BANGKOK — Under pressure, but defiant, some years have been turbulent for award-winning journalist Maria Rassa.
Since 2018, the co-founder of the Philippines-based media site Rapper has faced multiple charges for cyber defamation, tax evasion and securities fraud.
how bad was it?
“In less than two years, the Philippine government filed 10 arrest warrants against me, so I had to post bail 10 times to do my job,” Resa said. “All told, all of these charges carry a maximum fine of 100 years, over 100 years, I think it’s 103 years.”
Despite this, she seemed excited when she spoke via video call with the VOA a few weeks before her July 13 court hearing.
Despite the potential for lengthy prison sentences, Resa is more focused on social media manipulation and how it is affecting the “return of democracy”.
Facebook has been used to reach supporters directly since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016. At one point, she was the target of an average of 90 hate messages an hour, according to an analysis by the International Center for Journalists.
Analysis of trolling reveals attempts to undermine Philippine journalist
Five years of Twitter and Facebook post data shows threats and propaganda aimed at eroding trust in award-winning journalist Maria Resa.
Social media campaigns have promoted the president’s policies and rebuked his critics. And the researchers point to a rise in propaganda and trolling used by politicians: “New Forms of Digital Promotion.”
The Communications Office of the President of the Philippines told VOA via email that it has no part in the legal cases against the rapper.
The office said the administration “has no policy of spreading disinformation to the public”, including the employment of trolls to discredit critics.
But Resa is adamant that online hate and propaganda is a big problem.
“If we don’t have guard rails around social media platforms, we won’t have the integrity of elections. What we have lived through during the last six years of Duterte’s administration, Philippine democracy will die,” she said.
“Studies have shown that lies filled with anger and hatred are spreading rapidly on social media,” he said.
The cold relationship between the rapper and Duterte has grown over the years, with the president accusing media outlets of being owned by Americans and publishing fake news. Under Philippine law, foreign ownership of media is illegal.
The rapper says it’s owned by Filipinos, and Resa denies the allegations of fake news, saying, “We’ve never considered ourselves anti-government, we just do our job.”
According to the latest report from Publicus Asia Inc., Duterte, now 76, has remained popular since his election in 2016 and still holds a high approval rating.
A separate polling agency – Pulse Asia – put its rating at 91% in September. (When a social media user later claimed the rating was 99%, the rapper denied the claim.)
Rasa also questioned the accuracy of such ratings given the political context. “In an atmosphere of violence and fear, will people really say they don’t trust President Duterte? Will they say they don’t trust the police?” He asked.
Whatever Duterte’s popularity at home, his controversial war on drugs – the president once said the public should kill addicts – has drawn international condemnation.
The Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates that since July 2016, at least 8,600 people have died from the government’s drug war. Human rights groups estimate the actual death to be as high as 27,000.
In his coverage of the anti-drug campaign, the rapper said that the Duterte administration was downplaying the killings.
The nation’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, also reported critically on the killings, until it was forced to stop broadcasting on local television last year after Congress refused its franchise license renewal. Some TV and radio channels are currently running online.
Some critics questioned whether Duterte’s administration had stalled the renovation. The president had previously accused the network of not running its campaign ads and attacked it over its coverage of its policies, Human Rights Watch says.
The presidential office denied this, telling the VOA that the order to shut down the network came from Congress, not the Duterte administration.
Ressa says the closure of ABS-CBN has left millions of people missing their main source of information, potentially exposing residents to online influence.
With less traditional news sites, more viewers turn to social media. But Resa warned that the Philippines is a target of propaganda.
Facebook is being used as a platform that is “dividing and radicalizing us,” Ressa said, with people especially vulnerable when isolated during the pandemic. As of 2021, there are about 89 million social media users in the country, shows the research group Dataportal.
The country is believed to have been a testing ground for social media experiments, with investigative reports saying Cambridge Analytica, a British consultancy firm, harvested 1.17 million Facebook accounts through defrauding users and the platform . Cambridge Analytica is accused of using personal data for targeted political advertising that included the 2016 US presidential election.
“Facebook has said the Philippines itself was ground zero,” Resa said. “Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie told me that Cambridge Analytica and its parent company [SCL Group] Was working in the Philippines in 2012, early 2013.”
Cambridge Analytica filed for bankruptcy in 2018 and denied using the data for US elections, Reuters reported.
The online use of targeted advertisements and misinformation is a concern in the run-up to the Philippines presidential elections in May 2020. Duterte would not be eligible to run for a third term, but the election showed a father-daughter ticket, with Duterte running as vice president. A popular choice, Reuters reported.
The country is also facing troll armies who spread propaganda and hate, often targeting government critics.
And Resa – with her lawsuits and feud with Duterte – was not spared. Threatening and abusive posts test his professional credibility and attack him personally. Resa describes the attack as a “hire of the law”, although she strongly insists that she should.
“I think we dealt well with this by shining a light. We are holding the line. I would say that journalists around the world continue to do their jobs at a far greater risk, and need government, corporations, civil society to move forward. Need to protect our democracies, because if they don’t, we will lose them.”
But Resa warned that social media is being used to promote digital authoritarianism.
“The reason why the rest of the world should see what is happening in the Philippines is because it hasn’t come your way yet and you are a democracy, it [is] Your dystopian future,” he said. “We are losing the fight for our rights.”
Editor’s note: The reporter for this article has previously contributed to The Rapper.