Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa’s powerful new autobiography, How to Stand Up to a Dictator, weaves together three compelling narratives. These concern the crucial role of journalism in defending democracy, the story of how social media, particularly Facebook, has instead undermined democracy worldwide, and the role of moral courage in defeating the current wave of strongman leaders who have been empowered by the new media landscape.
Ressa is uniquely placed to tell these stories and she does so masterfully. The book’s first narrative sets out Ressa’s conviction that journalism is a profession with a critical mission, namely, to support the values and institutions of democracy and resist the cult-like power of dictators.
Born in the Philippines and moving to the United States at age 10, Ressa graduated from Princeton before landing a job as Southeast Asia correspondent with CNN. She graphically recounts the unspeakable violence she covered in Indonesia after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, and her subsequent return to the Philippines following the ousting of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in 1986. These experiences fortified her conviction that her chosen profession, journalism, must play a central role in building democracy as a defence against such horrors.
The activities that Ressa spearheaded, first at the ABS-CBN news network and later at her own online news site Rappler, testify to the breadth of her vision. Her pioneering uses of the emerging mobile and social media technologies included campaigns to get out the vote at elections, empowering thousands of citizen journalists to report and deter corruption, developing online tools for responding to climate emergencies and education campaigns for women’s rights. Her passion and vision for the positive potential of social media are palpable and inspiring, which only makes the ensuing fall even harder to read.
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The second narrative that Ressa unfolds is how efforts like hers were rapidly defeated as authoritarian leaders, not only in the Philippines but around the world, harnessed social media to destroy democracy. As Ressa recounts, journalists were not the only ones exploring the potential of the new technologies. When politicians began to experiment with social media, she writes, “many outsourced their operations to advertising and PR companies who pulled together a spectrum of content and distribution accounts, from digital influencers to fake account operators”. Disinformation became big business.
For authoritarian leaders, including Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte, the aim was to utilise social media to discredit opposition leaders, silence critics, tear down trust in independent media, and create an alternative reality in which truth is what they say it is. Their ultimate aim was to foment division and violence, both online and off, so they could attain and remain in power. In this they have been spectacularly successful.
A central theme in How to Stand Up to a Dictator is how Facebook, in particular, has been central to that success. In Ressa’s telling, the most consequential network that Facebook has enabled is not the networks of friends and school-mates we are familiar with, but rather a global network of violent leaders, consumed by paranoia and hatred, and obsessed with wealth and power. By facilitating access by this network of disordered minds, whose ranks include Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin and Duterte, to billions of social media users worldwide, Facebook has been central in achieving their aims to destroy our shared reality, polarise societies, and destroy democracy. Ressa does not pull her punches. “I believe,” she writes, “that Facebook represents one of the gravest threats to democracies around the world”.
In the book’s third narrative, Ressa addresses the book’s title — how to stand up to a dictator. She does not explicitly, however, give us a silver bullet for defeating violent strongmen. She has witnessed, and borne the brunt of, their vindictiveness and brutality for too long to give any easy answers. But in the telling of her life story, she shows us how it can be done. In the end, what she proffers is a very simple idea — moral inviolability. Integrity, conscience, soul. It is an old-fashioned notion, largely discredited in our fast-paced, materialistic culture. But in the end, as this inspirational book demonstrates, it is truly the only thing that can save us.
Towards the end of the book, Ressa quotes a message from her lifelong friend Twink, who was dying of cancer as their battles with Duterte raged: “While the very heart of me — that chamber that stores my conscience and convictions, love and dreams, memory and self-respect — remains unbreached, I will fight.” I will too, Ressa responds.
At a time when the world faces a stark choice between authoritarian leaders and those with the courage to stand up to them, Maria Ressa is an indispensable guide in showing us the path from our troubled present to a better future.
- Ian Hughes is the author of Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy