Facebook a threat to democracy and ‘biased against facts’, says Nobel winner

Network’s algorithms ‘prioritise the spread of lies laced with anger and hate over facts’

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, chief executive and executive editor of online news site Rappler. Photograph: EPA

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, chief executive and executive editor of online news site Rappler. Photograph: EPA

 

Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa has used her new prominence to criticise Facebook as a threat to democracy, saying the social media giant fails to protect against the spread of hate and disinformation and is “biased against facts”.

The veteran journalist and head of Philippine news site Rappler told Reuters in an interview after winning the award that Facebook’s algorithms “prioritise the spread of lies laced with anger and hate over facts”.

Her comments add to the pile of recent pressure on Facebook, used by more than 3 billion people, which a former-employee-turned-whistleblower accused of putting profit over the need to curb hate speech and misinformation. Facebook denies any wrongdoing.

Sought for comment regarding Ressa’s remarks, a Facebook spokesperson said the social media giant continues to invest heavily to remove and reduce the visibility of harmful content.

“We believe in press freedom and support news organisations and journalists around the world as they continue their important work,” the spokesperson added.

Expose corruption

Ressa shared the Nobel with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov on Friday, for what the committee called braving the wrath of the leaders of the Philippines and Russia to expose corruption and misrule, in an endorsement of free speech.

Facebook has become the world’s largest distributor of news, and “yet it is biased against facts, it is biased against journalism”, Ressa said.

“If you have no facts, you can’t have truths, you can’t have trust. If you don’t have any of these, you don’t have a democracy,” she said. “Beyond that, if you don’t have facts, you don’t have a shared reality, so you can’t solve the existential problems of climate, coronavirus.”

Ressa has been the target of intense social-media hatred campaigns from President Rodrigo Duterte’s supporters, which she said were aimed at destroying her and Rappler’s credibility.

“These online attacks on social media have a purpose, they are targeted, they are used like a weapon,” said the former CNN journalist.

Rappler’s reporting has included close scrutiny of Mr Duterte’s deadly war on drugs and a series of investigative reports into what it says is his government’s strategy to “weaponise” the internet, using bloggers on its payroll to stir up anger among online supporters who threaten and discredit Mr Duterte’s critics.

Mr Duterte has not commented on Ressa’s award. Neither the presidential palace, Mr Duterte’s spokesperson, his chief legal counsel nor his communications office responded to requests from Reuters for comment.

In March 2019, Facebook removed an online network in the Philippines for “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour”, and linked it to a businessman who has previously said he helped manage the president’s social media election campaign in 2016.

Filipinos top the world in terms of time spent on social media, according to 2021 studies by social media management firms.

Political battlegrounds

Platforms such as Facebook have become political battlegrounds and have helped strengthen Mr Duterte’s support base, having been instrumental in his election victory in 2016 and a rout by his allies in mid-term polls last year.

The Philippines will hold an election next May to choose a successor to Mr Duterte, who under the constitution is not allowed to seek another term.

That campaign “will be a battle for facts”, Ressa said. “We are going to keep making sure our public sees the facts, understands it. We are not going to be harassed or intimidated into silence.” – Reuters