the closest I had ever come to being part of a government delegation.

That was where I saw the fundamental conflict between old power, governments, and new power, technology companies: government officials often move at glacial, consensus building speed mapping out downsides and including public discussions as part of its process; new power moves fast, often removing safeguards, with no qualms about breaking things it may not even understand or care about.

I realized how tireless and disciplined Madeleine was, keeping us focused for every single session, pulling out the highlights after each one. Our days started at 7am and went until after dinner at 9pm, with several of us continuing hours after that. We knew these were the questions that needed answers. 

FIGHTING LIES. In the foreground is Facebook’s Elliot Schrage, Madeleine Albright, and Graham Brookie, director of DFR Lab, on June 22, 2018.

At one point, we were in the bathroom together, and she began telling the story about how she had to time her bathroom breaks when in the middle of negotiations. In one of the rides we shared, I asked her about lessons she had learned as a negotiator, but before she answered that, she told me more about how she refused to go to the bathroom until a discussion finished. She called it “bathroom diplomacy” – I was laughing so hard by the time we got out of the car.  

DIPLOMACY. That empty chair next to Madeleine was mine. This room in Berlin was where we spent most of that  weekend. Our topics ranged from values, the geopolitics of disinformation, elections, the role of media, and trust in a hyperconnected world. Photo by Maria Ressa.

I loved that I was sitting next to her during the roundtable discussions – and for the more formal off-the-record sessions with top German officials, it was interesting to sit across from her, watching how she guided the discussion. 

LEADERSHIP LESSON. At off-the-record conversation with (from left to right) former US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, President of the German Bundestag Wolfgang Schauble. Photo by Maria Ressa

It was like a mini-lesson in leadership and made me think about alternative futures and careers. I met Madeleine when she was 60 years old, and here she was, more than 80 years old, still working to change the world for the better. 

This weekend was also the first time I realized how we journalists can pinpoint the problem, but we rarely think about how to find the solution. That was the first time I began to take everything I was learning about the changes in our information ecosystem, to talk to others on different sides of the political, economic, technological divides, then imagine what we could do to prevent a dystopian future.  – Rappler.com

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