/ 17 February 2024

Nobel peace laureate: ‘More money in lies than in truth’

Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa Departs To Receive Prize
Reputational damage: The Filipina journalist Maria Ressa was the victim of deepfake technology that made it appear as if she were peddling an automated cryptocurrency trading programme. Photo: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Maria Ressa is watching a video of herself being interviewed on the Stephen Colbert Show. On the screen, Ressa says: “Right now my number one source of income is a new automated crypto trading programme. It’s the biggest opportunity I see in my entire life to make a big fortune quickly.”

In person, in a boardroom in a Johannesburg hotel, Ressa — the fearless Filipina journalist and 2021 Nobel peace prize winner — pauses the playback. “They did a good job, no? It sounds like me!”

It is true that Ressa has appeared on the Stephen Colbert Show. But she is not selling any kind of cryptocurrency — and never uttered the words in the clip. This was a deepfake, where her words and images were manipulated by an artificial intelligence (AI) program. The doctored video suddenly appeared on Facebook last year, and linked to legitimate-looking websites that mimicked CNN and Rappler, the media house that Ressa co-founded.

Rappler is still investigating who created the deepfake, and why. But it almost doesn’t matter. In the big picture, “Maria Ressa the Crypto Bro” is just one minor symptom of a much more dangerous problem. “The battle is for facts,” she says. 

Thanks to the ubiquity of social media, now supercharged with the advent of generative AI — used primarily “to create disinformation at industrial scale” — we are no longer living in the same shared reality. 

“What happens when you have an information ecosystem where you can have your own reality? A house like that, in the past, where people all have their own versions of reality — it’s called an insane asylum.”

Ressa has been a journalist for 38 years. In that time, she has encountered almost every threat imaginable: financial, legal and physical. Her reporting into the alleged death squad run by former Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, infuriated the country’s most powerful person, and made her the target of vicious online hate campaigns and a litany of trumped-up legal charges (she is still fighting several of these).

Ressa says the threat facing journalism now is of a different order of magnitude than any she has previously confronted. This threat, she says, is bigger than any single story, or individual; and it is too big for any media house to tackle on their own. 

Just look at the Philippines, where a sophisticated information operation whitewashed the legacy of former president Ferdinand Marcos, paving the way for his son to take power in 2022. “It changed Marcos from a guy who stole $10  billion to the guy who is the greatest leader the Philippines has ever had. And this is what Filipinos voted for. It literally changed history before our very eyes,” said Ressa.

She lays the blame for the “corruption of our information ecosystem” squarely at the door of the big tech companies, and their algorithms that determine what information we see online. They have the power to determine the quality of this information — and have consistently chosen not to implement effective guardrails against fake news and disinformation.

“Once big tech became the gatekeepers [of information], they completely abdicated responsibility for protecting the public sphere,” says Ressa. That’s because there is more traction — and therefore more money — in lies. “In 2018, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said lies spread six times faster [than truth] … If you lace the lies with fear, anger and hate, they spread even further.”

Ressa is worried that is already having a devastating effect on our political systems. “The world is on fire in a way my generation has never seen, in a way your generation has never seen, in a way that is untenable for rule-of-law driven democracies.”

 She refers to last year’s report by the V-Dem Institute, which found that 72% of the world now lives under authoritarian regimes. That figure is up from 60% the year before, and may well be higher after this year’s flurry of elections around the world.

But she is even more worried about the effect that the mainstreaming of lies and disinformation will have on the human race itself.

“Our evolution as a species is connected to this. When you are pumping us full of toxic hate, when you are pumping us full of the worst of humanity, which is what these social media companies are doing, you’re changing us. This world, the world that makes a lot of money for big tech, precludes the goodness of human nature. And that is not who we are. I’m very angry.”

Ressa is using this anger, along with the considerable clout that comes with winning a Nobel prize, to do something about it. She’s on the Real Facebook Oversight Board, which is a group of prominent activists, academics and journalists trying to get Meta to make better decisions; she is producing a documentary series with Al Jazeera on AI in the Global South; and, with Rappler, she’s experimenting with how these new technologies can be used ethically and responsibly to promote civic discourse, rather than destroy it. 

Her visit to South Africa is in her capacity as chair of the steering committee of the World Movement for Democracy, a global civil society network. (Disclaimer: the National Endowment for Democracy, which acts as the secretariat for the World Movement, is also a funder of The Continent). 

This network is holding its global assembly in South Africa in November. Figuring out a unified approach to the dangers — and the opportunities — posed by big tech will be high on the agenda.

“There’s also a great opportunity right now. This is creative destruction. The destruction is already happening. So what are we going to create?”

This story was co-published with The Continent